Trigger Warning: The article includes discussions of sexual assault and bullying.
Sometimes the worst part of a sexual assault is not the abusive event. It’s what comes after.
Audrie & Daisy, a new documentary released on Netflix, chronicles the story of four survivors of sexual assault: Audrie Potts, Daisy Coleman, Paige Parkhurst and Delaney Henderson, all of whom had highly publicized cases in the media. Their stories are ones all too familiar. Both Audrie and Daisy were assaulted while intoxicated and had pictures and videos taken of them. For it, they faced harassment and bullying in person and online. Their assaulters faced little or no jail time, and in the case of Audrie Potts, even kept their anonymity.
While the facts of the cases were circulated and widely known through news reports, it is the interviews that begin to slowly reveal the injustices they faced, and how the pain they suffered was only amplified by the harassment they received.
The film is comprised of interviews not only from the survivors and their families, but also from two of the perpetrators in the Audrie Potts’ case. They both agreed to the interview as part of a settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit launched by the parents after Potts committed suicide. From the interviews of those two boys you see no remorse, no acknowledgement of the wrong they’d done. One was asked what he’d learned about girls, he could say was, “Um, I mean, girls, they gossip, really. There's a lot of gossip between girls and, uh, you know, um... guys are more laid-back and don't really care.”
The alleged perpetrators were not the only ones who had little sympathy for the victims. Other interviews with people involved in the case reflect the general lack of understanding about sexual assault. The sheriff in Daisy Coleman’s case effectively victim-blamed her for the incident, questioning why she couldn’t move on when the boys had.
It wasn’t just those involved in the crime who blamed the survivors for what had happened. Social media allowed people from around the world to harass Daisy Coleman anonymously. The documentary emphasizes the effects of social media on Audrie and Daisy and how online bullying amplified their pain. Thanks to the Internet, harassment is no longer confined to high school hallways. Social media encourages the world to anonymously comment and share their opinions about everything, making it easier for the larger public to perpetuate emotional abuse. Every opinion about Audrie and Daisy had a hashtag, and everyone from political commentators to anonymous tweeters had an opinion.
And modern technology documented it all. The documentary recreates the nights that Audrie and Daisy were attacked through the messages Audrie sent as she tried to piece together what had happened during her blackout, the anonymous threats sent to Daisy, and the barrage of tweets posted about the cases. The effects of re-traumatization are represented through Daisy Coleman’s own Instagram, each of her posts depicting how depicting her feelings of loneliness and thoughts of despair, over a span of several months.
At every level, and from every place, there is no asylum from judgment, except among the victims themselves. The film ends on a positive note, showing a friendship forged between Daisy and Delaney that was initiated on Facebook, finally using what was a source of pain into that of support.
The solidarity among these two girls, and eventually other girls who met through the nonprofit organization Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE), helps each girl shed the loneliness felt after their assault. Audrie & Daisy’s final scenes emphasize how many stories go untold, yet it still leaves us with hope that as more stories are exposed, change can be possible.
Thus, like so many before it, this documentary calls for change through the stories of survivors. These girls, who have experienced horrific incidents, are cast as heroes for their ability to endure tragic pain in the public eye. But this approach only reinforces the pressure put on girls to come forward and be brave, to rectify the injustice done to them, to face the backlash and hate all while their perpetrators have the privilege to remain anonymous.
The documentary retells a story we’ve heard before repeatedly, but fails to delve into the root causes of rape culture that shamed these girls and the laws that allowed the abusers to walk away from punishment. Audrie & Daisy also does not offer us any solutions moving forward beyond forcing survivors into heroes. While effective in its storytelling, it does no one any justice.
Audrie & Daisy was widely dubbed as a modern day Scarlet Letter, because the narrative mostly hasn’t changed. Let’s hope that in another 150 years, we’re not still telling the same story.