Silenced in reality, sexual assault survivors tell their stories on screen

Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in writer Susannah Grant's HBO film CONFIRMATION (2016)

On the heels of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings, the powerhouse of media messages continue their divisive output of opinions, scrutiny and attitude towards sexual assault victims. Although pushed to the forefront during the #MeToo and #TimesUp within the past year, the “position of power” issue is nothing new in entertainment industry history. For decades, the stories of sexual assault victims have been told on the big screen in movies like The Lovely Bones and An Education, cable television where Kerry Washington starred as Anita Hill in Confirmation; and streaming platforms with recent releases like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Netflix’s 13 Reasons WhyHow our culture accepts these stories matters. The people making these stories matter. Women pushing through the door to write, direct and produce their stories matter – and the medium is the message.

Read below as the FF2 Media team reflects on works of fiction (in both film and television) and nonfiction that have respectfully and dutifully depicted sexual assault survivors: 


The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017)

From Editor-In-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner: Lone Scherfig’s An Education tells the story of a con artist named David (Peter Sarsgaard) who seduces an impressionable teenager named Jenny (Carey Mulligan), but after a few semesters in his “University of Life,” Jenny returns to her teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), the one who provides the final boost required to launch Jenny from her time into our own. … Looking at An Education as an epic (like Ben-Hur) explains a great deal. A mature man seduces a young girl — this drama is a cultural staple with a curious hold on the female imagination (as evidenced by the continued popularity of Jane Eyre and all her literary and cinematic progeny). But the fact that we’re finally learning to question it as “a romance” can be attributed to the fact that writers like Lynn Barber are finally telling the story honestly from a real girl’s point of view. Read FF2 Media’s interview with director Lone Scherfig.

From Senior Contributor Stephanie A. Taylor: Nancy Buirski’s documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor, tells the story of Recy Taylor and how Black women helped revolutionize the Civil Rights Movement. Taylor is a Black woman who was gang raped by six white teenagers in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944. This happened during the Jim Crow Era, when a code of anti-Black laws further emphasized segregation and abuse toward African Americans. Yet, despite the odds against her, Taylor speaks up about the crime at a time when to do so was unheard of. Add the help of a young investigator from the NAACP named Rosa Parks — one day to become one of the most well-known African-American women in USA history, and Recy’s story becomes that much more pertinent. With photos, footage and interviews; this film is not only poignant but powerful, informative and empowering.

From Managing Editor Brigid K. Presecky: Lisa F. Jackson’s timely documentary It Happened Here follows five young women as they share their testimonies of surviving sexual assault. Through intimate interviews, the film documents harrowing first-hand accounts of rape on America’s college campuses. Although all five stories are unique to each individual woman, they are interwoven with one central theme: do not be afraid to speak up. Jackson’s message shines through thanks to the raw honesty and authenticity of these five brave activists, unashamed of showing their faces and telling their stories to help others. They know there is a necessary need for change on college campuses and they are not waiting around for other people to do it. Read FF2 Media’s interview with one of the film’s central figures, Kylie Angell.

The Light of the Moon (2017)

From Senior Contributor Pamela Powell: As a victim of sexual assault in my 20s, these two films have had an emotional impact like no other; shedding a light on what happens psychologically and emotionally. Michal Aviad’s film Working Woman and Jessica M. Thompson’s film The Light of the Moon are two of the most timely and relevant films pertaining to the questions we hear people asking such as, “Why didn’t you fight?” Or “Why didn’t you report him?”  Aviad’s main character is sexually assaulted by her boss in an extraordinarily realistic and painfully poignant way.  Her reaction is common among those assaulted and shed a light onto the questions we are hearing pertaining to the Kavanaugh situation.  And Thompson’s well-researched character of “Bonnie” (Stephanie Beatriz) exemplifies what happens when you do report.  The victim becomes the criminal, with consequences which forever change not only you, but those around you.

Both Aviad and Thompson’s protagonists are strong, independent, intelligent women who share a similar trauma with results that are as enlightening and empowering.  Finding a film that can as closely as possible allow a viewer to walk in the shoes of someone who has suffered from being raped or sexually assaulted is found in Working Woman and Light of the Moon. Read FF2 Media’s interview with The Light of the Moon director Jessica M. Thompson.

From Contributing Editor Georgiana E. Presecky: The WB drama Felicity accurately captures how sexual assault affects not only a survivor, but also the people she loves. The story arc involving the rape of Felicity’s best friend was written 20 years ago, but it is incredibly relevant today as sexual assault on college campuses become even more common. It wasn’t treated as a melodramatic plot point – it felt real, because it is horribly real for so many female college students, then and now. Though activists like Chessy Prout are raising awareness of this important segment of survivors, it was Felicity that first showed me how much it matters to hear sexual assault victims.

From Contributing Editor Rachel Mosely: Writer Emma Donogue’s 2016 film Room was very effective at showing how media scrutiny (even if on the surface, it’s spun as being in the interest of the victim) can reinforce or amplify the trauma experience by victims of sexual assault. Brie Larson captured how the trapped feeling a victim experiences is sustained by the intense media attention when a sexual assault (and in the case of her character, kidnapping/hostage/entrapment) case is in the public eye. What struck me about the way sexual assault was portrayed in the 2009 film Precious was how it explored the role of complicity. Precious (played by Gabourey Sidibe)’s mother (played by Mo’Nique) is complicit in the years of sexual assault that her daughter endures, and though I don’t think the film is exactly sympathetic towards her (the mother), it does humanize her and illuminate the complications of complicity. It also shows how much Precious sinks inside of herself through the early part of her life as a result of the trauma she’s endured, which speaks to the current cultural conversation about why a victim cannot always be expected to come forward with claims of sexual assault.

© FF2 Media (9/26/18)

Photos: Kerry Washington in Confirmation; Stephanie Beatriz in The Light of the Moon; Recy Taylor; Brie Larson in Room

Photo Credits: Imagination Worldwide

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