Last week I found myself in one of the most frustrating and painful conversations that a woman can find herself in: I was begging someone to take a sexual assault seriously. It wasn’t that this person didn’t believe that the assault happened, or that someone they knew was capable of raping someone. It was just that they didn’t care enough to do anything besides avoid eye contact, and muster out an “oh wow,” or the ever-so-meaningless “yeah,” all coded language for, “please stop talking about this I feel uncomfortable.” Later, after the shame of not caring had turned into defensiveness, I heard one of my listeners bragging about how funny their rapist friend had been the night before.
The conversation left me feeling defeated and hopeless; how on earth are we meant to change rape culture if people don’t care? Of course everyone is going to say that rape is bad, but that does not mean anything if we aren’t able to uphold that value in our own lives. It was with these frustrations swirling in my mind that I decided to front the $20 to watch Emerald Fennell’s 2020 film, “Promising Young Woman.”
A brief disclaimer: this is not a movie review, but an examination of Fennell’s brilliant example of how misplaced most people’s feelings about sexual assault really are. The film is a thriller-comedy and follows Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, as she seeks revenge on rapists and rapist-enablers alike. Some critics seem to only seek out flaws in this masterpiece of feminist commentary, like The New York Times’ Jeanette Catsoulis, who wrote that the film, “too often backs away from its potentially searing set up.” I say they are missing the point.
This film perfectly illustrates the most maddening aspect of rape-culture: the priority of protecting the rapist, in most cases the man, at all costs. This typically emerges in the form of blaming the survivor of the assault referring to the way they dressed, their sexual reputation, how much they had to drink, their mental stability, and various other excuses.
Perhaps the most meaningful moment of the film is when one of the victims of Carrie’s vengeance the very rapist that set her vendetta into motion, tells her that a man’s worst fear is to be accused of rape, to which she responds, “do you know what a woman’s worst fear is?” To put it simply, if one does not want to be called a rapist, don’t rape people.
This film left me wondering: if the people who I was having a conversation with earlier that day had been exposed to this perspective on sexual assault earlier in life, perhaps they would have more sympathy for the person that their friend assualted. Perhaps they would recognize their own complicity in a culture that consistently fails to hold men accountable for their actions.
Research suggests that it would, and the earlier that parents, teachers and other role-models start have tough conversations about sexual assault with young men, the better. Teaching students about sexuality, and what consent really means is essential in reducing practices like slut-shaming and will help put an end to the cultural norms that perpetuate rape-culture. While the content of “Promising Young Woman” might be too mature to be shown to young students, its content should be taken seriously and used to inform others.