Emerald Fennell’s 2020 revenge flick Promising Young Woman does more than just reverse the normative tropes of its genre— it completely destroys them, showing viewers how these formulas make it difficult for us to grasp the psychological and moral complexity of sexual trauma in the process.
The film, which was written, directed, and produced by Fennell, follows Cassie— a young med-school drop out as she seeks revenge for her friend’s sexual assault, before ultimately avenging her death. In the process, the film offers a critique of our culture’s understanding of sexual assault and poses larger questions about culpability as a whole.
Cassie as a character seems intent on bending the rules. She goes out to bars every night and pretends to be totally drunk. She tricks men into taking her home, before suddenly revealing that she is completely sober. The revelatory moment in this becomes her vengeance. And it may not be the clear cut revenge that the audience is hoping for, but it is a vengeance that forces introspection. Why would a man be scared if the woman they brought home turned out to be sober?
In posing this question, audiences are forced to consider the more complicated problems of ‘hook-up culture’ that seem to have permeated every aspect of our social life. We have made this behavior normal— it has become the punchline to a joke. The overly drunk woman at the bar unable to take care of herself isn’t a victim but a fool, and thus, the man who will take advantage of her that night isn’t a predator. Maybe he got the wrong impression? Maybe she was asking for it before she passed out? He’s just a nice guy who made a mistake, it happens to the best of us.
Promising Young Woman shows audiences the flaws in that logic, while simultaneously rejecting the very notion of a ‘nice guy.’ Fennell set out to make this movie after asking herself the question: “If you took a girl home who was completely hammered, and then she revealed to you that she was stone-cold sober, why would you be so freaked out?” The men who take Cassie home seem unable to answer this question. Instead, all that they can do is remind Cassie that they’re ‘nice guys,’ who ‘made a mistake.’ Cassie shows the audience that the world is full of ‘nice guys’ who ‘made a mistake’—- dangerously full of them. She asks us: How many mistakes can they possibly continue to make?
In normative rape-revenge flicks, the assault victim will typically die, and therefore, the revenge will be enacted by a brother, friend, or father of the victim. The avenger will typically zero in on the perpetrator, and thus allow audiences to enjoy a neat and resolved revenge plot. However, in Promising Young Woman, this is not the case. Rather than focusing just on the perpetrator, Cassie decides to seek revenge on everyone who did not help her friend following her sexual assault, including her friends, a dean of students, and a lawyer. In doing so, Cassie shows the audience the complicated nature of culpability following an assault. It is revealed that the film’s main villain isn’t just the assaulter— but everyone else who turned a blind eye.
Another startling difference between this film and others in its genre is the nature of the assaulter. Audiences are used to films in which the assaulter is easily recognizable, a seemingly dark entity that we can accept as a bad person. However, the assaulters in this film are not men wearing trench-coats hiding in the back of a dark alley— waiting to strike some unassuming woman. Instead, they are regular well adjusted adults, and some of them are even doctors. They are people who we can easily recognize as friends and family members. They don’t look outwardly scary or intimidating— and that’s sort of the problem.
To understand why this film makes so many people uncomfortable we must first understand basic human psychology, and why these intrinsic instincts have harmed our understanding of sexual assault. We hear the phrase ‘victim-blaming’ a lot, but what exactly does that mean? Promising Young Woman attempts to show viewers the multifaceted ways in which we ‘victim-blame,’ and how this has seemingly normalized sexual violence. It shows us that our basic understanding of an overly-drunk woman is intrinsically harmful. We hear about instances of assault and the first questions we ask are about her level of intoxication and what clothes she was wearing. We never seem to ask ourselves: Why did he do it?
Likewise, we seem overly willing to accept the perpetrators excuses for his behavior and embrace the idea that ‘she wanted it,’ or ‘he got the wrong impression.’ Promising Young Woman shows viewers that these men know that they’re in the wrong. They know that they’re behavior is bad. And yet, they continue to call themselves ‘nice guys.’ It also shows us the extent to which we are willing to accept the excuses of these ‘nice guys.’ We do so eagerly, because by rejecting them we would have to come to terms with the fact that even ‘nice guys’ can do these types of things. And if that’s the case then who can we possibly trust?
Thus, Promising Young Woman shatters our world view, it forces us to come to terms with a form of sexual violence that is all too common in society, and provides us with a perpetrator that strikes way too close to home. In other films of this genre, audiences can enjoy a degree of distance from the trauma. But in this film, the trauma becomes easily recognizable. It is unlikely that any of us will know someone who was assaulted by a man in a trench coat in a dark alley. However, anyone who has ever been to college knows a story about a girl like Cassie.