TW: Sexual Assault and includes movie spoilers.
In honor of the Academy Awards, I wanted to start a dialogue on a particularly disturbing aspect of the Oscar-nominated film “Promising Young Woman.” The movie stars Carey Mulligan as a woman who dedicates her life to revenge against the male species. The revenge is sparked by the death of her lifelong best friend, who committed suicide following a particularly brutal assault at a frat party. I know that I have already lost half the population by saying that she wants revenge against the male species for a specific incident that happened to her friend and that it is not considered fair to lump all men together for the violence committed by a few; however, I tend to take a controversial viewpoint on this subject. I feel that the “not all men” argument is a way to shift the blame, not just from the actual perpetrators but from the men that allow these types of assaults to continue without consequence. The film also points out the uncomfortable reality of what happens when a victim seeks justice.
The two main issues that the movie focuses on are who is to blame and what consequences they should suffer. Mulligan’s character takes the more radical approach and singles each perpetrator out individually to exact her revenge. She creates a list of people who she feels are responsible for her friend’s death. The list includes her best friend’s attacker, all the men who watched/filmed the attack, a female classmate who knew about it but did not come forward, the school official she reported the incident to who did not investigate the case thoroughly, and the lawyer who forced her friend to drop the case. She visits each person on her list and brings up the incident, hoping that they will have changed their views on their role in the case. To her dismay, most of them stand by their actions. She then simulates a traumatic incident for each of them to get a taste of what it feels like to be a victim. This is an important part of the film for the audience to pause and consider. Traumatizing other people on purpose to prove a point is severely frowned upon in most cases, but that was what it took to make them see why what they had done was wrong. This reveals the disturbing truth that most people are not willing to take action until they are personally affected.
Another theme I saw throughout the film was the lack of personal responsibility being taken by everyone involved. Rather than owning up to their mistakes, they always responded with something like “I didn’t do it–I just witnessed it” or “I just saw the video.” Even the main perpetrators tried to place blame on factors such as their age, the influence of alcohol, and the woman’s behavior. The worst part is that these excuses are generally accepted by many men and even many women. People in the movie, as well as in real life, perpetuate the idea that certain outfits or behaviors are deserving of assault, and that boys just “can’t help themselves.”
There are not many violent crimes like sexual assault where people attempt to justify the crime through victim shaming, alcohol, or any other means. It is not only a women’s issue, and it is certainly not an issue that only pertains to violent men. Whether or not we would like to admit it, too many of us play a role in tolerating rape culture. By victim-blaming and allowing attackers to justify their actions, we maintain a culture where sexual assault is acceptable among men. Everyone is responsible for their own part in preventing sexual assault, whether that is looking out for our friends at parties, reporting something suspicious that we witness, or even being brave enough to stand up to our friends. It is on all of us, not just the perpetrators, to stop sexual assault.