Content Warning: Discussion on r*pe, violence against women, victim blaming, suicide, murder, and many many spoilers.
Promising Young Woman (2020), directed by Emerald Fennell, is advertised as a punchy, feminist revenge thriller that promises its audience a modern re-imagining of the contentious rape revenge genre. The film fulfills on-trend 2020 algorithms, complete with a bright pastel color scheme, ironic songs from 2010, a Black trans best friend, and a vaguely feminist plot. What it fails to fulfill is the dire cultural need for movies that actually reflect the experiences of sexual assault survivors.
We were excited to see Cassie, the protagonist, played by Carey Mulligan avenge her best friend’s rape and death. This is a departure from the genre’s usual narrative that casts a lover or father figure in the avenging role. We were hoping to find catharsis by reveling in the revenge that is not afforded to most survivors. To be completely honest, we were ready to see blood.
We are writing this article as two survivors of sexual assault who love to hate on harmful media portrayals of sex, consent, and sexual violence. We are responding to the blasphemous claims that Promising Young Woman is anything more than a colorful, trendy cover up of a classic problematic rape narrative. The film sits comfortably within the canon of the MeToo movement, a time when Hollywood has been forced to reckon with the prevalence of predation within its own industry. However, we see this film functioning as a part of Hollywood’s long legacy of covering up its sexual atrocities.
This film was not made with survivors in mind, but the fact that it has received numerous nominations and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay tells us who it was made for, and how they want to see survivors portrayed. (SPOILER ALERT: Hollywood loves to see hopeless, suffering survivors.) So, in celebration of both the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the recent Academy Awards join us as we carefully rip this movie to shreds…
WHY WE WERE DISAPPOINTED 1: NO ROOM FOR “RAPE”
In the first scene we are introduced to Cassie, who is in the depths of grief and trauma after her best friend, Nina, is publicly raped at a party. Nina later dies by suicide after experiencing violent denial from her community. Cassie then dedicates her life to avenging Nina by manipulating and humiliating would-be rapists at bars.
This film irresponsibly makes the decision to never use the word “rape.” The word’s absence hits like a fast-moving freight train. Instead, director Emerald Fennell chooses to refer to the act as “sex.” Let’s be clear, sex refers to consensual acts between adults. Nina was blackout drunk and forcibly raped and filmed in public. This was not consensual and to refer to it as such is trash. Using the word sex absolves the rapist of wrongdoing. The decision to erase the word rape intentionally caters to the comfort of apologists and perpetrators (of which we know Hollywood is crawling).
As survivors, we know the importance of coming to terms with this painful word. When we avoid the word rape, we water down our experiences of violence and deny what actually happened. Hearing the word is uncomfortable. People don’t want to experience the discomfort that comes along with acknowledging sexual trauma. And so, they deny, not for us, but for them.
WHY WE WERE DISAPPOINTED 2: HOPELESS SUFFERER/HOPELESS SURVIVOR
The archetype of a survivor in film is one of the hopeless sufferer. Cassie is portrayed as unhappy, obsessive, and despairing. She is left to grieve alone, which is why she engages in schemes to target predacious men every night. It’s her special way to work through her trauma. She lives with her parents, but they don’t have a supportive relationship. Her only other friend is her boss, Gail who is played by Laverne Cox and has a very minimal role throughout the movie. The only time Cassie experiences feelings of happiness or love is when she starts to date Bo Burnham’s character, Ryan. We pause because, really? She is only afforded these feelings through the man she is dating.
The narrative of the hopelessly suffering survivor is tired and incomplete. This is a missed opportunity to imagine Cassie having a support system.
Why couldn’t Cassie have access to other survivors of sexual violence?
We are everywhere; we exist as communities, public groups, and secret coalitions. She dedicates her life to avenging Nina, but who will avenge her?
WHY WE WERE DISAPPOINTED 3: KILLING WOMEN NOT WOMEN KILLING RAPISTS
The revenge Cassie does get is weak at best. Hollywood is in full support of showcasing violence against women and censoring violence against rapists. Cassie spends most nights going out to bars, pretending she is incoherently drunk, and waiting for a man to take her home and attempt to rape her. Once they start assaulting her, she stops slurring her words, looks at them with clear eyes, and confronts these men with what they thought they could get away with. The men respond with shock, fear, maybe a little embarrassment, and a lot of defensiveness. Cassie returns to her stark life with a look of grim satisfaction. As viewers we feel more confusion than satisfaction…that’s it? No blood? No retribution? It’s unclear what is accomplished, and hard to believe this method brings Cassie much relief.
Watching the film takes a certain amount of suspended disbelief. Cassie humiliates men alone in their houses, but once she confronts them they stop. Statistically rapists are likely turn to other forms of physical violence when interrupted from raping a person. But the director creates a world where additional violence from these men seems unlikely. These cringey would-be- rapists are nerdy caricatures, played by actors such as Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin), already known by viewers as docile and comical.
