If you’d like a complex, thoughtful accounting of sexual assault and its repercussions, you’re going to have to turn to pop culture. Because reality, unfortunately, is following the same dreary old script.
This week, when Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the public that she was a sexual-assault survivor, the response from her critics could have come from a 1970s newspaper article. Wait, that’s generous. Let’s say a small town 1950s newspaper.
A male journalist accused Ms. Ocasio-Cortez of conducting “a masterclass in emotional manipulation.” A Fox News commentator suggested she was using her history to benefit financially from her social-media posts. Others suggested that she was not really as endangered as she pretended to be during the Jan. 6 right-wing siege of the U.S. Capitol. Which is strange, because a Texas man is facing five federal charges over the riot, including one tied to his online threat to “assassinate AOC.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez made her revelations during an Instagram live post, in which she tied her experiences as a sexual-assault survivor to the chaos around the insurrection, when armed supporters of former president Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building, attempting to overturn the results of last year’s election and threatening legislators. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said she feared for her life. (She has, since her election in 2018, been public about the volume of death threats she receives.)
Her voice shook during the Instagram recording as she said, “I’m a survivor of sexual assault, and I haven’t told many people that in my life.” She said that people who were telling her to “move on” from the violence at her workplace were as dangerous as people who committed abuse, or discounted it. Of course she knew what was going to happen next: Her account of being assaulted would be twisted, disbelieved. She would be mocked and belittled and accused of exaggeration or fabrication.
This is the reason more women don’t come forward to report their assaults. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. I’m tired of writing that sentence. You’re probably tired of reading it.
One detail stood out to me in Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s account of the siege at the Capitol. As she hid in the office of her fellow congresswoman Katie Porter, she told her colleague, “I knew I shouldn’t have worn heels today. How am I going to run?”
Such a tiny, telling detail that encapsulates a universal experience. There are very few women out there who have not thought the same thing, at one point or other. How am I going to get out of here?
It struck me again, as I watched Carey Mulligan saunter barefoot down the street, red high heels in hand, having perhaps dispatched a would-be rapist in the new film Promising Young Woman. As she walks, a group of construction workers catcall and taunt her, their comments turning to anger and fear as she confronts them silently. Her quiet power terrifies them, just as Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s power – which lies in being unafraid of vulnerability – terrifies her opponents.
I saw Promising Young Woman described as a “MeToo revenge satire,” which seems a bit reductive, like describing American Psycho as a movie about dudes who compare business cards. The power of the movie (which was just nominated for several Golden Globe awards) lies in its complexity, a metaphor for trauma itself. There’s no one right way to respond to rape; there is no one path that everyone takes. Every script is different. Promising Young Woman gallops off in a wild but plausible direction. That is, of course, the joy and power of fiction. It’s too bad reality is such a poor imitation.
There was a justified outcry that the Golden Globes ignored another magnificent series that has a sexual assault at its centre, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. That series is set in London, but like Promising Young Woman it offers a complicated, harrowing, sometimes bitterly funny account of what happens after a life-changing trauma. (I haven’t seen the whole series yet, but it’s prompted me to finally shell out for HBO.)
A couple of years ago, Ms. Coel gave a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival in which she talked about processing her own sexual assault through her art: “Like any other experience I’ve found traumatic, it’s been therapeutic to write about it, and actively twist a narrative of pain into one of hope, and even humour. And be able to share it with you, as part of a fictional drama on television, because I think transparency helps.”
Transparency helps, if people are willing to listen. It seems at this point – after MeToo and its many backlashes – that we still find survivors’ stories palatable only when they’re wrapped in the comforting veil of fiction. I can’t decide if that’s progress or messed up as hell.
At least in fiction survivors are allowed the dignity of their individual response to pain. There may be a script, but it’s complex and thoughtful. It’s thrilling there is finally an audience for these stories, since it suggests that people are listening, discussing and – hopefully – absorbing.
No one is going to silence these storytellers, and no one is going to silence Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. Despite the backlash – or perhaps even strengthened by it – she’s using her platform to encourage fresh thinking. “You may not know that you know a survivor, but it’s highly likely that you do,” she wrote. “Survivors of trauma are close to you. They are people you love & you may not know. Many decide whether their story is safe with someone by how they respond to other survivors. Don’t push them away.”
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