Surviving In Color
On surviving sexual violence, and finding solace and closure in the stories of characters who look like us.
Surviving is a process that happens at a million different paces, in a million different ways, to millions of different people. Abuse and assault are, tragically, near-universal experiences. And yet, the way in which we live these experiences is influenced by a lot of factors. Because abuse and assault happen due to abuse of power, and power is heavily marked by the different axes of privilege, the marginalized are targeted more often. Be it because we are not men, not cis, not white, not straight, not neurotypical, not abled; we are forced into positions where those with more power can rip away our consent and agency.
We could talk about the factors that influence abuse and assault for ages, and it’s a good thing that these conversations are happening. Seeing, hearing and reading the stories of other survivors is what allows us to step away from the feelings of shame, of isolation, of guilt. The culture of silence around abuse and assault makes the process of healing all the longer and more painful, and the act of speaking, sharing and supporting is what helps survivors in the path to recovery.
At NerdyPoC, we firmly believe in the importance of media representation as a tool for societal change and as a way for people to feel uplifted, validated and accompanied. Seeing the stories of other survivors, of survivors that look like us and that have lived through experiences similar to ours, can be an incredible help in our efforts to cope with trauma — so we’d like to highlight five stories about survivors of color that may make you feel understood, that might give you hope, that might remind you that you are not alone.
Mariah Dillard (Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’)
Surviving is an act of heroism in itself, but sometimes the hero of one story is another person’s villain. Mariah Dillard, the compelling and multifaceted big bad in Marvel’s “Luke Cage”, follows a dark path as she has to come to terms with the fact that she’s not the savior that will rescue Harlem from crime and corruption, and successively embraces her role as crime boss without missing a beat. It’s during this transition to power that we learn that Mariah is a survivor.
When we first meet her, Mariah seems disgusted by the violence inherent Cottonmouth’s work. But, as the story unfold, Mariah gets roped closer into her cousin’s dealings, attempting to protect their money and take down Luke Cage. She’s at Cornell’s club when, amidst an argument that causes them both to bring up old resentments, Cornell tells Mariah that she was asking for her Uncle Pete to assault her. Mariah bends in on herself, gasping, as if she’d just been hit in the gut. Her hands tremble for a second, and then she’s reaching for a wine bottle and she swings. She’s yelling “no!” as the bottle hits Cornell’s head, bounces, and then she pushes him, yelling “no, I did not, no,” until he smashes into the window and falls to the floor below. He survives the impact, but Mariah runs down and continues hitting him, killing him with a microphone stand as she keeps repeating that she didn’t want it.
She comes back to herself after barely twenty seconds, but Cornell is dead already. This is a turning point for Mariah’s character, who doesn’t yet embrace violence but seems to let go of some of her reluctance to assert herself. Mariah never got to do anything about the abuse she endured, she was sent away and it was Cornell who was tasked with killing her rapist. Until this moment, until this fall-from-grace that is also a rebirth, a revenge, a vindication; Mariah hasn’t been granted complete agency over any aspect of her life. Killing Cornell allows her to break free from the roles that Mama Mabel imposed on her, the role of dutiful cousin, the role of politician, the role of cowering victim.
When Mariah kills Cornell and takes his place, we can’t help but root for her. For a moment, for some precious twenty seconds, we get to stand in Mariah’s shoes and scream and punch and fight against every person who’s ever made us feel like we deserved what happened to us. Mariah’s fury is ours too, an anger that, in trying to heal in a positive way, we rarely — if ever — get to indulge on.
Advisories: There are no scenes of explicit sexual violence or abuse.
Kibby Ainsley (‘Daytime Divas’)
‘Daytime Divas’ was a delightful, though short-lived dramedy focused on the five co-hosts of an all-female talk-show. Among its leading cast was Kibby, played by Honduran-American actress Chloe Bridges. It was never clear whether the character was supposed to be mixed race, since her mother and (half?) sister are both played by white actresses, but it’s easy to guess she could have, like the actress portraying her, a Brown dad.
