Promising Young Woman, Sexual Assault, and Me

Okay, I’m going to split this review into two parts: what I think about Promising Young, and what I feel about it.

Because what I think about it is reasonably straightforward. Emerald Fennel’s debut, Oscar-nominated drama is a good film. A really good one, actually. Fennel is telling a really edgy and difficult story here – about a woman, Cassie (Carrie Mulligan, almost impossibly fucking excellent) taking revenge on the men of the world at large after losing her closest friend after that friend endures a sexual assault at college. It’s a bold idea, and one that Fennel explores with some skill; Mulligan’s lead is a classically engaging antihero, another entry in the Don’t You Just Want to Go Ape Shitt line of women’s cinema, the performances from the rest of the cast (especially Bo Burnham as her one-time romantic interest) are excellent, the direction is unyielding, never letting us look away from the difficult parts of this story.

And the point that it’s trying to communicate – which I believe it does – is pretty interesting: upholding rape culture is not limited to the people who rape. It’s not limited to men, not limited to predators, not limited to anyone; the way that the assault of Cassie’s best friend is covered up, ignored, minimized, is distressingly accurate, and there’s no small power to a film that calls that out and even punishes some of the people involved for their complicity. Is it a perfect film? I don’t think so – the dialogue occasionally jars, and it could have used a little trimming to keep the rambling fat from getting in the way of the main point – but it’s still very good. I’m glad it exists. I’m glad that it’s starting conversations about these topics, and I’m glad that it’s being held up as such a genuinely important piece of cinema. Also, if I see one more person compare Promising Young Woman to Joker, I am going to Fucking Lose It – let’s not compare We Live in a Society but make it Batman Villain made by There Are No Good Jokes Anymore Because PC Culture Philips to this, a film of actual, genuine quality and with an actual, meaningful point.

And now, let’s get on to how I feel about this movie. Because Promising Young Woman went through me like a fucking freight train, and I need to talk about it a little.

I’ve been through sexual assault. Don’t want to talk about the details. Promising Young Woman is a complex movie for me, because of that. Because, yes, there is something enormously cathartic about seeing this character wreak such a violent and blunt revenge on the people who harmed her friend. There’s a catharsis to seeing Carey Mulligan staring down those men catcalling her in the street until they’re too scared to continue. There’s a catharsis to watching her climb out of her car and smash in the headlights of a man calling her a cunt. To move through the world as a woman is to move in a body that is constantly sexualized, commented on, turned into an object for other people’s consumption. I am glad that this movie exists insofar as it provides a fantasy world where we can take our revenge, where it doesn’t have to be logical or fair, where we can scream in the face of the people who’ve hurt us. I wrote a whole book about life after sexual assault to add to that scream – I know that there’s a reason for art like this to exist, and that it’s no bad thing. It’s a rape and revenge movie, and that revenge, in general, feels pretty good.

But it’s also a rape movie. It’s a movie that depicts scenes of sexual assault that are uncomfortably familiar to me and many women I know. It’s a movie that opens with a pseudo-blackout Mulligan being groped against her will by a would-be saviour. The film is trying to establish that even those men who seem good can be predatory – most women who are sexually assaulted or raped are attacked by someone they know, after all. But I already know this. We already know this. I don’t need to be shown this again, repeatedly, in graphic detail; this isn’t for me, not for survivors of sexual assault in general, at least, this aspect of the movie. It feels more like an attempt to educate an audience who haven’t dealt with the same relationship with rape culture – men, let’s be honest – in what most women already know. And I get it, from a logical perspective, that Promising Young Woman is trying to appeal to a broad audience with this important message, and it has to catch people up on where we’re starting from, hence these blunt depictions of sexual violence. I knew that, and I still went to bed and cried after I had to sit through it again, played out, reminded. It doesn’t feel like it’s for us – it’s for someone else, someone consuming our trauma for thinkpieces and political back-pats. For all the catharsis that comes with it, we still have to go through this suffering again, and I’m just exhausted by it. I don’t want to have to do this again. I am fucking tired.

No, not tired. Saying I’m tired is easier than admitting that I’m sad about this. I’m gutted by it. It makes me want to cry my eyes out. I’m still gutted that the stories we tell about women, the ones that are valorised so highly, revolve around rape as a central part of their lives, of our lives. Do you know how many women have won Oscars for playing rape victims? How many more have been nominated for that? Do you know how many men have? I think you can guess. It’s not the fault of Promising Young Woman that film culture in general loves to reward women getting raped, and especially women getting raped and losing their lives over it. But it makes me so, so fucking sad to know that it’s this constant rape and assault of on-screen characters that has been one of the only reliable ways to earn us girls a place in the conversation. We repackage one of our most universal traumas and sell it back to a still-predominately male industry, and they thank us for it, and then allow rapists to continue raping us by abusing their power in that very same industry.

There’s an extended sequence towards the end of the film that features Mulligan being smothered to death by her friend’s rapist, dressed as a stripper, stockings sticking out from under her skirt, and it’s hard not to think that this is how a lot of popular media best likes us: dead, assaulted, tragic. Still a little hot and slutty, of course. Cassie wins, in the end, but dies for it. It doesn’t feel triumphant, to watch her colourful manicure dangling off her corpse at the end of the film. A woman is dead, again. That’s how we like them, right?

I think, in some ways, it’s unfair for me to put all of this on Promising Young Woman. Because Emerald Fennel made a good film, a great film, even, that tackles rape culture in one of the most all-encompassing ways that I have ever seen, and I admire her and her art for that. But it’s a film that ultimately invites the viewer to sit through a number of graphic and familiar on-screen sexual assaults for the climactic moment to come as a text signed from two dead women. Two women who don’t exist anymore, because of a rape. In a vacuum, it’s a cool moment, and interesting and bittersweet finale that matches the tone of the film comfortably; as part of a wider filmic culture, it kind of feels like another punch in the gut, too similar to too many other stories that came to the same conclusions through the same means. Another reminder that we lose, no matter what. And I can’t say that I enjoyed that.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Vox)

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