ON THE FRONT LINES: Media portrayal of societal issues neglects intersectionality

In one of the fall season's latest binge-worthy mini-series, "Unbelievable," Netflix producers depict the struggles of living with and reporting sexual assault and rape cases.

Based on a true story broken by ProPublica and The Marshall Project, the series goes through the life events of Marie Adler. After being sexually assaulted and irrevocably traumatized, Adler goes to the police who investigate the case and consult with several of Adler’s friends. 

Although the police initially did not doubt her, after finding out more about her from those in her life, they deem Adler as potentially “attention-seeking.” This, in their minds, singles her out as a liar. They skeptically question Adler about her experiences, discouraging her to the point that she reports that she was never actually raped. 

Adler is then charged with fines and a legal offense for lying. She loses her friends, her housing and, as she inadvertently admits in the last episode, was potentially suicidal.

“Unbelievable” is highly acclaimed for its raw and powerful storytelling. The Atlantic compared it to other shows in the genre, which, “ ... impose justice on a world that is anything but fair. They show sensitive, experienced detectives taking care of victims, chasing down leads, doggedly pursuing suspects and sometimes putting abusers in prison.” 

The show has been paralleled to the powerful Brett Kavanaugh hearings, to help depict the strength — or lack thereof — of survivor accounts, specifically how the testimonies of women are treated.

But “Unbelievable” leaves out a vitally important factor to this message: intersectionality. 

In the fourth episode, a federal agent brought to help investigate the rapist said: “His victims are all over the map, old, young, different races. So he doesn’t have a type.”

In spite of him saying this, not one of the survivors shown was Brown, Black, Latinx or Asian. The only snippet of a non-white survivor face the viewers see is in the second-to-last episode in a scene where the detectives are clicking through the files of photos of the survivors. This lasts less than 5 seconds. 

Understandably, this was based on a true story, a true story in which none of the central survivors were people of color. And it is true that fewer people of color report sexual assaults compared to white survivors. 

“While 80% of rapes are reported by white women, women of color are more likely to be assaulted than white women,” according to End Rape on Campus. “For every Black woman that reports her rape, at least 15 Black women do not report.”

Nonetheless, I believe Netflix producers owe it to the audience to properly depict the moral they were trying to illustrate — of the importance of believing survivors. Given the massive platform that they had, the writers and producers of the show had the opportunity, rather the responsibility, to explore this moral further. 

In the last episode of the mini-series, taking place in a courtroom, the rapist was sentenced to 327.5 years in prison. This courtroom, again, did not introduce a single Brown, Black, Latinx or Asian face, even though it is known that the perpetrator assaulted people of color. 

The producers of “Unbelievable” should have considered the weight of intersectionality. They should have realized the weight of intertwining the complexities of being a person of color with the complexities of reporting sexual assault.

The picture illustrated in this mini-series is, in simple terms, that it is difficult to report sexual assault. It is often difficult to report cases to the police, or even to federal judges, as shown in the Kavanaugh hearings. 

What about the Black women who are not even taken seriously when it comes to their tangible, testable, physical health, let alone a sexual assault case? What about the immigrant families who hold back reporting their cases in fear of the government and immigration enforcement? What about the South Asian survivors who live in communities where sexual violence is so normalized, there is a huge stigma against reporting it? 

What about those who do not speak English? What about the transgender and gender non-conforming community, of whom 22 were killed this year alone? Are these communities expected to face the same circumstances from law enforcement as a white woman reporting rape in America?

When you throw in an intersectional narrative into the picture that “Unbelievable” was trying to illustrate, that picture changes. Unfortunately, though, this picture is not dynamic in mainstream white media.

To producers and writers covering sexual assault in the mainstream media, and as Adler herself told the police officer in the last episode, “Next time, do better.”

Priyanka Bansal is a Rutgers Business School senior majoring in business analytics and information technology, as well as journalism and media studies. She is the editor-in-chief at The Daily Targum.

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