Kibby was a lovable character from the beginning. She was a former child-star, openly pansexual and a recovering addict; and she was more concerned with keeping her sobriety and having fun with her girlfriend than she was a about in-studio drama or getting ahead at work. While addiction and over-sexualization are often used as harmful stereotypes to demonize Latinxs, Kibby’s addiction was portrayed as a sympathetic mental health struggle from the beginning and any character who had anything negative to say about her sexuality got dragged on-screen without hesitation. And, not only were we as audiences compelled to care for her but, being the youngest of the co-hosts, she attracted all the other women’s protective instincts. Overall, seeing a young Latina be so loved and supported as she struggled with her addiction, a recent heartbreak and her abusive mother’s manipulation.
And then, near the end of the season, a lot of details about her addiction, her disinterest in fame and her struggle with romantic relationships started to add up. First we saw another former child-star accuse her of sleeping her way into fame, and Kibby’s deep hurt over this. Then, an encounter with the actor who used to play her dad when she was the teen star of a children’s show shows Kibby deeply uncomfortable, obviously angry and wanting to flee. It isn’t until Kibby’s mother tries to get her teenage sister to audition for this actor’s new show that the pieces don’t fall into place, but now we can’t unsee it. Kibby was obviously abused by this actor, and she’s stuck between her fear to speak up and her need to keep the same thing from happening to her little sister.
The way the show manages Kibby’s trauma, her co-workers and superiors’ reaction to the revelation that a well-liked colleague is a predator, the public’s support and backlash, and even Kibby’s own mother victim-blaming and abuse apologia are genuinely incredible. The show can be dramatic and over-the-top, but every second of Kibby’s storyline is handled with the utmost care and respect. Watching Kibby’s journey is a truly uplifting experience.
Advisories: There are no scenes of explicit sexual violence or abuse. However, there are scenes where Kibby has to be alone with her abuser, although nothing happens.
Kisa (‘From Dusk Till Dawn’: The Series)
Rodriguez’s spin-off series of the 90s Tarantino/Rodriguez trilogy is, let’s be frank, an absolute mess. It’s too centered on the white characters’ feelings, it has only the lightest of Latinxs in main roles, it victimizes and/or kills off nearly all of its female characters… One could write an entire thesis on all the ways that this show drops the ball, both in matters of representation and of logical writing. And yet, Kisa’s uniqueness as a character and as the unarguable protagonist of the story makes it worth watching.
Kisa, who we meet as Santanico Pandemonium, was a mysterious (and flat) vampire-slash-exotic-dancer in the original movies. The show expands on her story, from her youth as a devout worshipper of pre-colonial Mexican Gods, until she was turned into a culebra against her will and chained in a temple for centuries. That temple is now the strip club where she’s the main attraction, still confined to it by the same powerful men who stole her life centuries ago.
Kisa isn’t just the femme fatale archetype that the movies presented. In the show, she’s a woman desperate for freedom, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to break away from her abusers and get her revenge.
Despite some inconsistent writing, Kisa’s narrative as an assault and abuse survivor feels honest. She manages to break free from her captors, but finds herself adrift and lacking purpose in a world that’s passed her by while she was trapped within the confines of the temple. We see her searching for meaning or solace in this world that doesn’t understand the depth of her trauma, trying to find a balance between the violence that’s become a part of her. We see her desperation when she fears that she might not get to get revenge on her rapist, how her fury and her trauma lead her to hurt herself and hurt others in this search for vengeance.
There is hardly anything redeemable about the third season of the show, so it’s better not to watch it, but it does confirm that Kisa is attracted to women, which makes her somehow even more unique as a character.But the first two seasons of “From Dusk Till Dawn” are the story of Kisa’s path to freedom, vengeance and closure; and how the characters around her are trying to find their own ways to escape trauma and reclaim their agency. The story understands victims’ anger and how survival often leads us down harmful paths. Because it’s a narrative full of crooks and criminals, it allows survivors to exist in shades of grey and doesn’t judge how we deal with our trauma.
In “From Dusk Till Dawn”, a survivor’s righteous fury is a redeeming and purifying force, and her reclaiming of agency is the greatest act of heroism in a story without heroes.
Advisories: There are scenes of semi-explicit sexual violence and abuse, not all related to Kisa. We see adult men preying on teenagers, a short scene of Kisa being sexually approached by her rapist, and some of the abuse human traffic victims face. There are no scenes of explicit, violent sexual assault; and the show is rated 13+ so the instances of abuse that are shown aren’t particularly long or explicit; usually cutting away before any actual violence is shown, but their nature is clear.
