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Why Everyone Should See ‘Promising Young Woman’

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Conn chapter.

This article contains spoilers for Promising Young Woman.

There’s no denying it, it’s scary to be a woman. We always have to play a perverse game of “Guess Who.” “Is this guy safe?” “Is this guy dangerous?” You can’t ever let your guard down. Promising Young Woman does a good job depicting the realities of being a woman in this scary, sexist world. The movie is about Cassie, who devotes herself to avenging her best friend Nina, who was raped. But her methods of revenge are not what you’d expect. She tricks “nice guys” into taking her home by pretending to be drunk, but rather than killing them, she weaponizes their self-image as “nice guys.” When she finds out Nina’s rapist is getting married, her revenge becomes more focused on the people who had a hand in the aftermath of Nina’s rape. I like this movie because it shows how insidiously misogyny is embedded in our society and how we all contribute to it. I think Promising Young Woman is an important film because it discusses ugly truths that are hard to talk about — but that we need to hear nonetheless — about trauma, how we treat victims of assault and give rapists a free pass, and how we’ve all contributed to this messed up system. Without further ado, here’s why everyone needs to watch Promising Young Woman.

It shows how Predators hide in plain sight

When we think of predators, we think of menacing figures hiding in the shadows, who function outside the bounds of respectability. We definitely don’t think they are someone we could know in real life, or be friends with. Unfortunately, Promising Young Woman shows how the truth is much more complex and sinister. The truth is, that predators can hide in plain sight. They don’t always look “dangerous.” They might even be people you know or admire. Instead of being removed from civilized society and propriety, they function within the bounds of it, and even weaponize it and use it to their advantage. In fact, this makes them even more dangerous because you least expect them. Promising Young Woman demonstrates this right from the opening scene. When a group of guys spots Cassie “drunk” in a bar, the guy who ultimately ends up taking advantage of her is the guy who goes over “just to see if she’s okay,” and acts concerned for her. He offers to drop her off. But surprise, surprise, they end up going to his apartment instead. Once there, he makes her a drink, then starts upping the ante, telling her she is beautiful and kissing her. When she asks to lie down, he lets her — but then attempts to take advantage of her, until she reveals she’s not actually drunk. This shows two things: 1. How hard it can be to tell who’s dangerous, because sometimes predators up the ante really slowly so by the time you realize you’re in danger, it’s too late. 2. The most insidious men can hurt women under the guise of trying to “protect them.”

A lot of predators don’t seem like the evil villains from movies. On the surface, many might even seem benevolent, polite, or hold respectable positions in society! For example, when we finally see Al, the guy who SA’d Nina, it’s shocking because he doesn’t fit our image of what a rapist looks like. When Cassie shows up at his bachelor party, disguised as a stripper, he’s the only guy to object, because he doesn’t want to upset his fiance. When he reluctantly goes upstairs, he tells her he doesn’t want to do anything because he “loves his fiance.” However, when Cassie reveals who she really is, and he must face the long-awaited consequences of his actions, he kills her and burns her body, showing just how evil he truly is underneath the “nice guy” facade. He would kill someone to avoid facing the consequences of his actions.

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It shows what it means to atone for your mistakes

A couple of major themes in this movie are atonement and forgiveness. What does it mean to truly be sorry for what you’ve done? When Cassie confronts the people who were involved in the aftermath of Nina’s assault, most of them don’t even remember Nina’s name. Most of them make excuses for their behavior. They don’t even believe they did anything wrong! But the person who actually is sorry is the one you’d least expect to be. When Cassie shows up at the house of the corrupt lawyer who threatened and bullied Nina until she dropped her case, she tells him it’s his “day of reckoning.” Instead of kicking her out, he invites her in. He knows he’s hurt people, and he knows they must be angry. He also knows that he must face the consequences of his actions. He begs Cassie to help him, telling her he can’t sleep, and that he hasn’t slept in forever. He tells her that he wants her to know that he’ll never forgive himself, “for any of this.” Cassie says she forgives him, and he falls to the ground, telling her “I’m so sorry.” Cassie tells him to sleep. Out of all the people Cassie confronts so far, he is the only one to remember Nina’s name. 

This is all Cassie wanted in the movie. For the people involved to acknowledge they did wrong, and an apology. The lawyer knew that he hurt people, he felt genuine remorse about what he did, and he wanted to take accountability for his actions. Let’s compare this to two other instances. The first is when Cassie confronts Al. Unlike the lawyer, it’s clear he’ll do whatever it takes to make the consequences of his crime go away. He tells her he’ll give her anything she wants. When confronted, he insists he hasn’t done anything wrong. He cries, but not because he feels bad for what he did, but because he knows he can’t delay the consequences of his actions. Then, when Cassie threatens to carve Nina’s name all over him, he kills her. He hasn’t changed. He doesn’t feel sorry. And he doesn’t want to face his actions, he just wants to bury them.

