‘Promising Young Woman’ (2020) and the Reality of Sexual Trauma

TW: This article contains references to sexual assault throughout. 

This article also contains major spoilers for Promising Young Woman.

Unable to celebrate Christmas with my extended family this past year, I decided to instead ring in the holidays with Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman, a poignant piece of representation on sexual assault and trauma.

The film opens with a scene familiar from the trailer. Cassie Thomas (Mulligan) is drunkenly slumped on a bench at a local bar, while a group of guys leer nearby. One of them openly claims that she should be taken advantage of, but “nice guy” Jerry (Adam Brody) admonishes his friends and checks in on her. What at first appears to be an attempt to see if she is okay is soon revealed to be an assessment of how easily she will be to overpower. Alone at his apartment, he quickly takes advantage of her drunken state and begins groping her.

This is the first example of a recurring theme throughout the film: that unassuming, decent seeming guys are just as capable of rape and assault as anyone else. Often in films, it is clear who the rapists and assaulters are. They are caricatured on screen with additional quirks that alert us of their deviancy, like Frank Booth and his oxygen tank in Blue Velvet, or John Doe’s creepy monologuing in Se7en. By contrast, in Promising Young Woman, the rapists look, sound, and act like average men, just like they do of real life. Though activists have asserted this fact for decades, the minuscule sentencing of Brock Turner was less than five years ago, and we continue to appoint legitimately accused rapists to positions of the highest power. Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden “just made a mistake,” yet throughout his campaign, Democrats employed the identical rhetoric as the Republicans who gaslit Dr. Ford in her accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, who now holds the seat of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. This misogyny is so deeply ingrained in us, internally and systemically, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. Promising Young Woman reminds us that it’s something we must all deconstruct within ourselves. The idea that nice guys are not always as they seem is not a new one, but it is clearly one society still needs to hear. 

Later, we find out Cassie is not actually drunk when she is at the bar, but rather she pretends to be inebriated to lure and scare sexual predators. Then, when seemingly helpful men take her back to their apartment and try to take advantage of her, she sobers up and warns them that she is not the only girl who does this — adding that the others are more likely to call the police or inflict physical harm. This dangerous hobby emerges from lingering trauma after Cassie’s best friend from college, Nina Fisher was raped in front of other students after drinking one night. This incident left irreparable damage on those in Nina’s life, but especially Cassie. She spends the film attempting to bring justice for Nina, much to the demise of her own social life. For a moment it seems her only redemption is Ryan (Burnham).

Ryan and Cassie dance together in a convenience store.
Image courtesy of Focus Features

Writer and director Emerald Fennell made a deliberate choice in casting Burnham – a popular comedian who is well known for calling out sexist practices in his acts – as Ryan, the film’s charming and funny love interest. Fennell’s script misses no opportunity to showcase the way Burnham’s character is a level above the men that came before him in the film; he is sweet, he is “woke,” and he’s just the right amount of awkward to successfully tap into the John Krasinski effect (a quality that is highlighted in the lengthy happily-ever-after montage that occurs at the end of act two). Nonetheless, we eventually find out that he was present when Nina was brutally raped, and although did not participate, he did not intervene either. Fennell’s casting of Burnham further highlights the message that those capable of being involved with sexual assault can be the trusted nice guys, and she corrupts our perception of Burnham in a way that makes us feel one fraction of Ryan’s betrayal of Cassie. That fraction is enough. Fennell also cast Max Greenfield and Chris Lowell, beloved actors who have made their name playing seemingly harmless characters, as the villains of the film. This casting choice adds an additional layer to its message; people who participate in sexual assault aren’t only just capable of being kind, they are capable of being people we admire. 

