***Trigger warning: sexual assault
***Disclaimer: spoilers ahead for Promising Young Woman
It’s 2021 and approximately one year ago, Harvey Weinstein was indicted on multiple charges of rape and sexual assault. The uncovering of his acts of disturbing harassment towards women was the catalyst for the ME TOO movement, and its effects are still widely felt. High profile cases of sexual harassment in Weinstein’s wake raise and help resolve questions of crime and punishment, remind us of what behavior is acceptable, and how workplaces should respond. Unfortunately many men in positions of power still have not gotten the memo.
I was glaringly reminded of this while watching the film Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell‘s directorial debut was pitched as a rape revenge fantasy, and it is certainly a critique of rape culture. The film is powered by righteous fury and it realistically addresses the subject of sexual assault and giving agency and empathy to survivors. At the same time, this is not the sort of cathartic, made-up movie where the bad guys pay for their wrongdoings and the women win. Instead, this is a story that lays bare the ugly truth of how society fails its female victims and it will leave you uncomfortable and angry.
Promising Young Women invokes the phrase “promising young man,” a title that is used with depressing frequency in the defense of college-age men accused of rape. The film’s heroine, Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas was at the top of her class in med school before dropping out to care for her best friend, Nina after a devastatingly violent and public sexual assault. In the film, we never get to meet Nina as the story begins in the wake of her death, her absence like a character of its own. Cassie learns from Nina’s experience that pressing charges against someone is not easy. The legal and educational system decided that the promising career of Nina’s rapist was more important than her own, and she was relentlessly bullied into silence.
In the years since, Cassie becomes a rage incarnate. She made it her mission to hunt down predators by pretending to be black out drunk at local bars. While she spends her days working a normal barista job at the cutsie, bubblegum pink coffee shop, her nights are spent catching self proclaimed “nice guys” into admitting that they are not actually interested in consensual sex. Cassie devotes her life to not only making those who never believed in Nina understand the pain they caused, but also to scaring men into understanding the pain they could potentially cause.
Fennell both wrote and directed Promising Young Woman, and for me, knowing that this film was created by a woman made the storyline even more impactful. There is so much that this story gets right about our society today. We see men get away with life destroying crimes even when there is evidence on camera and multiple witnesses. We see how abusers are not actually interested in having sex with a willing partner. And perhaps most glaringly, we see how it can be dangerous for women to be alone with men in positions of power. Suffering and surviving abuse should never become a death sentence. This film demonstrated how many women, like Cassie, felt they needed to sacrifice themselves to save the next girl. The ultimate revenge in my eyes would have been for Cassie to let herself be happy and to reclaim her life. Her need for vengeance held her back and prevented her from pursuing a career, having friends, and falling in love. I was rooting for her and it destroyed me that in her eyes she had won despite the price she ultimately paid.
The film was over the top with conflict and cognitive dissonance from the “nice guys” unapologetically attempting heinous acts of sexual assault to Cassie’s rainbow pastel manicure masking her sinister plans for revenge. So sweet to the point of being saccharine, I could not help but be captivated by the artistry of the story. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire movie as Cassie continuously put herself in danger, and I screamed and cried as the credits rolled. Going into the film I expected a vindictive chick-flick, but what I got was a beautiful and nuanced tale of how society is failing its female victims.
It is no surprise to me that Promising Young Woman was nominated for four Golden Globe awards. Its director, Emerald Fennell was one of only nine female directors to ever be nominated for best director, which is pretty wild considering that the Globes have been around for over 70 years. Promising Young Woman elicited more emotion from me than any movie I’ve seen throughout this year-long quarantine. It brought out my deepest feelings of visceral rage towards the men who consistently abuse their power over women.
After Promising Young Woman’s release, allegations have come out against NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. His accusers assert that he made repeated, unwanted sexual advances towards them and created a toxic workplace environment. Lindsey Boylan was the first woman to come forward against Cuomo and she described a textbook case of harassment where he invited her to play strip poker and kissed her on the lips. Charlotte Bennett noted a more nuanced instance where Cuomo asked her probing questions about whether she “had ever been with an older man.” Anna Ruch also recalled an instance at a 2019 wedding when he put his hand on her bare back, took her face in his hands, and asked if he could kiss her. The governor has denied the allegations against him but later acknowledged that his interactions may have been construed as insensitive or too personal, to which I would respond, “ya think?”
The NY Governor may have thought that he was being careful and canny, but even his ever so slightly more subtle form of harassment is intolerable. He clearly believed that his position of power gave him the freedom to violate the obvious rule that you don’t touch anyone without their consent. I have heard people this week excusing Cuomo’s behavior and to that I must point out that Cuomo never asked male guests for a kiss. I find it hard to fathom that so many people in positions of power have yet to internalise the lessons provided by high profile sexual harassment cases. It seems as though every week new stories are coming to light about people being taken advantage of, especially women.
In the aftermath of these kinds of allegations of harassment many critics have complained of a “witch hunt” culture.
“It’s every guy’s nightmare, getting accused like that!” cried one character in the film. Cassie only responds, “ Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”
Watching the film Promising Young Woman and seeing recent coverage of Cuomo’s harassment leave me filled with anger and resentment this year on International Women’s Day. I’m left with no small degree of exasperation, wondering whether perpetrators will ever learn.