‘Promising Young Woman’ Takes an Unflinching Look at the Traumatic Aftermath of Assault
"Gillian at the Theater" can include movie theaters, too! After seeing it twice and spending a month with it on my mind, this one was too rich not to write about.
Trigger warning: assault, rape
This article contains a mild spoiler for “Promising Young Woman.”
I remember when the Brock Turner case continually made news headlines throughout 2015. Turner was found guilty of the sexual assault of a fellow student — but though his Olympic aspirations and Stanford career were dashed, his potential as a “promising young man” was hailed by his legal team and the media right up until the day his only six-month prison sentence was halved.
But what about Chanel Miller, the student Turner assaulted? How many people wonder what became of her — or of what may become of a worse-off “Promising Young Woman” whose allegations fall on indifferent ears?
Emerald Fennell won’t let audiences forget. In her directorial-screenwriting debut, she answers, the woman can be dramatically and irreparably damaged.
Fennell provides nothing less than the most extreme examples as such: The movie’s victim, Nina, commits suicide after being raped at medical school prior to the start of the film. Her best friend Cassie, the protagonist played by Carey Mulligan, drops out and embarks on an unhinged quest to avenge those whose actions contributed to her friend’s death — including the scores of disparate predatory men whose actions form rape culture as a whole. Cassie spends much of the early part of the movie pretending to be inebriated at clubs and suddenly snapping out of it to lecture the men who try to take advantage of her. However, she soon pivots to targeted, frightful revenge plots on the people connected to Nina’s case, ensuring that they experience the fear and helplessness Cassie and Nina felt when their own allegations were not believed.
The movie adds little new insight into the horrific nature of sexual assault, on college campuses or otherwise — not that we necessarily need any. The suburban setting of “Promising Young Woman” is made to feel like an extension of Cassie’s unseen former campus: Neither one is a forgiving or sympathetic place for her. As a college student, the most striking scene for me to watch sees Cassie confronting her university dean, who had dismissed Nina’s case as a “he said, she said” — and now, seven years later, fails to remember Nina’s name but lights up at the mention of the “promising young man” who raped her. On the nose, yes, but all too evocative of more than one story I’ve heard from acquaintances on my own campus. I was reminded I’m not alone.
What the movie does remind us of is assault’s roots in toxic masculinity, that buzzword that Fennell actually takes the time to unpack in “Promising Young Woman.” The dudebros — the perpetrators at that fated frat party — are just as sleazy years later as adults at a bachelor party. Fennell devotes a good five minutes to a telling moment in their friendship: One doesn’t even know the whole story (of an incident I will not spoil) to unequivocally assure his “bro” that it wasn’t his fault. And the guys who try to force themselves on a “drunken” Cassie are so obviously despicable that they’re almost caricatures. One forces cocaine up her nose, smirks while she drinks the glass of water she requests in such a way that makes it clear the water’s either drugged or vodka, and tries to double back on violating her by claiming he’s a “nice guy.” Not to mention that he drones on about his “what it’s like to be a guy in the city” in-progress novel and gives Cassie the “Why do women wear so much makeup?” speech.
Even the character of Ryan, the “actual nice guy” Cassie enters into a relationship with, perpetuates the dangerous idea that if a woman rejects you, you should keep trying until you convince her otherwise, and that’s okay as long as you stop short of forcing her to be physical — showing, to me at least, how low Cassie’s bar has become. (Tangentially, Bo Burnham is the perfect casting choice as — no offense to him — the quintessential bland white boy you’d easily lose in a sea of near-identical Tinder profiles. A recent episode of the podcast "Slate's Spoiler Specials" also discusses the smart casting of the other men.)
Ryan asks her out, to which she responds by spitting in his coffee. He drinks it, she appeases him with a fake number (which does make for a comedic moment when its owner turns out to be a flirtatious oil rig worker) — but he returns to her workplace and tries again. She agrees to date him, a choice that made me recoil. I don’t care if you’re a pediatric surgeon; she said no! Luckily, Fennell turns their rom-com trajectory on its head and reveals Ryan was a bystander at the rape, causing Cassie to finally draw a line and make him, too, into collateral damage.
