TRIGGER WARNING: Rape and Sexual Assault
2020 did not give us a whole lot in terms of movies (or anything really, but especially movies). However, one gem was released just before the end of the year that is creating a really interesting conversation around the culture we have: Promising Young Woman. The film follows Cassie and her journey to get revenge for her late best friend’s rape. This isn’t just about revenge against all men, just one particular subsect: the “nice guys.”
When I refer to “nice guys,” I’m talking about the guy-next-door type; the kind of guy who seems pleasant and decent on the surface. In this case, these “nice guys” seem to be good enough, appearing to help a stumbling, drunk woman home but then end up trying to take advantage of her by sleeping with her while she’s inebriated (spoiler alert: Cassie is very not drunk so she can catch these men in the act). Another side to the film deals with the consequences, or rather the lack thereof for the men, with one of the characters who a rape was reported to even saying “We get accusations like this all the time. What would you have me do, ruin a young man’s life? I have to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
The past five years or so have been a reckoning of this kind of male behavior and women demanding there be greater accountability for actions such as these. However, society still feels the need to prop up the young, predominantly white male and defend them more heavily than women. There is a reason Emerald Fennell, the director of Promising Young Woman, cast Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bo Burnham, and Chris Lowell: all of these men are people who are best known for playing the well-off “nice guy.” From Brody having been on many a teen wall from his time as Seth Cohen on The O.C, Greenfield as the lovable Schmidt on New Girl, Mintz-Plasse from Superbad, Burnham from his charming comedy and directorial debut Eighth Grade, and Lowell from always being the designated innocent-looking charmer on Veronica Mars, Private Practice, and Glow. When you look at these men, you don’t think, “Oh yeah, that guy would definitely try to sexually assault someone,” and that’s the point the movie is trying to make.
People v. Turner, the case about Brock Turner raping a college girl, was decided almost five years ago. He was charged with raping a girl, but the focus was put on the fact that he was on the Stanford swim team and didn’t deserve to have his promising future taken away from him over a case like this. In cases like that and like the one in Promising Young Woman, the talk is always about the damage the case will do to the male in the situation. It’s always about how “it’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like this.” As Cassie points out in the movie, “What do you think every woman’s worst nightmare is?” What happened to the women is always brushed aside because society feels it more important to uphold the “nice guy” and his future rather than the woman who drops out of med school despite being at the top of her class. After all, she would be forced to face her rapist every day.
Cassie is actually short for Cassandra, which is the name of a character in Greek mythology who was cursed to give true prophecies and have no one ever believe her, the perfect yet sad parallel for women and sexual assault and rape. The climax of the film shows the consequences of not believing women, cursing them with the truth but having no one believe them, and the coddling of “nice guys” and the monsters it can create by letting them think it was just something dumb they did once when they were “just kids.”
If Promising Young Woman does anything, it will reignite the conversation around accountability for men and the treatment of women. Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S. and is one where the perpetrators are least likely to serve any time for their crimes. The culture around believing women in these instances is incredibly poor and something we still need to improve upon in our society. #MeToo may have brought attention to this problem, but we need more people to really see this as a problem and work towards finding a solution that will help women and create stricter consequences for men. Just because you’re a “nice guy” doesn’t mean you should get to do whatever you want; your promising future isn’t more important than that of a promising young woman.