Watching the rape-revenge fantasy Promising Young Woman is a grueling experience, but not for the reason intended. The film is built on the enduring urban legend that legions of college women are getting gang-raped on campus by men who suffer no repercussions whatsoever. Never mind that such a crime is such an exceedingly rare occurrence that even a resourceful and diligent Rolling Stone reporter couldn’t find a single instance of it after calling many elite schools and specifically soliciting harrowing stories along these lines; and never mind that the campus-justice system and the media are so heavily stacked against men accused of rape that some have found their lives upended over obviously false charges.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, and starring the always-superb Carey Mulligan as the seeker of vengeance, Promising Young Woman is therefore an Issue Movie about an almost nonexistent issue: Horrific gang rapes are assumed to be routine on college campuses across America, yet like those “No Irish Need Apply” signs that supposedly poisoned a previous generation, evidence is elusive. As does the culture at large, the movie proceeds with a blithe lack of awareness that Rolling Stone’s 2014 story “A Rape on Campus” turned out to be fictitious. There is an important issue involving young women, sex, and campus, but the movie (like the culture) refuses to confront it.
Mulligan plays Cassie, an emotionally detached barista living with her parents as she turns 30, with no apparent aims in life. It turns out she is a med-school dropout who was once at the top of her class. But after another student was gang-raped by other students who took advantage of her blackout drunkenness and got off scot-free, both women’s lives were ruined. Now Cassie has undertaken a two-track revenge and reeducation scheme. First, by pretending to be blackout drunk in clubs every week, she ensnares men who try to take sexual advantage of her. At the moment of truth, she drops the drunk act and gives the man in question a severe scolding. She has done this routine hundreds of times (!) and says that in every single instance, some guy who pretends to be looking out for her instead forces himself on her while she seems practically unconscious. There’s a fairly ludicrous and deeply cynical contention at work here — really? 100 percent of seemingly considerate men are rapists? — but it’s unintentionally revealing about the misandry that often lurks beneath the surface of feminism.
In the second, more direct revenge scheme, Cassie seeks out the men she believes were tangentially guilty in her friend’s gang rape and inflicts what she sees as due punishment — largely psychological, although there is an implication that she intends to have a lawyer (Alfred Molina) beaten up for being, in her mind, too aggressive in defending the main rapist. Assaulting lawyers for defending accused persons: my, how the progressive mindset has changed.
What’s actually been happening on campuses across America is that a sizable number of accused men have seen their reputations dragged through the mud while they were denied legal counsel; concomitant with this anti-male atmosphere, young men have lost interest in college to such a degree that there are now 40 percent more women than men on campus. There is today a gross mismatch in the dating market both on campus and among degree-holding single adults, meaning educated women face an unnerving situation with little precedent in all of human history: a culture in which they feel forced to compete with each other for men instead of the reverse.
The frustration and even anger among women about this state of affairs is palpable, and deserves sympathy and attention. To rectify it, there should be a broad and serious movement in this country to attract men back to campus, along with a push to reduce the cultural snobbery that makes college-educated women consider men without college degrees to be unsuitable mates. What is unnecessary is an educational effort involving movies about the evils of gang rape: That act is already illegal and subject to severe punishment. Nowhere in this sad and confused movie is there any mention of the rape victim’s having gone to the police, even though she would have had plenty of evidence. Her rapists should have been sent to prison for many years and prevented from victimizing any more women in the future, but in the framing presented by this movie, the victim did not even create that possibility.
Fennell, the writer-director of this debut film (and a showrunner for the feminist BBC series Killing Eve) is using the myth of widespread unpunished gang rape as a way to express disgust with a culture that does indeed victimize women, but in a far subtler way. Note that for feminists who occupy leading positions in journalism and the arts, the statistical reality of rape attracts very little discussion: It is, like other violent crimes, heavily concentrated among low-income groups and minorities, not in Fortune 500 companies and elite college dorms. In the movie, Cassie snickers at a reference to the principle of innocence being presumed until there is proof of guilt, but tell the average college-educated liberal woman that withdrawing this bedrock of criminal justice would lead to putting far more black men behind bars, and they’d blanch. No, no, it’s not poor black guys from Anacostia we want punished, they’d say, it’s this guy Brad I knew in chem class, we dated for a while, we had sex one time when I wasn’t into it, it wasn’t really rape though, it’s complicated, he’s such a jerk, I did a performance-art piece on this, can’t anything be done?
Alas, there isn’t any principle in law that would serve Brad with his just deserts; an entire generation of drunken-hookup culture has left the Brads able to use women as sexual playthings without breaking any laws. Many women feel abused by the perfectly legal and culturally approved standard operating procedure among young adults: Men, whose sensibilities are saturated with Internet-porn scenarios from adolescence on, take lusty advantage of a system of sexual permissiveness in which women feel compelled to participate. Drinking themselves to the point of stupor, women do things that, when sober, they know to be unwise. They then find themselves emotionally hollowed out by the results to such a degree that their tales of woe are like Sex and the City reimagined as an Ingmar Bergman production. When the entire weight of the culture pushes casual sex, many go along with it, at which point many women feel the only means of protest available is either to launch false sexual-assault charges or whip up some revenge porn.
Tell young women they should not drink to get drunk (or use drugs to a similar end), remind them that matching drinks one-for-one with men will leave them much drunker than the guys, or point out that it’s in their own interest not to have sex with men they don’t know very well, and you’ll find yourself denounced as a Puritan, a misogynist, even a conservative. Young women who have been effectively brainwashed by our culture adamantly resist all of the above suggestions, defend the present drunken-hookup system, then wonder why they feel as forlorn as the famous fictional protagonist of the New Yorker story “Cat Person.” It’s a difficult problem, and as with most difficult problems it’s easier to deal with the imaginary version of it (rampant, unpunished campus gang rape) than to face up to what’s really happening.