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The Important Messages In Promising Young Woman (2020)

Carey Mulligan stars as "Cassandra" in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Content Warning: discussion of sexual assault and violence

Image Credits: Entertainment Weekly, Originally Courtesy of Focus Features

Promising Young Woman is a superb newly released film that follows the life of Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), an intelligent and impressive young woman who, after the sexual assault and resulting death of her best friend Nina, embarks on an inventive vendetta against all men who would seek to take advantage of vulnerable young women. What starts as vengeance against any man that is capable of such evil, soon becomes a personal pursuit against the people surrounding Nina’s assault, and then more specifically the man responsible – Al Monroe (Chris Lowell).

The themes and messages brought to light throughout the film are extremely relevant and important in today’s society, and as a young woman who has grown up surrounded by so many of these issues, the film really resonated with me. It struck me how important it is for the kinds of toxic and offensive behaviours shown throughout the film to be exposed and challenged because if a young woman grows up accustomed to such treatment, it can become less and less clear that to challenge it is in fact a just and deserved response. Promising Young Woman’s portrayal of abusive men being rightfully punished for their actions is a powerful and important message to every young woman who has ever suffered similar behaviour and felt themselves unable to stand up against it. 

In the film, Cassie goes out at night pretending to be extremely drunk, waiting for a man to approach her and offer his ‘help’; in the cases where these men take her home with them and attempt to sleep with her in her vulnerable state, she quickly sobers up and confronts them about their behaviour. The response of these men is frequently a vehement denial of any wrongdoing on their part, and a determined insistence that they are a ‘good guy’. This ultimately implies that any fault in the situation lies entirely with the woman who has, according to these men, so maliciously and dramatically misunderstand the innocent actions of a true gentleman. Cassie’s response, that ‘gentlemen are sometimes the worst’, highlights the harsh reality of modern life… that often a man’s accountability for his actions is determined by him alone, and his claim of innocence or pure intentions immediately belittles and silences the suffering of the woman who was brave enough to challenge him. 

This point is further emphasized in the film through the attitudes of the people surrounding Nina’s assault: the girlfriend who dismissed the attack, the University Dean (Connie Britton) who absolved Al Monroe of any crime, and the lawyer who silenced Nina by threatening to pin the responsibility on her drinking and any evidence of partying in her past. Cassie’s first target Madison (Alison Brie) (the young woman who disregarded Nina’s experience as an unfortunate consequence of her own irresponsible drinking) embodies all the people in society who see someone who has been sexually assaulted not as a victim of violence and crime, but as a ‘flirt’ who invited the abusive behaviour through their choice of dress or their own actions. The University Dean holds a similar view, and explains to Cassie that when numerous accusations are launched against young men every week, she ‘has to give [them] the benefit of the doubt’. Cassie’s plots for revenge against these two women result in gratifying satisfaction when both demonstrate their own remarkable and damaging hypocrisy. Madison admits her panic and fear after having too much to drink and not being able to remember her time with a man, and Dean Walker falls into hysteria when she learns her young daughter is alone with the men who currently live in the same flat Nina was attacked in. These scenes send the powerful message that to excuse an assailant’s behaviour by ignoring the glaring evidence of assault and focusing instead on the inebriation of the victim, or their outfit choice, is irrevocably damaging to the person abused. This also declares to any woman who has ever, or may ever, suffer similar brutality, that to seek justice means risking finding shame and responsibility placed on their own shoulders.

Another meaningful message comes when Cassie discovers the existence of a video of Nina’s assault. After watching the video, Cassie learns that the man she is currently dating (and has fallen in love with) was a witness to the crime, as he can be heard laughing in the background. Understandingly shocked and heartbroken, Cassie confronts Ryan (Bo Burnham) and ends their relationship, after firmly putting him in his place over what constitutes guilt and responsibility. This is a pivotal moment in the film, and calls attention to another significant issue in society; people who stand by and allow assault to take place, or refuse to stand up for the victim, or laugh it off with their friends (as shown in the film), feel no responsibility for the abuse taking place, and therefore further perpetuate the degrading and belittling of the suffering of sexual assault victims. 

I grew up with the same rules that all young girls have ingrained in them before they are old enough to remember: go to the toilet in pairs, don’t accept drinks from strangers, never walk home alone after dark. The messages in Promising Young Woman are relevant and necessary because they bring to light the struggles of young women in today’s society who are raised to believe that even if they follow these precautions, they will always be vulnerable to harassment, abuse and assault, and that if they are wearing a short skirt or a small top they will be called derogatory names and made to believe that the only one at fault is them, for enjoying the same independence and confidence that most men wear like a badge of honour.

Written by Megan Bulmer.