How ‘Promising Young Woman’ Unpacks Sexual Assault

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is not just a movie with a strong female lead, rather it is a much-needed movie that tackles the topic of sexual assault and rape. Contrary to the bright pink and luminuous poster, this particular movie is quite dark and unpacks some gruesome realities of our society. With Carey Mulligan taking over the lead role of Cassie, Promising Young Woman has been able to gain many awards including the title of the Best Original Screenplay at the 93rd Academy Awards.

However, what makes Promising Young Woman a movie that should be watched over and over again is the way in which it has been used to send sharp and important messages to the viewer. On top of the exceptional cast and the remarable storyline, the movie has much more to tell. So, here’s how “Promising Young Woman” unpacks sexual assault.


The Drunk Girl At The Club Is “Asking for it”

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) pretends to be drunk in the club in Promising Young Woman
Focus Features / Universal Pictures

There have been multiple situations where the question of consent has been linked to the “behavior” of the victim / survivor. Ironically, even certain lawyers and judges have stated that wearing certain underwear or exposing oneself is equal to consent. However, Emerald Fennell debunks this appalling view using the opening scene of Promising Young Woman. The film opens with the protagonist, Cassie, is seemingly drunk and alone in the club. The camera shifts from her to three men commenting on her. Two of the men goes on to criticize her by calling her a “hot f ** king mess” who is “asking for it.”

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However, a “gentleman” called Jerry takes the role of the hero and attempts to rescue this “damsel in distress,” Yet again, Fennell jumps in and unveils the truth behind this “gentleman” as we see that he is no different (perhaps , even worse) to the other men. He sexually assaults Cassie who then reveals that she is in fact not drunk but was rather pretending to be so to lure the parasites in the club. Through this opening scene the movie has been able to blow up a crucial debate on both consent and the predatory nature of sexual assaulters and rapists. Interestingly, we see that Cassie does this act often to expose sexual predators and what she does to these people is left unknown, in turn, allowing the viewer to question whether she murders them or lets them go. The only hint that Fennell leaves is Cassie’s book with tally marks in blue, red and black.

Cassie’s Friend’s Story

Mulligan reading a book and sucking a candy cane in Promising Young Woman
Focus Features / Universal Pictures

The biggest story that drives the plot as well as Cassie’s character is her friend, Nina, who “dropped out of school after a sham investigation” into her rape. Whilst we are left in the dark as to the details following this incident, the film uses this particular story to power-up Cassie’s revenge story. However, even if Nina is not directly present in the movie, her presence is very much made aware through Cassie’s character.

Fennell’s use of Nina’s story as a driving mechanism of the plot and her bringing in Nina’s presence into the movie is a brilliantly executed way of sending out the message of how victims / survivors of rape do not merely forget and disappear. Furthermore, Nina’s story itself represents many of the sexual assault and rape stories that gets “hidden away” or “thrown away” by the higher-ups in places like Colleges. Interestingly, the only person who seems to care about or rather remember Nina is Cassie. Even though it seems like a subtle hint, Fennell makes a profound argument by showing how society tends to ignore hard-questions and throw away such debates.

The College Heads Siding with the Rich Male Student Who Has “More to Lose”

Carey Mulligan as a nurse with dyed hair in Promising Young Woman
Universal Pictures / Focus

Unlike Nina Fisher, people seem to remember Al Monroe, the successful doctor. Al Monroe is Nina’s rapist and due to the more affluent background he comes from he seems to have gotten away from all the consequences. In fact, his character portrays how someone with connection and wealth can erase their criminal charges and other corrupt behavior without any trace.

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The paradox between people forgetting Nina Fisher but remembering Al Monroe and regarding him as a “symbol” of a successful student of university portrays how easily rapists can get away from their crimes. Fennell definitely leaves a striking message using Monroe’s character as the audience is left thinking, if it were not for Cassie’s brilliant revenge plan and her sacrificing herself (a controversial ending the director defends), Al Monroe would’ve led a perfectly wedded life.

Rape Video Itself

Madison (Alison Brie) meets Cassie in Promising Young Woman
Focus Features / Universal Picture

One of the most striking features of Nina’s case is the fact that there is actual evidence of her being raped. This, of course, is not revealed until the latter part of the story. Not only does this affirms the case and drives Cassie into finally initiating her revenge plan, but it also strikes as a symbol of how, even with evidence, rape victims / survivors tend to not gain the justice they deserve. Fennell goes on to unpack more through the video.

She uses the character of Madison, who reveals the video to Cassie, to show how women themselves can perpetuate such crimes by simply siding with the abuser. By doing so she sends out a powerful message on the importance of not having to go through a situation to understand the pain of another. Furthermore, Madison’s character can be contrasted with the character of Jordan Green, the lawyer who helps Al Monroe “win” the case by harassing Nina to drop the charges. Due to the immoral and villainous acts he has committed as a lawyer, Green seems to be having a mental breakdown.

Thus, as a form of redemption, he helps Cassie execute her revenge plan. Perhaps, Fennell uses this particular character to illustrate “what goes around comes around” as he who saved Al Monroe, ensures he is arrested.

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