Trigger warning: This film addresses sexual assault.
If any film could epitomise a 'hard pill to swallow', it would be Emerald Fennell's Oscar-winning 'Promising Young Woman'. This was recently reviewed by Claire Jenns, where it was suggested that "by nature of its content some people will dismiss it or avoid it like the plague. It forces the viewer to reflect on how they are complicit and question what more they can do". In other words, this film compels the audience to address their own prejudices as to whether they can swallow this pill or not.
Films that address a challenging societal topic are always important, but the nature of this film’s message has come at a very apt time. With the surge of anger in response to the tragic death of Sarah Everard and the circumstances surrounding the case, it is clear that things STILL need to change. The film addresses these issues in a very raw way, especially in a scene where the protagonist, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has a conversation with the dean of her old college. The subtlety of internalised misogyny here would have possibly gone over the heads of the audience maybe 15 years ago, but this scene definitely raised alarm bells for its modern viewers. Without revealing too much, it is suggested that the female college dean subconsciously blamed a victim of rape for being intoxicated at a party.
The most important part about this scene is its female misogynist. It is soul-crushing to hear the dean justify a rape case dismissal with the excuse "we get accusations like this all the time", as if this shouldn’t suggest that the women on campus are in more danger and constant fear than the institution realised. This is a very raw scene where the subtle signs of misogyny even in women are most frustratingly on display. Whereas a misogynistic ‘caricature’ would be very one-dimensional and transparent, the 3-dimensional characters in this film reflect the complexity of internalised misogyny in the 21st century.
Destructive accusations are discussed in this film, and identified as a "man's worst nightmare". I want to address this argument as I’m sure there will be some viewers who find this a somewhat one-sided narrative. There is no excuse for false accusations, as not only does it jeopardise an innocent man's future, it also jeopardises the cases of other young women being taken seriously; everyone is a victim in this case. However, the male characters in this film are representative of those who stay quiet until they feel the need to defend themselves. They are representative of those who claim to be allies when it benefits them, or fight for men's rights only to disarm women's. There will be those who see the heavily 'villainous' male characters as a representation of, you guessed it, "all men", but this film addresses a specific angle that puts the focus on the victim’s injustice and Cassie's revenge. To argue for "nice guy" representation is, I believe, naïve in this case, especially as Cassie is not presented as an angel herself.
The inclusion of a false accusation in this particular film would break the message pushed forward that sexual violence against women is so terrifyingly frequent. The narrative represents the constant dangers women face that give us a reason to be afraid. It represents the issue that when we cry for help, we are instead met with #NotAllMen.
If things are going to change for the better, it is clear that the film industry needs to produce more direct and hard-hitting films that show social issues for what they really are. This is exactly what Emerald Fennell has achieved in my opinion. ‘Promising Young Woman’ may be a hard pill to swallow, but the outright truth of the message is something that we need to be faced with. This is not just the film we needed, but the film we deserved.