In my teenage years, I loved to watch Joan (RIP) and Melissa Rivers fashion-police the red carpet. I loved their snarky comments and blunt superficiality. I never actually bothered to watch the awards, though I would check the Baltimore Sun the next day for the winners. Back then, it was all a bunch of bland b.s. like the movie As Good As It Gets in which Jack Nicholson’s character plays a racist and homophobic curmudgeon, and everyone is supposed to find that really adorable. Or movies celebrating pornography culture like Boogie Nights and The People Vs. Larry Flint. And then there were the movies that were just all about the guys a la Good Will Hunting and The Shawshank Redemption. I watched some of these movies, and even liked them at the time, but looking back, couldn’t we have just a couple award-winners that really stood up for women?
Tonight I will be watching the Academy Awards for the first time because I am really rooting for “Promising Young Woman”, which has been nominated for five (FIVE!) Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. Why am I so invested in the win? Because it will draw attention to a film that I believe should be required watching for all high school and college students, especially young women. And, apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Warning – Spoiler Alerts
This movie features Carey Mulligan as Cassandra, a former medical student who works in a coffee shop by day and operates as what I believe is the first real feminist superhero by night. She goes to clubs dressed skanky and gets trashed. A “nice guy” helps her home – only they never take her to her home. She is always herded into his apartment. But it turns out pretty badly for these guys because Cassandra’s not drunk – she’s only acting. And at the moment of protest, the moment right before a sexual assault, she shows not only her sobriety but her rage. She shames them and leaves.
If this isn’t a female fantasy, I don’t know what is. What woman doesn’t want to lash out at these types of me? What woman doesn’t want a platform to talk back so directly to male culture that makes men think that a woman out at night, especially a woman out drinking, is prey? It is so easy to argue that women should be more careful, women shouldn’t be out alone, women deserve it if they’re so careless. But why should we always have to be so scared? Because men own us – even the “nice guys” own us if we are even slightly off kilter. Maybe even if we’re not.
We later learn that Cassandra is out punishing bros because a deep pain manifests itself inside of her – her friend Nina is dead. Nina was Cassandra’s best friend and her classmate in medical school. Nina was assaulted by a male student in the medical school. And, while Nina and Cassandra never achieved their dream of becoming doctors, Nina’s rapist just moved right along with his life. He became a doctor. Hell, he’s even engaged and about to have a wonderful wedding. And practically everyone from the medical school is invited. They know about the rape of Nina, and, yet, the rapist is still alive and is about to have all of his med school buddies around him to celebrate his marriage to some terribly unlucky woman. Everyone has moved on, graduating to amazing careers as doctors and living Instagram perfect lives.
Cassandra eventually starts to heal when she reunites with Ryan, who she knew from the medical school class. Ryan is a pediatric surgeon and he is still friends with the med school crew. But he is kind and charming, and it seems that they fall in love. But it doesn’t last – she learns that he made a video of Nina’s assault and joked about it on video. So Cassandra blackmails him into giving her the address for the rapist’s bachelor party, where Cassandra dresses up as what I can only describe as a demented candy colored clown stripper and sacrifices her life in a complicated plot to ensure that the rapist is arrested. Which he is. Cassandra’s murder results in justice.
The movies twists and turns bring the viewer to witness the gaslighting and the theatrics of denial that take place when women are sexually assaulted. The women are damaged and isolated by the trauma of rape. Men are protected by the system, especially successful men like medical students who are so promising and have so much to lose. Why should they lose everything for one mistake? The women are the damaged ones; the men still have a future ahead of them.
I was a promising young woman once. My daughters – twins age six and their younger sister age five – are promising young women now. I did okay, despite living in the world in which male violence is accepted, but I know I’m not safe. None of us are. My daughters aren’t. Definitely aren’t.
But the fact that “Promising Young Woman” is front and center at the Oscars gives me hope that women’s issues are becoming more visible. That maybe society is getting better at confronting rape culture.
In her memoir Recollections of My Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit writes:
Sometimes having a body seemed to be the problem, having a body that exposed me to danger and potential harm.
All women’s bodies are a problem – a source of chronic anxiety and fear for those of us who must inhabit them in order to live. The issue of the body is so radical, and the positioning of the issue in “Promising Young Woman” is so radical that I will be investing my evening in the Academy Awards. I’m heading out now to get some popcorn and some sparkling wine. I want to celebrate the women’s bodies that made this film possible.