My Issue With ‘Promising Young Woman’: There Is No Joy in Reflecting on Rape

My Issue With ‘Promising Young Woman’: There Is No Joy in Reflecting on Rape

06.04.21
Photo: japatino/Getty Images
06.04.21

Editor’s note: There are spoilers for “Promising Young Woman” in this essay.

Earlier this year, I asked my boyfriend to join me on my virtual therapy session.

I had watched the movie “Promising Young Woman” with him the week before, and I’d felt weird ever since.

Something had been activated in my body: I had a lump in my throat and knots in my chest, but every time I tried to explain what was wrong, the words didn’t make it past my throat.

The film, starring Carey Mulligan, is about a woman named Cassie Thomas, whose friend Nina was raped and committed suicide. Cassie (Mulligan) seeks revenge on the men who raped her friend. Online, people are talking about how the title is reminiscent of the Stanford sexual assault case, where Brock Turner was widely described as a promising young man, despite committing rape.

The movie was advertised as a satirical comedy about a woman duping men into thinking she’s drunk and blackmailing them before they try to take advantage of her. I thought I was in for a “Killing Eve” type comedy thriller, and I rented it with my boyfriend for my birthday. 

Even though Cassie succeeds in her mission by getting the perpetrators jailed, she meets her brutal demise in the process at the hands of the men who assaulted her friend. She’s strangled in a too-long, sordid scene. The camera shows her limp body, lipstick smeared across the edges of her mouth like a toddler who tried on their parents’ makeup. Throughout the movie, people discount her experience and that of her deceased friend Nina, implying she had been “wild” and telling Cassie that she should just move on. 

The movie disturbed me, to say the least. It was eerily similar to my own experiences in college. During my junior year, I was raped. And no one reacted in the comforting, kind way I was taught they would in the handful of sexual assault trainings I had taken along with my classmates at the start of high school and college.

Instead, a school counselor, reminiscent of Connie Britton’s character, focused on my then drinking problem rather than my assault. A couple of family members were so upset, I felt like I had to comfort them. Others asked me if I’d be a victim forever, when I’d move on and “live my life” — like the character of Nina’s mom questions Cassie. After the slew of stories from sexual assault survivors during news coverage of the “Me Too” movement, I thought people would just know how to be there for me when I needed them. 

But at the time, I couldn’t even fully comprehend my own experience. I didn’t cry, I wasn’t sad. I didn’t feel anything, really. And for the most part, I felt like I’d moved on. 

So I was surprised by my intense emotional reaction to the movie, “Promising Young Woman.” My boyfriend agreed to join my therapy session so he could better understand what was happening internally for me. His initial response to the film was: men are hypocrites. True. But because the movie was such an extreme example of white men committing sexual violence, rape and complicity, it didn’t elicit introspection from my boyfriend or his roommate. Rather than making them think about ways they could be hypocritical or misogynistic, too — as all men are at some point, whether they mean to or not — they could point to the male characters in the movie, recognize them and their actions as “bad.” And for them, the reflection could end there. 

But for people who’ve been through these kinds of traumatic experiences, the film walks you back through situations where you’ve been harmed in detail without resolution. Sure, the men go to jail. But Nina is dead. Cassie drops out of school. Cassie dies.

I’m disappointed that the film won an Oscar. I’m disappointed by the lack of deep analysis film critics offered in their reviews, praising it as an homage to the #MeToo era. #MeToo isn’t a fad, and it’s not something to be celebrated, even though it’s been necessary. There is no joy in reflecting on rape.

Who is this movie really for? It’s certainly not for rape victims.

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