Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut ‘Promising Young Woman’ takes the form of a thrilling rape-revenge plot. The film follows protagonist Cassie’s quest to avenge her friend, Nina, who was sexually assaulted in college. A portion of the film depicts Cassie acting black-out drunk in night clubs in an attempt to catch out the self-proclaimed ‘nice guys’ who take her home. Cassie continues her façade until the men initiate sex, at which point she snaps back into perfect consciousness, stopping them in their tracks. She eloquently lectures them for their predatory behaviour and threatens them to stop taking advantage of women. Cassie then embarks on a journey of vengeance, confronting Nina’s abusers and everyone involved in the aftermath. The assault tragically led to Nina’s suicide, leaving Cassie alone to process her own grief and trauma. A man ruined Nina’s life and was let off because he was a ‘promising young man.’ Therefor, Cassie takes it into her own hands to punish those responsible since the people in power failed to do so.
Positives about the film
Before I delve into what I didn’t like about this movie, let’s look at some of its redeeming qualities. First, it does shine a light on the trauma caused by sexual assault and the impact it has both on the survivor and on their friends and family. ‘Promising Young Woman’ also says something valuable about the lack of punishment and accountability for abusers and how often sexual violence goes unchecked. The fact that Cassie takes it upon herself to punish the abuser illuminates the flawed criminal justice system which persistently lets down survivors and yet benefits perpetrators. The film’s title is a clever nod to the Brock Turner case where he was referred to as a ‘promising young man’ in the media. Fewer people know the name of the survivor, Chanel Miller, who aptly wrote a memoir titled ‘Know My Name.‘ Similarly, Cassie is determined to make the world remember Nina’s name, making an interesting point about how survivors are forever linked to their abuser’s name, but often lack a separate identity, particularly in the media.
Fennell does offer us an important and somewhat effective critique of rape culture, misogyny and violence against women. Cassie frequently calls out predatory behaviour and the film successfully highlights the pressing issues of victim-blaming, consent and trauma. However, while I commend the movie for raising awareness of these topics, the way it explores some of these themes is highly problematic. After I finished watching it, I found myself questioning whether or not it was a feminist film at all.
Problems with ‘Promising Young Woman’
Almost all of Cassie’s revenge is directed towards women, rather than the male rapist
As the movie progresses, we see Cassie starting to pull stunts on those who were involved in the assault, punishing as many people as possible. However, Cassie’s methods of revenge actually mimic the abuse which she is so keen to alleviate. She gets an old college friend drunk and leads her to believe that she was sexually assaulted in order to punish her for blaming Nina. She also confronts the Dean of her and Nina’s university and their handling of the assault, a scene which could have been a really powerful commentary on the issue of victim-blaming in campus culture. However, it is ruined by Cassie’s decision to essentially abduct the dean’s daughter and pretend that she is being assaulted by the same men, sending the Dean into a justifiable panic.
Cassie also confronts the male lawyer who worked against Nina in court, leading to all charges against her rapist being dropped. This decision will have undoubtedly played a role in Nina’s depression and subsequent suicide and yet Cassie grants him forgiveness. This is something she did not offer the two women. For me, Cassie ultimately directed a lot of her anger towards the wrong people, waiting until the very end to confront the actual perpetrator. Whilst I think Cassie was right to call out these women for victim-blaming, punishing them the way she did undermined her cause.
The sexual assault survivor has no voice
Although the movie is dedicated to exploring Cassie’s grieving process, all of her endeavours are an attempt to avenge her friend Nina. She punishes people for what they did to Nina, everything is done in memory of Nina. However, not once do we ever actually hear Nina’s voice or meet her throughout the whole movie. We don’t have much of an insight into their relationship as best friends, nor do we hear Nina’s perspective on the assault or witness her trauma.
This narrative strips the survivor of her personhood. Cassie’s insistence on speaking and acting for Nina complicates things further. Nina did not ask for Cassie to pursue revenge on her behalf, and how she would feel about it is barely considered. Again, Nina’s agency is stripped away, much like it was when she was assaulted. Film critic and sexual assault survivor Beth McAndrews wrote that “the movie doesn’t grapple with the ramifications of Cassie deeming herself the avenging angel without Nina’s explicit consent.” The movie, therefore, addresses consent in relation to sex but does not extend this to other areas of life.
This discourse could be a comment on how our society frequently silences domestic and sexual assault survivors, but this idea is never really developed in ‘Promising Young Woman’. Instead, the survivor has no identity at all and Cassie makes assumptions about what Nina would have wanted in order to deal with her own grief.
The ending is counter-productive
‘Promising Young Woman’ certainly seems to be a commentary on how rapists escape prosecution and how the criminal justice system is majorly flawed when it comes to sexual violence. With this merit in mind, the ending loses a lot of its impact. The film ends with Cassie being murdered by Nina’s rapist Al. In advance, Cassie had planned for Al to be arrested following her death and for the video of Nina’s assault to be released. However, one of the main premises of the film is the fact that the legal system fails female victims, so why is it going to be fixed this time? We are suddenly expected to trust the US judicial system, despite being continually told throughout the film that it is flawed.
I think the film would have been harder hitting if the male rapist had gotten away with his crimes. This would have made Cassie’s death more impactful and aligned better with the film’s overall objectives. I do not think Cassie’s own trauma and remorse should be minimised at all, but I think the film could have done a better job of doing justice to sexual assault survivors.
I think ‘Promising Young Woman’ had the potential to be a really powerful, feminist film, one which gave a voice to sexual assault survivors and their trauma. However, despite resonating strongly with the film’s critique of rape culture and misogyny, I did not find it empowering. I was left wondering how survivors would feel about the film and what it actually told us about their experiences. I do not think Cassie’s own trauma and grief should be minimised at all, but I think the film could have done a better job of doing justice to sexual assault survivors. For a more powerful, thought-provoking and informative take on rape culture, consent and victim-blaming, I highly recommend Michaela Cole’s ‘I May Destroy You.’ The show is beautifully raw and explores the trauma of sexual assault in an emotional and yet incredibly informative way.