The film creates a binary between “harmless” and violent men. While we love that this film points out that, YES, all men could be rapists, and many are, we are perturbed by the dynamic this creates. It suggests that nervous, nerdy rapists who target drunk women could never be the same men that hit, hold down, or murder them. This binary is false, offensive, and dangerous. It minimizes the gravity of assault, and it sets the audience up to have more empathy towards these men than even Cassie is afforded.
Despite our disappointment at the mediocrity of her revenge methods, we were content to accept this film for what it was…until the end. It is not until Cassie’s ultimate act of vengeance against Al Monroe, the man who raped Nina, that we see her prepare for a violent conclusion. She shows up to his bachelor party disguised as a stripper, where she handcuffs him to a bed, reveals her true identity, and takes out a scalpel to carve Nina’s name into his body. This is it, the moment we had been waiting for, finally a space for Cassie to express her rage and pain. But no.
As Cassie approaches him, Al Monroe breaks free of his restraints and smothers her to death. We are asked to watch Cassie, wearing lingerie, get straddled and suffocated by her best friend’s rapist for an agonizing 3 minutes. We then watch as Al and his best friend burn Cassie’s body the following morning. According to the film, rape is not an offense serious enough to warrant death, but any threat to a man is.
This disregard for survivors and women is revolting. Not only did we receive zero catharsis from the film, but we were left feeling sick, angry, tired, and triggered.
There is no path to healing without first making space for rage. Rage doesn’t go away on it’s own, and without an outlet, it can turn inward, against ourselves. Nina’s passing is a testament to this. In our experiences, our rage has been met with minimizing questions, gas lighting, and disgust. No one wants to hear about our anger, the details of the violence we experienced, or the things we think about doing to our rapists. No one wants to hear about how often we think about killing our rapists and abusers, or putting an end to the systems that protect them. These fantasies are important, they keep us alive. They keep our rage directed at those culpable instead of having it turn inwards. Rage is sacred and the efforts to suppress the rage of survivors is, in itself, an act of violence.
Fennell denies Cassie violence and revenge the same way she denies Cassie happiness, community, or hope. Fennell essentially has made a film that spells out a very clear and classic threat: survivors who do not suffer quietly will die.
WHY WE WERE DISAPPOINTED 4: F*CK THE POLICE
Equally offensive to Cassie’s graphic murder, was the choice to bring police in as the ultimate avengers. This movie is pro-police. It leaves us at Al Monroe’s wedding where we see him arrested for Cassie’s murder. The police presence sends a false message of justice being served, and that Cassie’s murder and Nina’s rape have been dealt with.
The assumption that police stop rape or domestic abuse is not only a dirty lie, but is also deeply racist. The pro-police advocates (white feminists and liberals alike) think of us as helpless “victims.” They use women and children as an excuse to maintain a white supremacist police state. But here’s the thing, we have never wanted them to save us, and they have NEVER cared about us. From violent political policies to rampant sexual abuse in detention centers, the state is one of the biggest perpetrators of sexual violence. The people that have helped us in our trauma recovery have been other survivors, and our friends, special lovers, pets, therapists, and rape advocates. It’s never been legislators, police, or any part of the justice system. We have taken care of each other because no state-sanctioned authority ever has.
The film supposes that audience members are reassured by the arrival of the police to arrest Al Monroe. This assumption in light of the overwhelming amount of racist murders carried out by the police reflects a white supremacist framework. Survivors of sexual violence know that police actively contribute to the perpetrating, gas lighting, re-traumatization, and victim blaming that exists at every level of our society. That is why we are abolitionists, and if you support survivors of sexual violence you should be too.
Throughout cinematic history, rape has been hyper-commodified and carelessly used for shock- value. While sexual assault is a commonplace plot point, survivors of sexual assault rarely get to see any representation that resonates with what it means to live as a survivor.
In writing this piece, we worried about the public response to our desire of killing our rapists, but how messed up is that? Why are we afraid to talk about killing rapists when images of brutal violence against women are so normalized?
Hollywood has never given us what we need or want.
We want to see a rape survivor experience nuanced emotions of joy and sadness. We want to see someone ask a rape survivor what they need. We want to see a rape survivor have pleasurable and consensual sex. We want to see representations of rape survivors who are not white cis-gender women. We want to see community responses for dealing with sexual assault, and we want to see men holding each other accountable.
We want to see a rape survivor engage in violence and walk away alive.
Promising Young Woman holds no promises for rape survivors. With roughly a $10 million budget, the film functions as an expensive piece of propaganda- But then again, Hollywood and corporations, which are fully invested in capitalist patriarchy, wouldn’t want it any other way. Capitalists and police do not keep us safe.
We keep us safe. And this is why we consolidate our power and tell our own stories. There are many of us and few of them. And we are coming, so they better watch out. This is our promise of vengeance.
Forever angry and irrational,
Lily and Finley