TW: Mentions of sexual assault and rape
The concept of vengeance is nothing new to movies. There are countless stories of heroes fighting to avenge loved ones, tales of women scorned and vigilantes seeking to right wrongs leveled against them. Despite how frequently the theme of vengeance is used to tell a story, “Promising Young Woman” is still a provocative take on a devastating occurrence that is a reality for many female college students.
With statistics for sexual assault on college campuses climbing each year, director Emerald Fennell set out to create a film that challenges society’s views on campus sexual assault through the story of promising young women Cassie and her best friend, Nina. Following Nina’s rape and the subsequent dismissal of her case, medical student Cassie grows furious with their university’s lack of respect for her friend’s trauma. Cassie is cold and cunning as she takes matters into her own hands to avenge her friend’s assault. She employs a bizarre duality that serves to challenge society’s views of feminine women and subverts expectations. Armed with her sharp wit and femme fatale appearance, Cassie frequents bars where she feigns a drunken daze to lure ill-intentioned men into taking her to their homes where she then confronts them about their predatory behavior.
Again, the topic of vengeance is not new to the movie world. But “Promising Young Woman” uses vengeance as a vehicle to address the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses — a topic that is often misrepresented by the media.
Past Representations of College Campus Sexual Assault
One of the most notable and unflinching portrayals of the reality of college campus sexual assault is the 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground.” A film directed by a man, Kirby Dick, uses the stories told by victims to scrutinize how universities fail to report sexual assaults that happen on university grounds, as well as discipline their perpetrators. Despite how promising its premise may be, the film falls short when you consider the misreported statistics and claims the film is based on. When this happens, it can unintentionally create hesitation regarding true accounts and statistics about sexual assault on college campuses, and ultimately, the film puts the stories of the victims in the backseat.
The brilliant 2016 documentary “Audrie & Daisy” handles the topic better, with more care for survivors of sexual assault. Although this documentary centers on high school students, its directors, Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk, were inspired to cover the topic during their years at Stanford University. Much like Fennell’s direction of “Promising Young Woman,” Cohen and Shenk took a more personal approach by centering the entire project around its victims and telling their stories. Relying on firsthand information from those closest to the victims, “Audrie & Daisy” perfectly exemplifies how imperative it is to believe women and tell their stories.
Though “Promising Young Woman” is entirely fictional, its direction and attention to women, particularly survivors, are what sets it apart from other media that cover this topic. It isn’t afraid to show the audience a woman’s agonizing struggle with both unabashed honesty and respect.
“Promising Young Woman” Puts Women First
Helmed by Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman” is a film made for women by a woman. In an interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, Fennell stated, “I mean, I think I really set out to write and make a revenge movie that felt like it had all the pleasures of the genre, but also it was coming from a real woman. So really wanted it to be kind of an examination of real female rage.” It tells the story of a woman’s struggle with respect and care, a touch that can be lost when directed by someone who does not understand women’s perspectives on such sensitive topics. That is not to say men do not understand this problem many women face, but they may not fully understand the gravity and fear this topic instills in female college students all over the country.
The film also portrays the harsh truth that women’s stories are not always put first when reporting rape and sexual assault. KnowYourTitleIX reports, “Only 12% of college student survivors report the assault to police. Survivors cite a number of reasons for not reporting: not wanting others to know; lack of proof; fear of retaliation; being unsure of whether what happened constitutes assault; did not know how to report; and fear of being treated poorly by the criminal justice system.” Nina’s story is continuously disregarded and ultimately makes Cassie feel as though she is the only one willing to stand up for Nina and protect other women from the same fate.
A Reflection of the Need for Victim Advocacy
Despite the outlandishness of “Promising Young Woman,” the film spotlights an important conversation about sexual assault and rape victim advocacy. It calls into question the “measures” used in such traumatizing cases and how ineffective they are in helping victims recover and seek legal action. Though Cassie’s means of standing up for Nina are dangerous and criminal, it speaks to how important justice is for survivors and their loved ones.
In the film we see Cassie attempting to report the rape and its perpetrator to the campus dean as part of the Title IX clause of the Education Amendments that allows third party reports. Despite the dean herself being a woman, she has no sympathy for Nina’s case and refuses to discipline the rapist. While this can initially shock viewers, it portrays the reality that many institutions fail to report rape and sexual assault despite Title IX mandates. The film brilliantly highlights how crucial it is for survivors to know their institutions support and protect them — and how easy it is for cases to fall through the cracks.
Though the film is dressed in pop art neons, glitter and fast-paced cinematography, it reflects a devastating real-life occurrence. In January the Association of American Universities reported that among undergraduate students, 26.4% of women experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation — a jarring statistic that puts the reality of “Promising Young Woman” into a grave perspective.
While what Cassie does to avenge Nina’s assault is nowhere near what one should do when discovering a friend was victimized, it calls attention to the need for victim advocacy and transparency from universities. “Promising Young Woman” isn’t afraid to show viewers we live in a world where women who are victims of assault are treated as the catalysts for the heinous action of their assaulters. Nina’s reluctance to report shows the devastating impact of sexual assault and how it leaves victims feeling unheard and silenced while their assailants remain unscathed. Both Nina and Cassie’s promising futures were cast away due to their institution’s failure to protect victims in favor of protecting perpetrators. Even after the gut-punch film stops rolling, the audience is left to reflect on why real-life society fails to protect its promising young women.