When topics like sexual assault and harassment come up these days, it can feel inevitable that politics and bias hijack the conversation. While sometimes those debates are necessary, it can also be easy for those debating and those watching to lose sight of the real and tragic stories at the heart of them. It can be easy to forget the trauma, pain, and injustice women (and men, sometimes) have suffered because of distorted thinking and behavior concerning power and sex. It can be easy to lose sight of the complexity surrounding sexual assault and harassment today.
Here are three shows, currently streaming online, that tell true stories of sexual assault and harassment in ways that reminds us of the people who’ve been hurt, the complexities surrounding assault and harassment, and ultimately, that inspire compassion and justice for victims.
01. Unbelievable // Netflix
Based on true events, Unbelievable is an 8-episode series that follows two stories: that of Marie Alder (played by Kaitlyn Dever), a young woman who reports a rape in Washington State, isn’t believed by officers, and then is charged with a misdemeanor for false reporting and that of two female detectives (played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) in Colorado working to stop a serial rapist in their state. The show is based on a Pulitzer prize winning essay “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” by T. Christian Miller at ProPublica and Ken Armstrong at the Marshall Project.
This series is intense to watch, and for anyone who’s been raped, it may be triggering. But it’s one of those shows I couldn’t stop watching and couldn’t stop thinking about after it was over. Marie’s story is told in such a compelling manner that I got emotionally invested—I cried, wanted to whisper affirmation when she struggled, and wanted to scream at the supposed authority figures around her (some well-meaning people) who often failed her miserably. Similarly, watching the lead detectives in Colorado work to uncover the truth of a serial rapist was equally compelling and engaging. I was also pleasantly surprised by how the series showed how the strong marriages of these two women supported them in their work, and how the power of prayer ultimately kept one detective grounded throughout the worst moments. Without giving it away, this show is honest and inspires hope that the truth often wins when people are committed to finding it.
02. Bombshell // Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and Apple TV
Bombshell is a film highlighting the fall of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes for his sexual assault and harassment of dozens of women at the studio. Starring Charlize Theron (playing the role of former Fox anchor Megyn Kelly), Nicole Kidman (playing Gretchen Carlson), and Margot Robbie (playing a fictional character named Kayla), this show got little Hollywood attention, surprisingly to us.
The film is not perfect. There are a few sloppy story elements, such as a drunken tryst thrown in between Kayla and a different office mate (played by Kate McKinnon) who is in a senior position to Kayla’s. I would argue this is not the film to depict casual sex among coworkers as harmless fun. To me, by including that unnecessary plot point, the filmmakers reveal a blind spot when it comes to the role the hookup culture plays in blurring lines and making it harder for people to see office sexual harassment for what it is.
There were factual errors in Bombshell as well. One of the most striking to me was the liberties taken in portraying Robbie’s character, who was harassed by Ailes, as indignant toward Kelly for not reporting her experience of harassment sooner—as if Kelly was somehow responsible for the harassment of those who came after her. "I look at the #metoo movement,” Kelly said in her online panel discussion on the film, “and at no point, in my view, did victim 17 blame her harassment on victims 1 through 16. . . .that's not the way this movement has shaken out. So part of me saw that scene and was like, 'That was written by a man.’”
But the film didn’t need to be perfect to be important. It’s worth watching this film to remember the women who led the movement before there officially was one.
"I think we forget,” Charlize Theron said in an interview with Stephen Colbert in December 2019, “that when Gretchen Carlson stepped forward . . . there really was no movement; there was no #timesup there was no #metoo. This was before Harvey Weinstein, before the numerous stories we know now.”
03. The Assistant // Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, and Apple TV
The Assistant is a fictional film that is loosely based on real events surrounding Harvey Weinstein. An aspiring film producer, Jane (played by Julia Garner) appears to have landed a dream job right out of college, working for an entertainment mogul. The film artfully shows her daily tasks—making coffee, sorting mail, etc.—intertwined with the verbal abuse and manipulation she experiences from her boss, human resources, and her colleagues. The viewer sees Jane begin to understand the dirty practices her boss and others in the firm participate in, and as she tries to speak up, she's either reprimanded or reminded of the gratitude she should have for her professional opportunity in the firm. Most compelling about this film is the accuracy with which they portrayed how difficult it would be for a young woman like Jane to speaking up in an office culture that enables abuse and how few people outside the office she could confide in about what she was seeing and experiencing.