Why Promising Young Woman sends the right message

By a former promising young woman

Trigger warning: Rape, suicide

Spoiler warning: Discussion of the film Promising Young Woman

Why are some women on the fence about the carefully scheduled message of Promising Young Woman?

Before I watched the Emerald Fennell film, Promising Young Woman, I had read some wider media coverage. I could not help but notice the fact there were women who were not in favour of the way the story was told and, rightly or wrongly, that surprised me.

As a woman who was once date-raped, as in I had a drink “spiked”, I deliberately delayed watching the film. Not because I believed it would be triggering (it was not) but because I knew I would want to share my perspective on it, both as a survivor of rape and as a woman. Doing that leaves me exposed to other people’s opinions on my experiences and it is those opinions on how I should exist in this world (how I should behave, how I should feel, how I should dress, how I should speak), that I find triggering. Nothing else.

I think it was that, and the negative views expressed by what appears to be a minority, about Promising Young Woman that made me reticent to deal with its existence. To be blunt, I knew other people might irritate me. In my eternal quest for self-awareness, I shall endeavour to work on that. They are, after all, as entitled to comment on the film as I am.

While watching Promising Young Woman, I wondered if the issue some viewers had with it was based on the belief that the main character, Cassie, was not a “victim” herself, and instead more of a victim by association. There are a few ways this perspective may be unhelpful.

Firstly, the film is suggesting that anyone can be a victim, by virtue of the implication that even so-called pillars of the community can view an incapacitated woman as easy prey. There are also moments in the film where the language used by men at and about women is laid bare in all its ugly truth, including the unsolicited communication in the street and the inevitable aggression that follows if you, as a woman, are not amenable to the experience.

Secondly, Nina commits suicide. Many people commenting on the film are not really discussing suicide much. This is not surprising given there is so much to discuss. There have been studies that suggest there is an increased risk of suicide attempts, in those bereaved by suicide. By bereaved, this refers to friends as well as family members. The same study found that 80% of people bereaved by suicide were more likely to drop out of education or work. Once that door is opened, it can be a difficult one to close. This may be the case for Cassie.

Thirdly, the issues of drunkenness, safety, and personal responsibility seem to have troubled a lot of viewers of the film. I have been incapacitated, alone, in public, and not been raped. Conversely, when I was date raped, I was on my second glass of wine, which was tampered with by my rapist, who I believed was a friend. When people take exception to the film Promising Young Woman because the risks taken by Cassie are deemed reckless or irresponsible, they are missing the message. When someone holds a mirror up to your face after a long night of alcohol-induced excess, you do not look away or smash the mirror, you look at it. You look at yourself. It is important that we stop perpetuating the myth that women should be held responsible for the actions of their rapists. The kind of life the individual lived prior to their rape, is not relevant. Nor is what that person wore, or how many sexual partners they consented to have sex with. Drinking is just another way to apportion blame and shame someone for the actions of another. Picking apart a film because you are unhappy with the way it portrays an experience that is a reality for many “promising young women”, helps nobody. Do not shoot the messenger because of the message.

Finally, another criticism I read of the film, by a woman, was that it portrayed a woman who was unable to move on. This is a complex area and one I briefly touched on in my article The Myth of Resilience. Grief, injustice, trauma, suicide, rape, and sexual assault do not require a uniform reaction or recovery. To assume that we should all react in the same, “appropriate” way is wrong. I was told I should have reported my rape, which I did not do, by someone who had never been raped. Having studied rape on trial as part of my degree, I made an informed decision to not go through a second rape, given there was a low prospect of conviction. When someone struggles to get back up after a fall, we should be supporting them, not forcing them to suppress it while putting our foot on their head.

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