This commentary contains slight spoilers for Promising Young Woman. Read with caution!
CW: Sexual assault and suicide.
If you keep up with awards shows, women's rights, or films with female directors, you have probably heard the buzz surrounding Emerald Fennell’s 2020 film, Promising Young Woman. Fennell has been making headlines as one of three women nominated for Best Director—an award that previously only five women have been nominated for—at this year’s Golden Globes. While the historic implications of this nomination are enough to merit acknowledgement in their own right, having a female director is not the only thing Promising Young Woman has to offer. When asked about her decision to explore sexual assault in this film during an interview with Variety Magazine, Fennell is quoted as stating, “It’s not just a movie for people who are very well-versed in all of this stuff.” Through her creation of this film, Fennell crafts a raw, intense commentary on sexual assault, with the intent of taking a difficult topic and making it more accessible.
While the trailer for Promising Young Woman might lead you to believe that main character Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is merely a woman tricking unsupposing sexual predators into attempting to assault her while she feigns intoxication, her character is much more complex than that. This is something which becomes more apparent as her background, and prior experiences with sexual assault, are revealed.
Sexual assault is a topic where people often claim to experience a lot of “grey area” when it comes to how they will make moral decisions, due to factors such as context, victim, or perpetrator. For example, if alcohol is involved in a case of assault, oftentimes people are faced with hard decisions regarding where to draw the lines of consent. Fennell takes this sense of ambiguity and makes it a part of the audience’s viewing experience. Many of the characters throughout the movie are forced to make a variety of decisions, such as whether or not to examine an allegation of sexual assault or how to respond when confronted by police.
Through a dual characterization of Cassie by Fennell, she provides the audience with an opportunity to make their own decisions regarding how they will react in a situation of sexual assault. Cassie can be viewed in either one of two ways, depending on the opinion and perspective of those who are examining her. The first is what I call the “Crazy Revenge Girl” stereotype—survivors of assault who choose to come forward are often seen as angry, jealous, or in pursuit of some kind of revenge. “Crazy,” “psycho,” and “bitch” are all terms frequently used to describe those who seek to hold their abusers accountable. This is even more prevalent when the perpetrator is a prominent or wealthy member of a community.
It is easy for a viewer to watch Promising Young Woman and use similar adjectives to describe Cassie. Throughout the film, Cassie is seen frequently manipulating people’s perceptions of reality with the intention of teaching them some sort of lesson. Fennell does not construct Cassie’s character into an angel, or someone who is exempt from criticism and judgement. Rather, Cassie boldly crosses lines and pushes boundaries throughout the entire film—perhaps beyond the realm of normal ethics. Fennell provides a nuanced view of Cassie that audiences must unpack themselves, deeming her a vengeful maniac or choosing to examine Cassie and her behavior at a deeper level.
Upon further inspection, audience members come to discover the other side to Cassie, the motivator of her vengeful actions—an approximation to a traumatic sexual assault. In this light, Cassie is not simply revengeful but rather a woman emotionally traumatized by her experience supporting the victim following an assault. When Cassie’s lifelong best friend Nina was repeatedly raped by multiple perpetrators while intoxicated at a party, a video of the assault was recorded and distributed to laughing classmates. After Nina and Cassie tried to bring the administration’s attention to this incident, in hopes of invoking disciplinary action, the case was dismissed without investigation. The individual who initiated the attack graduated at the top of his class and was invited to speak on campus many times following, while the pair of friends dropped out to cope with the aftershocks.
The central theme of these events is trauma. What Nina experienced was a traumatic violation of her body, her autonomy, and her humanity. Sexual assault can have devastating effects on the mental health of the survivor that stay with them for the remainder of their lives, or can even be fatal. There is a large mass of research that has shown the link between sexual assault and the mental health effects it can have on those who experience it, from struggling with depression to experiencing PTSD-induced flashbacks. While Fennell could’ve made the protagonist herself a survivor of sexual assault, the choice to have Cassie as the main character emphasizes how even those who experience sexual assault in approximation to its survivor still feel the harm that is produces.
When you look at Cassie from this perspective, it’s a lot harder to label her as a crazy bitch out for revenge. When examined through this lens, Cassie becomes a survivor as well, battling her own mental health struggles as a result of what happened to her closest friend. She, as well as Nina, is someone dealing with extreme emotional trauma.
There’s one scene, following Cassie’s reckoning with one of her assailants, that can be easily forgotten in the slew of intensity that is Promising Young Woman—but it speaks volumes to the dichotomy of Cassie’s character. In the scene, we see Cassie with her forehead to the steering wheel of her car and her eyes closed. A man approaches, yelling obscenities at her about how she’s stopped in the middle of an intersection. Cassie, with a distant look in her eyes and no words leaving her mouth, picks up what could be a golf putter, and breaks the guy’s lights, side view mirrors, and window. As the man drives away, we see Cassie standing in the middle of the road, the distant look still in her eyes and her mouth ajar.
Cassie finds herself in a dissociative state following her confrontation with the Dean of her former medical school, causing her to find herself numb in the middle of an intersection. When confronted by a male individual, Cassie forgoes a rational response and instead violently lashes out. Her expression at the end of the scene conveys a state of shock, as she is confused about her whereabouts. The trauma is evident and deep, warping her relationship with violence entirely. While Cassie’s trauma does not excuse these behaviors, it doesn’t have to. Fennell is not telling audiences to choose to see Cassie as the crazy bitch or the traumatized woman. She simply paints a picture and leaves the interpretation up to you.
Ultimately no matter which way you choose to characterize Cassie, it is necessary to acknowledge that Cassie does not win. No one wins in this movie. Even on the rare occasions when justice is served, no one wins in cases of sexual assault. Innumerable women have been traumatized for the remainder of their lives by sexual assault, and Cassie and Nina both lost their medical careers and their futures. No amount of responsibility taken or apologies given on the part of the perpetrators is going to change that. No matter how you choose to understand Cassie’s character will change that either. Sexual assault and the effects it has on those it harms are permanent, and Promising Young Woman makes sure that you walk away knowing that.
Madeline Wasson is a junior in the College studying Women's and Gender Studies with a minor in Philosophy.