There are often a variety of guilty parties in a case of sexual assault beyond the perpetrator; those who disbelieve, those who sweep the issue under the rug, and those who do not intervene are common wrongdoers in these circumstances. Promising Young Woman, an Emerald Fennell film nominated for best picture starring Carey Mulligan, highlights these culprits and teaches important lessons throughout the entire movie. The story begins with the main character, Cassie, going to bars and night clubs acting obliterated. When men take her back to their places—under the pretense of helping her—she rejects their advances, begs to go home, and then, when they persist, switches off the slurring and asks, in a cold and sober voice, what they are doing.
As Promising Young Woman continues, Cassie runs into an ex-classmate, Ryan, from Medical School who tells her of another classmate who is returning from abroad to get married, a classmate who we later learn publicly raped Cassie’s best friend, Nina, while she was still in school. Her best friend who eventually (it suggests) commit suicide due to the trauma following her assault. This meeting sparks Cassie on a trail of revenge towards those who had the opportunity to help Nina, yet they all failed to do so. The events following highlight important lessons to viewers when dealing with a case of sexual assault.
It is Easy to Victim Blame Until the Victim is You.
Cassie’s first encounter is with a female classmate, Madison, who took part in victim blaming, and accusing Nina of “crying wolf” when she reported her assault to the school. Nina came to Madison following the event, and she did not believe Nina or try and help her in any way. Madison used phrases such as “if you have a reputation for sleeping around then maybe people aren’t going to believe you when you say that something has happened.” As the scene continues, Madison drinks too much and wakes up in a hotel room with an unknown man lacking any memory of what had happened, which had been set up by Cassie.
Madison then panics, and calls Cassie multiple times asking her what had happened the night before. We later discover that nothing had happened between Madison and the unknown male, however, Cassie had this happen in order to show her that blaming the victim and invalidating his or her story is completely wrong. This can happen to anyone, not just the one who enjoys partying, and it should not be something that has to happen to you in order to empathize with those who have been assaulted. “Madison” is metaphorically everywhere, and is still present in cases of sexual assault, and the narrative of victim’s crying wolf must disappear in order to ensure a path towards justice.
You Wouldn’t Look the Other Way for Someone You Love.
Later in Promising Young Woman, we come to learn of Cassie’s next target- the Dean of the Medical School which she and Nina attended. Cassie, under a false pretense that she is interested in enrolling again, reminds the Dean that she did not pursue the case Nina followed due to a “lack of sufficient evidence.” The Dean continues defending perpetrators, stating “none of us want to admit when we’ve made ourselves vulnerable,” “what would you have me do, ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this? I have to give him the benefit of the doubt, because innocent until proven guilty.” Cassie then has the Dean believe that her daughter is in the same room without her cell phone with a group of male students, and vodka, to which the Dean panics and frantically tries to find where her daughter is.
We see in this scene a person who has the power to provide justice for victims, however, does not, and it is clear a reasoning is because the victim is not a person the Dean has a personal connection to, therefore lacks empathy towards. This provides a lesson to viewers that we cannot only protect and advocate for those we love, we must believe and support all victims, regardless of our connection, or lack thereof, to them.
It is Not Enough Just to Not Be a Perpetrator
Throughout Promising Young Woman, Cassie builds a relationship and falls in love with her ex-classmate, Ryan. He shows himself to be an upstanding person, and never pressures her into anything she does not want to do. He is patient, loving, and kind towards her, and is a protagonist in the eyes of viewers. However, late in the film, once a video of Nina’s assault is given to Cassie, we find that Ryan was present. While he did not participate in the event, he did not help Nina either, making him just as accountable as the perpetrator himself. This scene is very upsetting, and sheds a strong light on the idea that just because Ryan was not necessarily the problem, he also was not the solution, which is just as damaging.
Comedian Daniel Sloss, in a 2019 skit discussing male accountability, said “when one in ten men are [bad] and the other nine do nothing, they might as well not be there.” This statement sums up the ever-present issue of the bystander effect in cases of sexual assault. We must actively work to help victims not be in a situation in the first place, rather than passively allowing the predator to be someone else. While his statement is meant to teach men of their role in issues of sexual assault, it can be a lesson to all to watch for suspicious situations and take action ahead of an assault rather than turn a blind eye and only take accountability for ourselves.
A Must See
Promising Young Woman enlightens viewers on the variety of guilty parties in the case of sexual assault. Victim blamers, those who turn a blind eye, and bystanders, can all be held accountable. Promising Young Woman portrays a heartbroken woman who blames herself for the assault of her best friend, and goes on a trail of revenge in order to show those who had the opportunity to help Nina, and did not, that they must understand their role in injustice. It is important to show this film to friends and family to raise as much awareness as possible towards the common actions of those involved in these cases beyond the perpetrator, and how we can all focus on our words and actions prior to and following an assault to stop enabling assaulters.
Patricia Cox is a recent college graduate who studied the historic and present day injustices women face through her Political Science major. She took courses in specific areas such as South Asia, Eastern Asia, and the United States. Patricia decided to write for Soroptimist in order to educate others on present day issues that directly affect women all around the world. She believes that the fight for female equality can be taken a step further if a light is shed on the hardships women face everyday, and writing for this blog is the perfect opportunity to do so.