Once again, it seems, the narrative of Straight White Women as Eternal Victims reigns supreme.
Like so many feminists this past weekend, I watched the Netflix debut of the documentary Audrie and Daisy with high hopes for a powerful, must-see story of how social media bullying so often acts as a destructive force against teenage victims of sexual assault. The stories are horrifying in their details: 16-year-old Audrie Pott’s rape and suicide, the rape of 14-year-old Daisy Coleman, the photos taken by their rapists as both girls laid unconscious, the sharing of these photos among their high school classmates through cell phones and social networks. I was angry at the boys (referred to as John_R and John_B in the film) who stammered on-camera and on the witness stand in their lies about the night Audrie Pott was raped. I was angry at the unblinking disbelief and inaction of Coleman’s sheriff in Maryville.
What I found most troubling in Audrie and Daisy was the film’s sole and exclusive interest in the narratives of white, upper-middle-class straight girls—given the overwhelming statistics of sexual violence against women of color, queer women, trans* youth, disabled women, and other marginalized bodies, it’s upsetting to see a film in 2016 show little to no interest in these stories. Once again, it seems, the narrative of Straight White Women as Eternal Victims reigns supreme.
The statistics on sexual violence for the girls not represented by the storytelling choices of Audrie and Daisy are sobering:
- A 2006 report from The National Resource Center on Sexual Violence – Women of Color Network notes that 40% of Black women report coercive sexual contact by the age of 18 and 21.2% of Latinas experience sexual assault; this same report also documents the U.S. Department of Justice estimate that 1 in 3 Native American/Alaskan Indian women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime.
- The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs reports that 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
- The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) report “Sexual Violence in the LGBT Community” shared that 24% of transgender American Indians, 18% of transgender people who identified as multiracial, 17% of transgender Asians, and 15% of Black transgender youth experienced sexual assault in K-12 education settings.
- The same HRC report also found that 48% of bisexual women who are rape survivors experienced their first rape between ages 11 and 17.
I found this research with relative speed and ease, so why couldn’t the directors and producers of Audrie and Daisy, with the support of celebrities like Tori Amos, be bothered to learn this information, too? Why did they choose to focus so exclusively on the stories of girls who grew up with swimming pools in their backyards? Are the tragedies of the white and wealthy so much more vital or relatable than those of us who cannot claim to be either?
The film also seems inordinately preoccupied with how Audrie and Daisy’s fathers and brothers reacted to the sexual assaults (because, as we know, men’s feelings are the primary center of a female survivor’s story). And the insights provided by these men are not particularly incisive or self-reflective. Scene after scene of Charlie Coleman (Daisy’s older brother) speaking about his time on the high school wrestling team—juxtaposed with scenes of him playing catch or standing on a baseball diamond—quickly grows tiresome and tedious. I understand that American masculine norms are being called to task throughout the narrative arc of Audrie and Daisy, but there is so much that could have been asked of Charlie that the film never even seems to contemplate.
Consider the moment where Charlie discovers the names of his sister’s attackers. “I knew that was something I wouldn’t have put past Matt,” says Charlie. “But the fact that Nick and Cole were considered two of my best friends, and Jordan my teammate. I wrestled that guy every single day.” No one asks Charlie when he had identified Matt as a potential rapist or how those suspicions arose. No one asks Charlie about why he thought that Nick, Cole, and Jordan weren’t the sort of guys you’d “put it past.” The idea that sexual predators don’t necessarily look or behave in universal ways is an important concept to push forward, yet the filmmakers merely accept Coleman’s assessment of the boys who attacked his sister as facts that do not require further analysis.
I was especially angry to see the sole girl of color (Jada Smith, the Houston teenager at the center of the #JusticeForJada campaign) have her story repeatedly glossed over through cut-shots, as well as the disproportionately short amount of screen time given to her words and experiences. “I was just laid out, passed out on the floor while the 18-year-old was on top of me,” says Jada during the film’s group therapy session. “They took pictures. They posted them online. We reported it as soon as it happened, and it took them forever, and we had to report it again.” As she cries, the movie cuts to reaction shots of the stunned white girls surrounding her. There is none of the narrative care or investigative reporting put into Jada’s story that we saw with Audrie and Daisy’s stories. There are no interviews with Jada’s family or her celebrity supporter Jada Pinkett Smith. This lack of attention is a tremendous disservice to Jada Smith’s activism and to her standing as a public survivor of sexual violence.
I wanted so much more from a film of this subject and with such potential for a widespread audience through Netflix streaming. It’s not as if many documentaries take up the topic—or have the resources necessary to deliver the information to mainstream media outlets. And so it goes that yet another film on girls and sexual assault fails to deliver on the stories we need to hear most.
Allison McCarthy is a writer with a focus on personal essays, intersectional feminism and social justice. Her work has been featured in print and online publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian (U.K.), AlterNet, The Establishment, Vox, Time.com, xoJane, DAME, Autostraddle, Ravishly, The Frisky, Medium.com (“Human Parts” series), Bitch,make/shift, Ms. (blog), Girlistic, YourTango, Hip Mama, Bustle, Global Comment, Role/Reboot, Shameless, The Feminist Wire, ColorsNW, The Baltimore Review and Hoax, as well as in several anthologies. A graduate of Goucher College and the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University, she currently lives in Maryland.