On Audience and Intention in the Ending of “Promising Young Woman”

In 2013, I was a college senior in upstate New York. That April, a philosophy professor who prided himself on conjuring controversy hosted a colloquium entitled, “Against ‘Sexual’ ‘Assault’ ‘Awareness’”. Yes, each word was in its own scare quotes. There was an immediate uproar for obvious reasons, not the least of which was the gall of hosting such an event during Sexual Assault Awareness Month (it was originally programmed opposite Take Back the Night but was moved). The uproar took flight and suddenly we were getting media attention, replete with an outraged Jezebel article.

I remember sitting amongst the hundreds of students, faculty, and local news cameras in the gym as Dr. E (name obscured to avoid giving him attention) took his podium. As he began, it was very clear that he knew he had gotten himself into something much bigger than he was equipped to handle. His argument was as hollow as we’d expected: he simply rejected the results of a study conducted by the psychology department about campus sexual assault at our college. The statistics drawn from that study reflected the national statistics: 1 in 4 women would be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. His arguments were the usual tired, victim-blaming tirades one would expect from a man in his 60s who probably did not care nor want to know anything about the social lives of his students. At one point, a metaphor was drawn between leaving your bike unlocked and unattended and therefore deserving of being stolen (no, really).

After his lecture, per the custom in a colloquium, a meaningful response was given by a female colleague from the philosophy department. She didn’t exactly come to his defense, but as a survivor herself, she provided a nuanced perspective on the need to acknowledge a spectrum of harm when analyzing that 1 in 4 statistic. That argument was the much more powerful and important one being made that night, and it saddens me now as it did then that it was so drowned by the spectacle of male ignorance.

Dr. E faced questions from students who eviscerated him, from fellow faculty who appealed to him as friends to please, just shut up. He had no answers for them. Of course he didn’t. But what I remember most about that night is that afterward, I somehow ended up in the same bar as him and some of his colleagues. And while I had no desire to talk to him, another male professor, also in his 60s, came and sat with my group of friends. He knew one or two of them, but somehow it ended up that he and I got to chatting as they dispersed. And as our conversation began, it was very clear to me that this man wanted to understand. He had a curiosity that Dr. E lacked. What was he missing? Sure, he knew his colleague to be a conservative blowhard, but we were all so angry. Why were we so, so angry?

And so I did my best, as a young woman still finding the definition herself, to explain rape culture to him. And I described for him a typical scene at the local dance club, which in rural New York State was a nearby converted barn whose floor boasted a patina of vomit, spilled drinks, and worse. Where somehow Long Island Iced Teas were the safest drink to order and every young woman in the place knew to keep a tight grip on her plastic cup and a close eye on her friends. It was called The IB, The In-Between. It was mercifully shuttered around 2014.

And I told this professor, who was probably much happier never knowing such a place existed, about what a safe night at the IB entailed for many young women: an unwanted grope, so casual you’re not even sure it happened so you turn a little bit to keep dancing; an unasked-for kiss, blamed on the dark lighting and cramped quarters. These were the things that were shaken off, and remedied quickly by finding your girls and dancing to your song when it came on next. And I told him that too is rape culture.

His surprise was not at learning that such things were encompassed in this term, which asserts a culture in which male access to female bodies is an entitlement, not a question. No, his surprise was at learning these things happened at all. And it wasn’t performance, that I knew. There was no mistaking how genuinely this news pained him. I didn’t know where to go from there. To me, those were the givens to be stated before we got into the real complexities. And even that required enormous processing on his part. And I just felt sad. And of course, so did he.

Emerald Fennell’s unruly, acerbic, poisoned lollipop of a film Promising Young Woman is not made for survivors. I’m not even entirely sure it’s made for women. And that’s certainly not to say there isn’t catharsis to be found for those audiences for so much of the film. But I do not believe that is who this film is for. At least not its ending.

Cassie (Carey Mulligan), the film’s anti-heroine, is on a mission of vengeance and exorcism. During her time in med school, her best friend Nina was raped at a party. Nina had been black-out drunk, and as the story reveals, the rape was committed and recorded on video in the presence of a crowd.

Nina tried to seek help from the university. And in her case, her assault was nowhere near the queasy ambiguities that plague so many of the 80% of students who don’t report sexual assault on college campuses. But still, the university failed her. Nina would soon after commit suicide, leaving Cassie in a state of arrested development.

In the years following Dr. E’s lecture, I came to understand much more about the way campus sexual assault was defined legally, geographically and statistically by universities. What anyone would find in doing this research or experiencing it for themselves is that it is a maddening maze of evasion of accountability both on the part of perpetrators but much more the university. For instance, the boundaries of the Clery Act (which mandates all campus crime be public record) do not extend to fraternity or off-campus housing, where the majority of college sexual assault takes place. It is also a system designed to intimidate students out of using it, trading only in absolutes of victim and abuser with no accounting for a spectrum of harm, much less a spectrum of consequences, and so there are rarely any.

With all of these realities at the forefront of my mind while watching this film, it’s no surprise that my favorite scene is the one between Cassie and Dean Walker (Connie Britton). Immediately prior to this scene, Cassie pulls up outside a nearby high school and picks up a teenage girl under the guise of a makeup artist lost on her way to shoot a music video for the girl’s favorite boyband. We’ll soon learn that this girl is the daughter of the Dean of Students that turned Nina away all those years ago.

