Audrie & Daisy, the new documentary on Netflix from Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, is a harrowing and hopeful film that personalizes the larger-spectrum issue of rape culture. Focusing on Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, who were 15 and 14, respectively, when they were sexual assaulted by their peers, it examines with tenderness and a sharp eye the way cyberbullying compounds teen sexual assault to the point that girls are triply victimized. Each girl, after being assaulted, was ostracized and called names; Daisy’s harassment continued after her assaulter received the most meager slap on the wrist at trial. Audrie committed suicide before justice could carry her that far.
The subterranean terror of Audrie & Daisy is that, taken apart, its small-town mundanity is deeply familiar and gives an even greater sense that it could happen to anyone, at anyplace, in any high school or middle school. But in Maryville, the Missouri town that dominated headlines in 2013, the lens also zooms in on how rape culture affects policy. In Matthew Barnett’s first interview with the sheriff about the party at his house where he assaulted Daisy Coleman, and his friend assaulted her friend Paige Parkhurst, he describes the circumstances with the drawl of a disattached teenager. “There was three guys there to begin with... We were just chillin’ there, watching Netflix. But, I’m assuming this is about Daisy?... She texted me... we picked them up... they came back to my house and we just chilled a little bit. But they had been drinking at their house.”
It’s in this interview that you can see where the story starts to congeal, the narrative of Barnett that is at once a bit defensive—he declines to give the sheriff the names of the other boys at the party—but also sloughing responsibility, particularly when he points out the boys had nothing to do with the girls being inebriated, an acute awareness of underage drinking that’s particularly acute. “We hung out for awhile. She got really bad and started to cry. And she wanted to drink more,” he continues. “And whenever we bring her home, she got, she like, she was just crying. And she don’t wanna walk or anything.”
Daisy’s blood alcohol level was 134.92 HP, according to the hospital report that night, where her mother took her to get a rape kit after she noticed, while bathing her to sober her up, that Daisy had bruises between her legs. She was 14.
The aftermath in Coleman and Parkhurst’s case was similar to Audrie’s: they dealt not just with their assaults but the shaming that came with it, a reaction that even grown women survivors experience but is particularly acute in an isolated environment like high school. Daisy was called “a lying slut,” among other things, because the boys who assaulted her were star athletes. And because in a small-town high school environment practically nothing’s seen as more offensive than holding the football team accountable, even Daisy’s furious brother, Charlie—himself a football star who was, up until the sexual assaults, friends with the accused—was ostracized.
This is no more apparent than with Maryville’s sheriff, who repeatedly victim-blames, including when he says he does not believe that a video of Daisy’s rape circulated around the school, or went beyond the boys present that night who filmed it. “You know, unfortunately, you have a lot of people involved in this that are running around telling a lot of stories, and without pointing fingers, it serves to benefit peoples’s causes by making things up that really didn’t exist,” he says. “But don’t underestimate the need for attention. Especially young girls. There’s a lot of pressure on young girls in our society to be pretty, to be liked, to be the popular one. It’s not fair, but it is how our society works.” The felony charges against the boys, as we now know, were later dropped, and in one quote, we see the way rape culture is perpetuated, institutionally, through generations. It’s a top-five infuriating moment in a documentary full of them.
Daisy, of course, was further demonized even after Matt was let off with minimal charges (he served just two years’ probation for a misdemeanor count of endangering the welfare of a child). It is, perhaps, what Audrie feared, a near-certainty that when a teen girl is sexually assaulted that it will be viewed by her peers and others as her fault, and will follow her into her adult life. (Notoriously, the Colemans’ house was burned down, among other instances of vandalism and harassment.) “You begin to believe,” says Daisy, “that all these bad things they’re saying about you are actually true. So your image of yourself completely changes, and you kind of become a shell of yourself. You almost see that doing away with yourself is the only way to fix things, which isn’t the truth at all but it’s all you can really see when you’re sitting in a dark corner and you’re not looking around at the light.” She self-harmed and made suicide attempts.
But these are details we already knew—as they were happening, we covered the Maryville case extensively at Jezebel, as did numerous other news properties. We know it from coverage of other stories like these as well. What this film does, though, is formulates those moments and congeals these individually horrific stories together into a much larger question about our overall societal morality, when girls and women endure so much in the rape culture. To cite the message Charlie Coleman scrawled on the wall of his home gym: “What are you willing to endure?” How many times do we need to hear the same story? As many as it takes.
Daisy and fellow assault survivor Delaney Henderson, who reaches out to Daisy on Facebook after finding her experiences unsettlingly familiar, tattoo semi-colons on themselves “as a reminder to myself that my story’s never over,” says Delaney. This is where the film finds its ginger hope; when Daisy, Delaney, and a group of other survivors of teen sexual assault (most of whom were cyberbullied) meet and discuss their experiences, a kind of group therapy and awareness meant to curb the intense loneliness. (It also provides a kind of solace for viewers who also survived teen sexual assault, for whom this documentary is deeply familiar and upsetting.)
And yet Audrie and Daisy emphasizes that there’s still so much work to be done, not just in teaching young people about sexual assault awareness and consent early on, but also reforming a legal system that seems set up to demonize those it should protect. Audrie’s family and assaulters settled a wrongful death suit after it became clear to her parents that the juvenile legal system wouldn’t provide actual justice. “It was about them taking responsibility, accountability for their actions,” says her father. “But ultimately, for us, it was about clearing Audrie’s name.”