While the film is largely a critique of cismen, Fennell makes a point of including women as perpetrators. In the second act of the film, as Cassie enacts her revenge on those who contributed to Nina’s eventual suicide, she pays a visit to both Madison McPhee (Allison Brie), a former college classmate who refused to believe Nina, as well as their college dean (Connie Britton), who swept the rape accusations under the table. Brie’s and Britton’s respective characters elevate the film beyond criticism of just cismen, making it a deeper evaluation of the roles people play in sexual assault conviction. The person who commits the act is ultimately responsible, but every single person who chooses to side with the perpetrator instead of believing the victim becomes an enabler of sexual assault. In the case presented in Promising Young Woman, the circumstances seem hyperbolic: surely, if there really was graphic footage of the rape occurring, if there was a roomful of witness, if the victim’s body was badly bruised, then surely the rapist would be expelled, if not arrested. 

Unfortunately, this type of incident is grounded in reality. A near identical case occurred in 2012 when two rapists walked free despite having circulated photographs of them penetrating a young woman from behind as she was bent over vomiting through a window. The 17-year-old victim committed suicide within a year of the perpetrators walking free. Though pictures and video sound like objective evidence, in truth, everyone from peers to lawyers to juries inevitably interpret photographs through a cultural lens. This inherent lens tells us to value the future of the young man who made one mistake over the future of the girl who should have been more careful. Promising Young Woman successfully critiques not only those who are guilty of sexual assault, but everyone involved in the often-futile process of bringing those assaulters to justice.

Fennell’s work also delves into just how psychologically damaging rape and assault can be to those nearest to the victims. Following Nina’s suicide, Cassie drops out of medical school and becomes a thirty-year-old barista who lives with her parents. Her only friend is the coffee shop manager (Laverne Cox), and her only social experiences are the club trips where she enacts her revenge on predatory men.

Cassie stands in an empty road holding a crowbar. Bits of broken glass are scattered behind her.
Image courtesy of Focus Features

As the film progresses, we see that as much as Cassie wants her best friend back, what she is truly seeking is justice, seeing her weekly club rendezvous as a form of retribution. She cannot punish the person who raped Nina (who has since left the country), but she can scare these men and punish them for taking advantage. At the same time, these events are a proper demonstration of how little she values her existence. She greatly risks her own personal safety on a weekly basis for a hollow retribution. 

What gets lost in great revenge stories is true loss of autonomy that can come from trauma. Victims and their loved ones almost never get the cathartic, violent revenge like The Bride in Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), or Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride (1987). These movies, like Promising Young Woman, are often visually heightened and one could even say they are a glossed view of redress. With bright colours, racy pop music, and theatricality from start to finish, Fennell’s film promises a revenge ending that follows in the same pattern. However, that ending is almost never granted to victims and their families in real life.  And while Cassie has a great sardonic sense of humour and a fantastic pastel manicure, at no point throughout the film would someone wish to be her. She is not the badass revenge girl. She is a flawed human being trying to do right by her best friend and make sense of her life after the incident.

The film’s poignant conclusion ensures that viewers will leave the theatre (or their couch) in a state of reflection. When Cassie manages to track down Nina’s rapist Al Munroe (Lowell) at his bachelor party, we feel excited at the prospect of this long-awaited final revenge scene. Instead we are forced to witness an extremely prolonged suffocation scene wherein Cassie is brutally murdered, and her remains are thrown on a bonfire built by the groom-to-be and his best man. In an interview with Collide, Carey Mulligan says “the fantasy version of this would have been that Cassie walks away in a sort of triumphant strut and leaves everyone on the floor, but it’s just not the truth and I think Em felt very, very strongly that it’s important to tell the truth about things like this.” Even with the slightly satisfying ending wherein the cops crash the wedding and enact posthumous retribution for Cassie and Nina, viewers are faced with a brutal reality: Cassie and Nina did not win, in the end, because they are dead. 

Despite the seduction of Promising Young Woman and its revenge-served-cold plot tease, Fennell’s candy-coated film instead dishes out a nuanced and realistic look at the catastrophic impact of sexual assault on not only victims, but on all those around them. It reminds us that no one is above suspicion and that we all play a part in our society’s treatment of its victims. It is our responsibility not only to speak up, but to actively fight against the structures that have let so many sexual assault victims down.