She arrives at Dean Walker’s office and begins asking her about how the school handles sexual assault cases. Dean Walker replies with the same non-answers many young women know all too well: “benefit of the doubt” this, “innocent until proven guilty” that, “she regretted a drunken encounter”. All this coming shortly behind an admission that she doesn’t even remember Nina. She does remember her rapist though, and fondly.

Cassie then holds Dean Walker’s feet to the fire and tells her that she has just sent her teenage daughter to hang out with the young men who currently live in the dorm where Nina was raped. Suddenly, Dean Walker is mobilized and horrified, and all her defenses of the goodness of young men dissolves into panic and fear at what’s being suggested. Cassie sits triumphantly as Dean Walker begs to know her daughter’s location, until she is forced to admit her complicity in rape culture and, in effect, Nina’s death. Finally, Cassie lets her off the hook and reveals her daughter is safe at a nearby diner waiting for a boyband that is obviously not coming.

The scene is profoundly, viscerally satisfying. It plays out exactly how you want it to. It is exactly the fantasy of what it would mean to throw the hypocrisy and cruelty of these policies in an administrator’s face. In this scene, I did not want nuance. I did not want a complicated back-and-forth where Dean Walker makes reasonable arguments. I wanted her to be punished. And I felt a deep pleasure in my spirit when she was.

Indeed, the film is more or a less a sequence of such scenes. Cassie seeks out those who wronged Nina and punishes them so as to shame them into revelation, dragging them down into the swirling pit of guilt and despair from which she cannot escape, or more accurately, does not want to escape. This works on many, including former classmate Madison (Allison Brie), who finally does right by Nina by providing Cassie with footage of the rape that was circulated at the time.

The revelation of this video serves a powerful purpose in crashing the story headfirst into the inevitability that Cassie’s boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham) was there that night. Unfortunately, the existence of this tape muddles more than it solves in terms of the other details we know about the crime. If this tape existed and was “sent to everyone” as Madison alleges, then this was never a case of “he said, she said” as Dean Walker and many others asserted at the time and now. Moreover, lawyers were hired, this case went to court. That this tape never entered legal proceedings means her peers were complicit in far more than a collective doubt of Nina’s version of the story, they were actively obstructing justice in order to preserve the “promise” of their rapist friend.

When Cassie goes to confront the rapist’s lawyer (Alfred Molina), she finds him as lost and guilt-ridden as perhaps she is, though the source of his guilt is quite different. Cassie is disappointed and left empty, deprived of the delicious vengeance and bitter dose of truth she had delivered to Dean Walker. This lawyer, rather preposterously in this viewer’s opinion, has had a come-to-Jesus about his work defending young rapists. He believes himself deserving of any punishment Cassie wishes to dish out. Unable to do anything with this, Cassie leaves, later making him an important ally in her posthumous triumph.

And with that word, “posthumous,” we arrive at the overwhelming reason that I do not believe this film nor its ending are ultimately made for survivors or any person who has ever been a victim of patriarchy and rape culture.

Now in possession of the footage, Cassie blackmails Ryan into telling her the location of the rapist’s upcoming bachelor party. Here is to take place the apex of her revenge, with all the sheep gathered together, and she the wolf in a cotton-candy wig and blood red stilettos. As the scene plays out, and Cassie tosses her plates into the woods before winding her way up the gravel driveway to the bachelor cabin, it is completely valid to read her actions as those of someone who knows full well that this mission may prove to be kamikaze, and indeed the film’s coda states as much.

But I was still along for the ride to ultimate revenge. And as the scene went on, and Cassie handcuffed the rapist to the bedposts and held him to the fire as she had done with Dean Walker, as she prepared to deliver an Inglourious Basterds-style brand on his abdomen, I felt myself reaching the heights I had in the Dean Walker scene.

And then, he kills her. And he takes so long to kill her that I found myself having to fast-forward through the scene because it was simply too painful to watch. And to anyone who immediately wants to shout at me, “that pain is the point!” I must ask you, for whom? For whose benefit is this scene? For whose benefit is the pain this is causing? For whose benefit is the hopelessness of such an ending?

I understand that the “point” of Cassie’s fate is to remind us that the world, like the university justice system, is designed to fail women like Nina, and Cassie, and so many others. Survivors don’t need that reminder. Most women don’t need that reminder. We are well aware that the world allows men to touch, harm, and kill us with impunity. Watching Cassie be smothered and her body burned in order to be forgotten, I felt empty. I gained nothing from watching, in agonizing slowness, a rapist become a murderer. I gained nothing from the coda in which justice is ultimately brought, as if to suggest she allowed herself to be murdered as an act of extreme feminist agency. It was too late. I had just sat through a movie that said so many things that had never been said so bluntly and so clearly about rape culture, only for it to end up saying the thing all of us already know, landing on a final message that rage cannot heal and trauma cannot be survived.

And so as I sit with this ending, I sit with the question of who needs that knowledge. And I have thought back to that night in that bar with the professor. I doubt he’d ever watch this film, but how stunned he would be by even a fraction of what this film depicts and defines about rape culture. How truly shaken he would be by that ending. Men like Dr. E will surely never see it. But for the men like the professor I spoke to, and younger versions of him, it is not a hollow reminder of the futility of seeking justice in an unjust world (at least, justice you’ll live to see), it is a shocking and shattering moment that seeks to stir reflection and accountability in him, much like Cassie’s confrontations throughout the film. In this ending, Emerald Fennell turns directly to the men in the audience, and to the women like Dean Walker, and screams in their faces. Because they’re the ones who need it. In that, and only that, I see its value. I hope it works.

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