Others have criticized the unwavering reprehensibility of Cassie’s targets, saying that hinging the shock of a story on people who respond to assault in all the wrong ways feels like a relic of the initial #MeToo movement in 2017, when social and news media exploded with stories of anti-predatory rage worthy of “Promising Young Woman.”
However, let us be reminded that sexual assault hasn’t become any less of a problem since then, making rage and fear continually valid. Plus, making the ubiquity of sexual assault a given leaves Fennell room to do something else that is new: Rather than waste her time pondering how awful assault is, she stresses why it’s so debilitating — and the answer lies in the rich, complex writing of Cassie. As we watch each of Cassie’s quests end with a man giving the same excuses over and over, we realize she’s thinking she’s making a change, and we’re hoping she is, but she’s really just putting herself in Nina’s position and reexposing herself, perhaps out of guilt, to old traumas she shared with Nina vicariously. Cassie breaks herself further and further under the weight of a problem insurmountable for one woman. We know there’s always another guy out there she hasn’t met yet. And maybe this time, he will either shudder in defense when she confronts him but never change, or respond violently — and both situations are frightening.
The Promising Young Woman
Fennell doesn’t make her lead female character utterly sympathetic, though; we shudder along with her targets in fear at the lengths Cassie will go, especially once she switches from baiting strangers to personal acquaintances, both male and female, that played a part in dismissing Nina’s case. No physical harm comes to any of her targets — Cassie puts herself in danger more than anyone else — but she enjoys watching them squirm and fear such harm for a while, forcing them to share in her emotional trauma if not the physical trauma she vicariously carries. It’s worth noting, though, that every situation could result in physical harm, further blurring the moral line Cassie toes and leaving the viewer to wonder how much she truly believes she can get justice for Nina or whether her top priority is stoking fear in others like that which she felt.
The “Slate’s” podcast criticized portions of this throughline, saying that the movie repeatedly undermines its own morality. It’s a revenge thriller whose protagonist is crusading against an undeniable horror, so we should be made to root for her, right? Not exactly, but that’s for each individual to decide. However, I’d like to take it a step further and ask: Is the movie truly a revenge thriller? I don’t really think so.
Let’s instead frame it as a drama (or even dramedy), with chief themes of trauma and fear. I began to think this way on my second watch, when I noticed that a lot of the movie’s world — especially male-dominated spaces like Ryan’s apartment and office — is colored in blue, the traditional “male” color. I began to think that perhaps we’re supposed to be watching this movie as though through Cassie’s point of view, where she sees before her a man’s world filled with horrendous predators, a view shaped by Nina’s rape and cemented by every man that Cassie has encountered since. It’s a view that, to a degree, represents how many women walk through the world, pepper spray in hand.
But back to the color conceit: Cassie does not always set herself apart from this world, often donning blue herself — the color of her, let’s call them, enemies. And thus, my conclusion: It’s not the film that undermines its own morality; it’s Cassie, who is so consumed with her mission that she can’t see how she, perhaps, is becoming just as reprehensible as her targets. That’s not the mark of a bad movie; it’s the mark of an excellently written, complicated character through whose point of view we see the world for a few hours.
Ultimately, Fennell is sending a strong warning as to the consequences of unaddressed trauma. She can’t explore Cassie’s psyche in-depth in a film format, but the script and Mulligan’s gestures combined make clear that guilt, trauma, mental illness and trust issues drive Cassie’s actions and permeate her everyday life, too. She flinches when a man who was speaking to her from across the room suddenly gets up and moves toward her. When Ryan introduces himself as a med school peer, her first response is deflection, as though she purposely blocked med school from her memory.
The film is meant to show the extent of how badly a “promising young woman” can break under trauma, even secondhand — and what harm she is capable of inflicting when it overtakes and blinds her. If I must offer a moral takeaway, it’s that the movie asks viewers to eschew letting victims become the villains they despise. Of course, the cheeky ending suggests otherwise. But that’s where the movie shines, in letting audiences draw their own conclusions — not about the depravity of sexual assault, but about where they see themselves in, against or otherwise in relation to one imperfect, antiheroic, but riveting woman. She is the title, after all.