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promising young woman: unified by a shared experience

Emerald Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’ (2020)

Trigger warning: rape, suicide 

Yesterday, I left the movies, validated and heard. I had just seen a movie that I never even imagined could be told. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, starring the perfectly cast Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham and Alison Brie, immediately felt important. We find Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) on a quest to teach predatory men a lesson. We see her disappointed, but not surprised, by everything she sees.

I could instantly relate. I felt like we’ve all had those late-night moments, alone and a bit too drunk at a club or walking home, relying on luck with the men who happen to be nearby. We’ve been the butt of sexist jokes in the workplace, by grey-haired men who went to University back when it was free, their Sydney beachside home was $50,000, and women who dared to rise above the ranks of Secretary were a joke. We’ve paid 3x surge fares rather than to have to walk home during the dark. We’ve put our keys between our fingers whenever we’ve heard a strange sound behind us late at night. We’ve gotten off the bus one stop early so the leering man next to us would have less of an idea about where we live. We’ve intentionally stood behind men in an elevator, instead of in front. We’ve cautiously laughed off misogynistic jokes to protect ourselves. We’ve looked back on instances of grooming, harassment, and abuse. We’ve all had to say ‘no’ one too many times.

While it is estimated that only 19% of female victims of sexual assault in Australia report the incident to the police (ABS Personal Safety Survey, 2005), many women watching will be unified by a shared experience. The ABS’s 2016 Personal Safety Survey tells us that one in five women (18 or over) had experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. Women are most likely to experience sexual assault by a male they knew (87%), and women are three times more likely to have experienced violence by a partner. And I haven’t even mentioned emotional abuse, sexual harassment, or stalking (or the intersection between these issues and members of the LGBTQ+ community or minority groups).

Margot Robbie’s production company, LuckyChap Entertainment gives us insights into toxic masculinity, rape culture, pervasive sexual violence on college campuses, and the myth of the “nice guy”. I was left with the confusing blend of catharsis and unease. I though back on my past with new eyes. I stopped doubting my behaviour, and started looking at all the men who have silently stood on the side lines of abuse. I thought about all the stories we’ve seen too often. Of women being killed for just existing. Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered while walking in the park. Jill Meagher was raped and murdered while going home from the pub. Forty-eight women were killed violently in not even the full 2020 (Women’s Agenda, 2020).

When I got home from the movies, I saw that several women I follow on Instagram had been sharing their alleged (a term that should be included at this stage, even if just for fear of any negative legal repercussions on any of the women at this early stage) first-hand stories of abuse by Armie Hammer, of Call Me by Your Name, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Social Network. I read the (alleged) message screenshots of Hammer. He (allegedly) discussed his desires to cannibalise, break the bones of his “kittens” (his lovers), and to rape and control. Hammer is now one of the many powerful men in Hollywood facing sexual allegations, many of which have been direct effects of the #MeToo movement. (Footnote: Founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, the #metoo movement wants to shift ‘cultural narratives’, and ‘believes in the radical possibilities of a movement against sexual violence’.)

Promising Young Woman reminds us why this kind of movement is crucial, and why it must be easier for both male and female survivors to come forward. It created a safe space. And It didn’t even gaslight me about it after.

It was a monumental cinematic shift. It showed us that we can take up the space to tell our stories, and we will be listened to.

Karin Van Eeden is a young lawyer based in Sydney, with an interest in women’s rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and the environment.

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