‘Promising Young Woman’ Reminds Us That Nobody Is Safe as Long as She Is Alive
*TRIGGER WARNING: SA*
For a while now, my friend Caroline has been dying to see the movie Promising Young Woman. It’s a film that follows Cassie, a modern vigilante of sorts who reprimands predatorial men for their creepy behaviour and utter disregard for consent (or lack thereof). So, last Monday, we finally went and saw it. I was excited; the trailer made it seem like it would be a dark yet funny take on female empowerment. A powerful depiction of the men getting the revenge they so rightly deserve. A cathartic viewing for every woman viewer who wishes she could get that revenge without fear of…you know, being raped or murdered.
While I would love to say that this will be a fun review on a feminist, women-kicking-ass-and-taking-names kind of piece, I unfortunately can’t. I warn you now: this will not be a light read. Because, to me, this was not a light film. On the contrary, it was a sharp, confronting reminder of how truly dangerous it is to exist in this world as a woman.
*WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD*
Our protagonist Cassie was top of her class in medical school, on the path to becoming a successful doctor. Smart, beautiful and witty, she was, by all counts, a promising young woman. As was her best friend Nina. That is, until Nina was brutally sexually assaulted, an act that was spectated by several of their male classmates. The traumatic event – and complete absence of repercussions for the men involved – lead both Nina and Cassie to drop out and, while it’s never stated directly, it is heavily implied that it even led to Nina to kill herself. Now, it’s just Cassie. All on her own, living under the weight of an injustice so flagrant and cruel that it consumes her entirely. Which is why she dedicates her life to going out to a bar or a club every weekend, acting like she’s “too drunk to stand”, and waiting for a creep to come along (which, let’s face it, they almost always do) and take her home. She then shocks the men by revealing her sobriety and gives them, for lack of a better term, a slap on the wrist. A firm talking-to, a moral chastisement that will hopefully resonate enough for them to change their ways.
Throughout the film, she lets these men touch her, force feed her alcohol and drugs, even lets them into her body for a brief moment all to prove a point. She puts herself in harm’s way again and again for men to potentially see the error in their ways. The stakes in this film – and in life – are that fucking high.
In watching it, though, I couldn’t help but think: That would never fucking happen. Nearly all the men in the film are so dismayed at Cassie’s sobriety and biting words that they back away, go on the defensive (cue the “I’m a nice guy” speech every woman in her life has heard far too many times) and even display fear.
Now, maybe this is just me, but I can’t remember the last time a man looked genuinely afraid of me. Because women aren’t scary. Especially not to predatory men like these characters. Women are objects. Playthings. In reality, these scenarios wouldn’t play out with the men cowering in the corner like scared little puppies. In all likelihood, they’d get pissed. She led him on and now she’s revealing that it all a ruse to prove a point? They’d feel indignant and cheated, probably so much so that it would prompt them to do terrible, violent things. To take what they believe they are entitled to.
The film culminates with Cassie heading to take her revenge on Nina’s attacker who has since graduated from medical school, become a successful doctor and is now getting married. So, she takes his bachelor party as the perfect opportunity to secure justice. Disguised as a stripper, she heads to a remote cabin in the woods where he and his bros have holed up for the weekend. Pretending she’s about to give a striptease, she handcuffs the attacker to the bed and begins to reveal her true identity and true intentions. But just as she’s about to exact her revenge, he breaks free of his cuffs and suffocates her with a pillow.
In a split second, this strong, fierce, powerful heroine loses all her power. And ultimately, that’s all it takes: a split second. A split second to glance away from your drink. A split second for you to fall asleep next to someone you thought – someone you hoped – you could trust. A split second for your life to change irrevocably.
As you watch her scream and struggle and fight until she can’t anymore, you can’t help but feel viscerally uncomfortable. It’s jarring and disturbing. You can feel your heart sinking into the pit of your stomach. Which is exactly the point. This, I thought. This is the reality. The bleak reality that, in the vast majority of cases, women are simply not as physically strong as men. And as a result, we are inherently vulnerable. We walk through the world under the shroud of not only oppression but actual danger.
In the end, Promising Young Woman did deliver on many of the fronts I expected it to. It was dark, funny and entertaining. But it was also a sobering reminder that a woman’s existence has always been and remains both fraught and incredibly dangerous. So fragile. Unfortunately, no one – no matter how strong, how bold, how seemingly empowered – is immune. No one is invincible.
As I watched the credits roll, I couldn’t help but think of the New York City 2018 Women’s March, at which Halsey gave a speech entitled “A Story Like Mine.” One line, poignant and infuriating all at once, played on repeat in my mind: “Nobody is safe as long as she is alive.”