Abuse survivors will understand Promising Young Woman's fatal flaw

This article contains major spoilers – including the ending – of Promising Young Woman

Emerald Fennell (perhaps best known for playing Camilla Shand in The Crown) has made her directorial debut with Promising Young Woman: a jaw-droppingly good, candy-coloured comedy thriller. 

The sumptuous visuals and a sublime performance from Carey Mulligan manage to transform even the darkest subject matters into wickedly entertaining cinematic viewing. 

The film follows Cassie Thomas as she embarks upon a mission to avenge her childhood best friend Nina, who killed herself after being brutally raped by their med school classmate Alexander Monroe. 

Left traumatised and heartbroken, Cassie gives up her dream of becoming a doctor and decides to show how ‘nice guys’ are just as capable of horrific acts of violence, regardless of how they perceive themselves. 

Posing drunk at bars, Cassie waits for men to approach her and take her home. Then, after repeatedly demonstrating that she is not in a fit state to consent, she waits for them to begin their abuse before revealing that she is, in fact, sober. 

Cassie’s would-be attackers then appear to recoil in horror at what they were about to do and, it’s hoped, learn the errors of their ways. 

As an abuse survivor, I know full well that the idea they will show remorse for their vile behaviour and change their ways is the stuff of fantasy.

Watching the film, I felt angry at how easy it was for Cassie to spark this realisation when I have continuously begged for my abuser to realise how his actions impacted me.

It brought back memories of attempting to rehearse these conversations in my head, what words to use and just the perfect way to phrase things. And perhaps, if I was lucky, then I might get a slight hint of remorse, but nothing like the disgust that Promising Young Woman suggests abusers are capable of. 

Sadly, Cassie’s attempts to show strangers how predatory their behaviour is would be futile in the real world. Abusers are so often aware of their actions; a painful but vital lesson that survivors learn. 

As a survivor of abuse, watching the ‘nice guys’ of Promising Young Woman apologise and claim remorse feels like an empty gesture. Genuine accountability and a real desire to change is far more complicated than the film seems to suggest. 

Cassie confronts the Dean of Forrest Medical School, which she and Nina attended, and after an enthralling confrontation, the Dean eventually admits that she should have done a better job investigating Nina’s rape. 

Although the epidemic of sexual abuse at UK universities is hardly new, last February the BBC reported that nearly a third of universities have issued Non-Disclosure Agreements since 2016, preventing students from publicly discussing their complaints of bullying, poor teaching and sexual assault. 

Institutional apologies for mishandling sexual assault cases are rare; by admitting their errors, universities become liable for bad press and potential lawsuits.

Watching Mulligan receive the admission that her university had failed Nina was a stark reminder that this was a scripted film, and far from the reality that many sexually abused students experience. 

Similarly, Promising Young Woman shows Alfred Molina portray a lawyer who helped bury Nina’s case, but who has since suffered a mental breakdown and begs Cassie for forgiveness.

And then there’s Madison McPhee, a close friend of Alexander Monroe’s played by Alison Brie, who eventually gives Cassie a copy of the tape showing Nina’s rape. 

Like Cassie, I hoped that my abuser’s friends would feel remorse at their unconditional enabling of his behaviour, but I was disappointed. But Promising Young Woman seems to suggest that anyone is capable of feeling remorse. 

Fennell tactically subverts the loveable on-screen personas of the ‘nice guys’ she casts – Max Greenfield from the sitcom New Girl, and Adam Brody from The O.C. – but the characters’ transitions from enablers and rapists to apologetic and quivering is almost too sudden to take seriously. 

Bo Burnham’s character is the only exception to the easily converted ‘nice guy’. In a heart-wrenching twist, Madison’s video reveals that Ryan – someone the audience comes to admire – was a bystander during Nina’s rape, watching and letting it happen. 

Ryan begs for forgiveness while declaring his love for Cassie, but she remains unmoved. 

When Cassie is later revealed to be missing after having been brutally murdered by Alexander in a fit of rage, Ryan denies knowing the possibility of her whereabouts to the police as this would ultimately link him to Nina’s rape. 

In the film’s final scene, Ryan is shown at Alexander’s wedding, seemingly remorseless. Ryan is easily able to forget Cassie and Nina’s tragic story and go on as if nothing ever happened. He receives a text from Cassie posthumously, and the film finally ends. 

This is something the film got spot on: Burnham’s character highlights the role of enablers in the cycle of abuse. Had Ryan, or any of the other witnesses come forward, the central premise of Promising Young Woman wouldn’t exist. 

Just as Ryan’s role as a paediatric doctor doesn’t negate from his role as a bystander to Cassie’s rape, nothing can undo my abuser’s enablers’ decision to unwaveringly stand by a rapist. 

Assaulters do not exist in a vacuum; they tactically rely on the support of others who are willing to cover and protect them. 

As is becoming increasingly apparent in a world of celebrities guilty of assault, it is common for abusers to benefit from loyal friends and family. To shield them from the consequences of their actions is to endanger more potential victims and teach them a dangerous lesson: they can continue to harm others and get away with it.   

Ultimately, I think the depiction of remorse in Promising Young Woman pays disservice to survivors because it perpetuates the idea that so many offenders, and those that stand by them, can be redeemed if their actions are presented to them in a specific light. 

In reality, most know they have done wrong. But when universities, the law, and social groups are so willing to overlook the severity of sexual assault and the lifelong consequences for their victims, abusers have little incentive to change. 

My journey of healing and recovery has undoubtedly been challenging and has led me to judge people by their deeds and not their words – nor a baseless belief that my attacker was a good person, deep down. 

Truly ‘nice guys’ are not comfortable sexually assaulting others, nor are they comfortable in covering up the actions of those who have done wrong.

Genuine change, redemption, and remorse are not processes that can be easily captured on film, and this is Promising Young Woman’s fatal flaw. 

It tries to show that bad guys simply need to be given the benefit of the doubt, or have their actions reframed, to truly understand the severity of them. 

I believe that the more radical choice would have been to depict Mulligan’s character seeking closure and healing as the abusers and their enablers continue to deny the implications of their actions, as so many victims of abuse have to do. 

Victim Support

Victim Support offers support to survivors of rape and sexual abuse. You can contact them on 0333 300 6389.

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