The next is Ryan. When Cassie finds out that Ryan witnessed Nina’s attack and did nothing to stop it, she threatens to send it to everyone he knows — unless he tells her where Al’s bachelor party is. He obliges, demanding she forgive him. She, of course, refuses, and he says he can’t live with the threat of it hanging over him. This is different from the lawyer for a variety of reasons. First of all, unlike the lawyer, he never actually says the words “I’m sorry” to Cassie, even though he demands forgiveness. He even says, “I didn’t even do anything,” which, he doesn’t understand, is exactly the point. The other thing is Ryan wasn’t really asking for forgiveness so much as he was demanding it. And it wasn’t because he felt bad about his involvement, it was because he couldn’t stand someone thinking that he was not the upstanding pillar of society he made himself out to be. 

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It is a realistic revenge movie

In most revenge movies, we see women defeat men twice their size, and twice as strong as them, and get revenge. Promising Young Woman, however, is a different kind of revenge movie, a more realistic one. When Cassie tricks men into taking her home, pretending to be drunk, she does not kill them, instead, she hurts them by weaponizing their idea of themselves as a “nice guy.” When they start taking advantage of her, she reveals that she’s not actually drunk, and proceeds to hold a mirror up to their behavior, which hurts them far more than any physical attack ever could. According to director Emerald Fennell, “What I wanted to try to do was try to write a film about how an ordinary woman might take revenge in the real world and that’s very rarely reaching for a gun.”  A woman like Cassie would not take revenge by means of physical violence, as they probably would not find it smart. Men are much physically stronger and more domineering than women, so if a woman were to attempt to get revenge that way, it would probably end badly. Therefore, women have to be creative in the ways they retaliate against men. In addition, women better understand how other people feel, so they better know how to hurt people psychologically.

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It shows how trauma does NOT make you stronger

In movies, a woman’s trauma is used as a way to motivate her growth. It can be depicted as something they had to go through to make them stronger, and I find this completely and utterly insulting. It implies that trauma is something that is necessary for women to go through to be strong and that women are not strong without trauma. Trauma does not make you stronger, it breaks you down. Nina went through trauma and it definitely didn’t make her strong, in fact, it’s ultimately what killed her! She was a lively woman with a lot of promise. She was plenty strong on her own, as you can see. The traumatic event she underwent didn’t “make her stronger,” it just made her a shell of herself, and then it killed her.

Cassie is also an example of this. Her trauma most definitely did not make her stronger. After the rape and subsequent suicide of Nina, Cassie’s life has stalled. She also dropped out of medical school to care for Nina, and she still lives with her parents. She works a dead-end job and doesn’t have many friends. She gets revenge on “nice guys” every night, but this doesn’t make her any happier or bring her any peace. It can’t bring back Nina. Ultimately, her quest for revenge kills her, unlike other revenge movies, where the woman ultimately triumphs over evil and is able to get a sense of closure. In Promising Young Woman, it is quite clear that Cassie’s quest for revenge is detrimental to her ability to heal and move on, and she ultimately dies from it. “You need to stop this,” Nina’s mom tells her. “It isn’t good for any of us. It’s no good for Nina, and it’s no good for you. I know you feel bad that you weren’t there, but you’ve got to let it go.” When Cassie responds that she’s just trying to fix it, Nina’s mom says “Come on, you can’t. Don’t be a child, Cassie,” and begs her to move on “for all of us.” This conversation shows how detrimental and “childish” Cassie’s desire for revenge is. As Nina’s mom said, it can’t bring Nina back, or undo what happened to her, and it’s not good for Cassie, as it’s holding her back from recovering and moving on. Promising Young Woman shows how self-destructive revenge quests really are.

As you can see, Promising Young Woman is a difficult watch, but an important one nonetheless. The system that prioritizes the feelings and futures of “Promising Young Men” at the expense of the Promising Young Women is deeply interwoven in our society, but the first step to change is being aware of this system, and how we contribute to it. It’s being aware of sexist comments, victim blaming, and not invalidating someone else’s negative experience with someone just because yours was positive. It’s not being a bystander in a situation where you actually have the power, even if it’s just a little bit, to help. If we all acknowledge our contribution to a misogynistic system and make a change, then little by little, we can enact positive change in our society.

Nicole is a junior at the University of Connecticut studying communication and gerontology. Her hobbies include playing the flute, biking, and drawing.