Content warning – The following piece discusses cases of sexual assault as addressed in the film Promising Young Woman and the recent events surrounding Australia’s political climate.
The film Promising Young Woman, written and directed by acclaimed Killing Eve actress, Emerald Fennell, follows medical school drop-out Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as she navigates life after the tragic death of her close friend. But not all is as it seems. By day, Cassie works in a quiet café. By night, she seeks a form of social justice for her friend by feigning intoxication in nightclubs, allowing men to take her home, and then scaring the would-be rapists by forcing them to answer the question – Would these men be behaving the same way if she was sober?
The film is energetic and packed with an incredible soundtrack, witty writing, and superb acting. It’s not hard to fall a little bit in love with Cassie’s plight and relate to her struggles in our own lives. The plot combines a very confronting topic with a thriller edge that engages and captures the audiences’ attention from beginning to end.
The topic that it brings to the foreground is that of rape. Promising Young Woman uses its plot, character motivation, and story to expose the hidden truth that rapists are often people we know, friends, roommates, college buddies, and partners. Gone is the belief that rape only happens to girls who get attacked in dark allies by strangers and raped at knifepoint.
This story is so important because it brings forward the tragic reality that most cases of rape that occur are by people the victim knew.
Highlighting the sad truth that so many women have been forced to come to terms with, the film gradually reveals the backstory that Cassie’s college best friend was raped while drunk in front of a crowd of onlookers, one of which filmed the event. At first, the information given serves to explain Cassie’s nighttime adventures and why she feels compelled to catch out these villains before they can hurt her or other women like the man that hurt her friend. This backstory evolves to explain how many people are really involved and culpable in the aftermath of the crime and how easily people turn away, uncomfortable with facing what has happened and making a decision about how to resolve the matter.
Later in the film, Cassie is introduced to Ryan, a fellow student from her med-school days who seems to have maintained a steady crush on her. Their budding romance takes centre stage and draws the attention away from Cassie’s emotional baggage that is the backbone of the film’s plot.
As the film goes on, additional details that are slowly revealed heighten the story’s tension, as Cassie begins to delve deeper into how the rape of her friend resulted in so many turning their attention away to her cries for help that, left unanswered, resulted in her taking her own life. We see Cassie speak to the Dean of the College, a fellow friend who knew but did nothing, and later find out that the very man Cassie is beginning to fall in love with was also a witness to the event. Each person is punished as Cassie begins her healing journey to bring justice to all who are responsible.
By the end of the film and after going through great lengths just to simply find answers, we see Cassie confront her friend’s rapist, and finally a resolution is reached. Tragically, however, it’s a resolution that came without consequences.
Both Promising Young Woman and the confronting nature of its topic in the wake of the #MeToo Movement are so important to popular culture as it reminds us why the movement began. It continues to ask society to remember what exactly we are drawing attention to and why.
There is no time more important for this message to be heard than now, in the wake of Australia’s most recent political shock – the rape of Liberal party staffer Brittany Higgins in the office of a Minister at Parliament House.
Only now, after two years following the incident, is Brittany Higgins’s story being brought to light and with it, so is the true extent of the people within the Government who were aware of the matter in March 2019, and did nothing.
Mrs. Higgins has since come forward and is pressing formal charges, saying she feels she was unsupported by the staff at Parliament House during the ordeal and afterward and has felt that she was forced into silence by the Government to keep her dream job. This shock revelation brings a number of questions to the front of people’s minds.
How could this happen so blatantly in a workplace, by a colleague in a place where all people, especially women like Higgins should feel safe? Why was this dealt with so poorly at the time? What does this event say about the political culture of Australia and how it deals with and responds to serious allegations such as rape? What does this event teach Australians about sexual assault?
Even now, the media is reporting primarily on who knew what and when. Each party is seeking to call the other out and scramble for political positioning to avoid blame or push blame away and onto other parties. Little is reported on the emotional ordeal Higgins has had to face working for the Government over the past two years knowing a pivotal and traumatic event was at first pushed under the rug and is now being used as fuel for a political debate.
Brittany Higgins deserves better. Women deserve better.
If there is anything the release of Promising Young Woman has highlighted in mainstream media, film, and entertainment, it is that the topic of rape is still very much a taboo and uncomfortable discussion, but it is a discussion that needs to be had.
As long as there are still political staffers being raped in Ministers’ offices and college girls being raped on camera at a party, there remains an issue. These occurrences are not rare or unusual, and therein lies society’s biggest issue.
Our society and the culture surrounding it has an issue with rape and how it’s addressed when it happens. Films like Promising Young Woman serve to bring this issue further into the light and remind each and every person to be aware of the extent of this issue and how deeply it appears to be ingrained in our attitudes, behaviours, and culture. It asks each of us to review how we look at these issues and how we respond to them. I recommend more people see Promising Young Woman, and reflect on how they may be complicit in a social attitude that refuses to condemn true culprits and instead condemns the victims as if they are an anomaly in the data and not the rule.
Image via Focus Features