Men: Please watch ‘Promising Young Woman’

The film is deeply problematic, and it’s a triumph

The new movie is polarizing, but carries an important message.
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This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424. The Centre’s online chat feature can be reached here.

Promising Young Woman is deeply controversial. I can recognize why: it’s problematic, even dangerous, and has the potential to be deeply triggering for survivors of sexual violence. Still—it’s a triumph.

Released in December 2020, the movie follows Cassie Thomas, whose best friend Nina was sexually assaulted during medical school. Predictably, the administration did nothing to bring Nina justice, and she ends up dropping out of school. Cassie also drops out to take care of her but, unfortunately, Nina dies by suicide shortly afterwards.

While this backstory is being pieced together, the thriller details Cassie’s efforts to avenge Ninastarting with faking intoxication to scare sexual predators out of their patterns and culminating in calculated punishments for those involved in Nina’s assault.

The film spews harmful rhetoric in many ways. Tales of sexual assault and suicide shouldn’t be laced with a desire for revenge. It’s almost impossible for a woman to ‘scare’ a sexual predator out of their behaviour.

And, of course, the film is very, very white, from its producer to its writer and cast. There’s intersectional analysis missing that should always be at the forefront when we talk about violence against women, because the likelihood of a woman experiencing sexual violence is amplified when she is racialized, disabled, low-income, or marginalized in any other way.

Promising Young Woman also depicts vivid violence that could be triggering for survivors. The movie opens with Cassie seemingly about to be assaulted while she’s semi-conscious. From there, it only gets more graphic: there’s audio of Nina being assaulted; in a twist, we see Cassie suffocated to death by Nina’s rapist as he berates her for accusing him of assaulting women.

All that being said, I think Promising Young Woman should be required viewing for men.

Before I continue, I want to clarify men are sexually assaulted too. I know that rape culture and toxic masculinity contribute to the difficulty and trauma associated with coming out as a male survivor of sexual assault. While I acknowledge that, men reading this need to realize that none of that changes the positioning of sexual violence as a women’s issue. 

The fact is, while men are assaulted, and while no assault is tolerable, the majority of perpetrators are themselves, men. And worse: even when women aren’t being sexually assaulted by men, we are fearing every time they get close to crossing a line.

Promising Young Woman depicts the ways men are complicit, every day, in normalizing violence against women. This is achieved through all the ways Cassie confronts the men around herfrom bashing in the taillights of a man who violently curses her out at an intersection to screaming at a guy who no longer wants to have sex with her after she reveals to him that she’s sober. 

Most importantly, the film turns the ‘nice guy’ trope on its head. For a brief stint in the middle of the story, we see Cassie fall in love with a man named Ryan, with whom she attended medical school. He’s understanding of her desire to take the relationship slow, beloved by her parents, and, for all intents and purposes, a ‘nice guy.’

This idea of the nice guy—who would never rape a woman but also doesn’t do much to confront his friend’s dangerous ideologies—is turned on its head when it’s revealed that Ryan witnessed Nina’s rape, and laughed.

To the men who have been lucky enough not to be affected by sexual violence, please watch this movie. Please talk about it with your friends. Please realize all the nuances there are to the ways in which men traumatize women. Please realize when it’s happening around you and intervene at some point before a woman is raped.

Your buddy who makes one too many misogynistic jokes, or the one who asks the same girl out more than once—these are all figures that form rape culture. It’s not just about the extremes. It’s up to you to stop the men around you from becoming sexual predators, because they sure as hell don’t listen to women.

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