Watching Promising Young Woman as a Rape Survivor
By Kelley Lord
*Spoiler Alert, this is a review or rather my experience*
The name of the men who’ve violated me is always on the tip of my tongue. I wish they could learn better, I wish they could pay. When the main character Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, describes Al Monroe’s name all over her late friend Nina I could really relate. The men who’ve taken advantage of me over the years won’t remember it because it wasn’t traumatic for them, it was just another Saturday night. But for me, it’s a Saturday night that will flash before my eyes frequently for the rest of my life.
Seeing Cassie with sober eyes as she plays drunk to see what men will take advantage of her was hard to watch. I felt like when Cassie was watching Nina’s rape video for the first time. We have a painful memory from the past that we can’t quite piece together and then the veil is lifted and we see that blurry lines were not blurry at all. What we thought was he said she said was very clearly she said no and he pursued. The men in the movie would pretend to be romantic by telling Cassie they had a connection or showering her with compliments. They pad the pain with fake passion. They confuse our sense of love with their need for lust and it becomes so tangled we can’t tell the difference.
However the second Cassie came to and began speaking soberly the men back off and became afraid. So quickly do these men lose their power when they realize the woman has a sense of her boundaries and what she deserves as a human.
Besides blindsided confrontations, Cassie played with the sympathy of Nina’s betrayers to make them realize what they had done. It wasn’t until her college friend Madison was left alone blackout drunk herself that she realized Nina was not at fault. It wasn’t until the woman working in college admissions thought her daughter was in a room of men enrolled in her school that she understood the threat of leaving women alone with predatory men.
It’s not clear how Nina dies after she’s assaulted but it doesn’t matter. When you violate someone to that degree you kill a part of them. Whoever they were before hardly matters because now they have to navigate their new life as a survivor.
Bo Burnham’s role playing Cassie’s boyfriend, Ryan, in the film hurt just as much to see play out. It’s why I find it difficult to make close male relationships. I don’t trust them. I believe every man I know has either taken advantage of a woman or has been a bystander for a friend. No matter what justifications they give I believe this to be true because the problem is systematic and up until the Me Too Movement the majority of men thought some level of sexism or rape culture was okay.
The justifications the men give in the movie were pure art. Al Monroe’s best man Joe, played by the perfect casting of Max Greenfield, consoling him after he literally just killed a stripper telling him it wasn’t his fault is just an all too familiar example of men backing each other up to stay out of jail.
The cast was jam packed with comedic actors and their punchlines landed at every turn bringing much needed levity to the film. Without that I would be wallowing in haunted memories but this movie kept saying “No! It’s okay. You get to laugh now.” I was envious however, of how my boyfriend had the freedom to laugh at every joke even after something dark had happened. Even after the film he popped up after it was over. He loved the movie and he understood the gravity of it but that gravity didn’t keep him sunken into the sofa. As he went to go brush his teeth I realized I was in freeze response. I had been taken back to memories that paralyze me. I curled up in the same way I did after someone tried to have sex me while I was sleeping a couple years ago, even after waking up and yelling at him, because to me having a space to lay and not move felt more safe and comfortable than leaving his house abruptly to deal with what had just happened alone.
I get this is a revenge film but SHE FUCKING DIED. Her friend Nina died and the only way around the legal system was to frame her own murder to get justice. Yes she “won.” But she gave up herself in the process and if that’s not every time a woman speaks up for herself. The way she went out was being smothered, being silenced. This is what happens to rape survivors.
Cassie dressed as sexy nurse when she really wanted to be doctor is also brilliant. Cassie and Nina were promising young women, they were bright best friends who were well on their way to becoming doctors. But instead their lives were forever rocked while every man in that situation graduated and became successful. The bachelor party celebrated the sexy nurse yet her boyfriend was disappointed she didn’t become a doctor. She is both celebrated and shamed for the life she didn’t have a chance at choosing.
Cassie reminded me of The Joker, not just because of the crazy hair and nurse outfit but because they were made to look crazy when their whole world pushed them to be that way. The scene with Cassie horrified at her behavior towards a random road rage driver showed that this isn’t who she wants to be. She wants to be the giggly girl laughing her life away in between aisles with her boyfriend. Everyone wants to be happy but when you’re not you tend to go after the people you believe stole your happiness.
Watching the wedding scene was a punch to the gut. I all too well know what it’s like to see a man who’s forced himself on me later to post engagement photos with his blissful fiancé. We celebrate these men, we praise these men, we love these men. Meanwhile we harbor the secret they so easily discarded decades ago.
The overwhelming response to Cassie’s story was drunk women are asking for it. I’ve heard this, right to my face, and it stings. Men can get drunk and be made vulnerable but rarely are they under the threat of rape. Yes it’s possible, yes it happens, but they aren’t living under the constant probable threat of it.
The “revenge” I liked was that Cassie found and made everyone involved accountable. Not just Al Monroe, he was the monster made by the machine. It was also the college admissions woman who brushed Nina’s case under the rug, the lawyer who defended Al Monroe and so many like him, and inevitably a bystander and her boyfriend.
What was so moving about the scene with Al Monroe’s lawyer was once Carrie heard he was sorry that’s all she needed to forgive him. The anger comes from people trying to escape accountability. If they had just admitted it and apologized earnestly she would have been able to find some solace.
Overall I have no criticism for this film, it was beautifully done and made me feel seen. I’d only advise if you’re a watching it with a women to check in on her afterwards. Although the film may seem liberating, every liberation comes from painful oppression and just because they sensationalize it with fuzzy handcuffs doesn’t make it any less real.
I often choose not to say the word rape, I say sexual assault because it makes men more comfortable and able to have a conversation about it. Once they hear the word rape they visibly flinch and push the invisible accusation away. As women we so often do things to make men more comfortable. We shy from the word rape, we keep our rape stories to ourselves and we associate with men who may have raped or know a man who’s raped and done nothing about it. I love this film because I hope it makes men uncomfortable with themselves and their decisions and women more comfortable with their stories and identities. If you’re reading this, I believe you have a promising future for helping females feel safe in an ever evolving world where I believe one day they will.
You don’t have to suffer alone. There are many resources online but here is one. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is free, confidential and available 24/7. Call 800.656.HOPE