Melina Galoudian (‘Queen Sugar’)
Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Queen Sugar’ is objectively one of the best shows on television. Not just currently on television, but ever. It’s a slow-paced, carefully interwoven, lovingly crafted tale of family, heritage, race, healing and — most of all — love. Everything, from the way they light the actors’ brown and black skin to the choice to hire only women directors, is done with care, love and respect. “Queen Sugar” wants to tell a story and it will only tell it in the best possible way. Sexual assault is one of the first stories they decided to tackle, and the way they handled this extremely delicate issue has cemented it as an honest and fearless work of television.
The first episode ends when the news hit that Davis West, famous basketball player, was sleeping with the same sex worker who recently accused three of his teammates of assault. We’re following the story of the Bordelon siblings, and Davis is married to the middle child, Charley.
This sub-plot doesn’t really advance for the next few episodes, and we’re just vaguely aware that Charley thinks the accuser, a sex worker who uses the professional name “Goldie”, is falsely accusing the players for a payout. Charley holds a prejudiced view of sex workers, and it’s a common idea that sex workers simply “can’t” be raped because the consent to sex for money means they consent to anything. This is, of course, false (as are many other myths about sex work) but nobody seems to really dispute it for now.
And then, in the sixth episode, this plot finally comes to a resolution. Charley’s Sister, Nova, is publicly asked about the “scandal”, and she voices her support for Melina Gold. Charley takes offense to this, because she perceives it as a betrayal to her. Nova, who’s not one to give up on her morals, remains firm in her position.
Charley is convinced that Melina’s allegations are false, because Melina agreed to withdraw the charges if Davis paid a settlement in the millions. That, and agree to meet with her.
It’s during this meeting that Melina finally gets to tell her side of the story. All she wants is a chance to face the man who betrayed her consent. She struggles to keep her voice and expression steady as she explains that she’d been sleeping with Davis for a long time, and that they were friends. This made it all the more awful when Davis left Melina alone in a room with a handful of basketball players who’d been told that she’d been “paid for”.
Charley’s face falls as they listen to a recording of Melina and Davis speaking on the phone, when she called him hoping for an explanation or an apology. Davis’ cold disregard for Melina’s consent or her wellbeing is chilling.
Sex workers are often denied any kind of respect. They are either stripped of all agency by stating that any kind of sex work is inherently rape and all sex workers are victims; or denied humanity and autonomy by the belief that consent to one translational sex act means they must consent to anything as long as they get paid. Most of television shows that feature sex workers portray one of these two damaging prejudices; and even those who don’t, often rely on jokes and sex work or whorephobic slurs. And, like victims, sex workers are a group that are only ever portrayed positively when played by white women.
Seeing a sex worker — and a woman of color at that — be given agency, portrayed sympathetically and treated with respect both in her profession and as a victim was something unique. But, most of all, the fact that she gets to confront Davis and the honesty of the scene are vindicating. They’re not particularly happy, it’s a painful and uncomfortable scene, and it’s disheartening to know that Davis and his teammates will face no consequences. But every beat of the scene is raw and genuine, and you feel understood.
Advisories: There are no scenes of explicit sexual violence or abuse. When Melina talks of her assault, she describes the events leading up to it with mild detail but doesn’t expand on the assault itself.
Max (‘Black Sails’)
‘Black Sails’ came and went as an underrated TV treasure, mostly unnoticed by critics, awards and mainstream audiences. There are plenty of reasons to watch it, but Max’s arc as a rape survivor is rarely discussed as one of them. It should be, because it’s written with great care and Jessica Parker Kennedy’s performance is phenomenal (even if you don’t like her accent).
For a show written primarily by straight men, the empathy shown in the writing of its women, LGB characters, and abuse and rape survivors was always astounding. Sadly, the whiteness of the writers room is obvious in the small number of Black characters and the kind of screen time they get, with Max being the one exception during the first three seasons. She’s a Black, lesbian sex worker; one of the main characters and among the most and best developed characters in the show.
When we first meet Max, we learn that she’s a cunning and ambitious sex worker, and that she’s sleeping (and obviously in love) with the tavern’s owner, Eleanor Guthrie. Max is working a scheme to get some big money so she and Eleanor can run away together. When Max’s plan falls apart and Eleanor chooses her business over their romance, Max is cornered by the men of one of the pirate crews, and assaulted. Eleanor comes to Max’s rescue, but Max feels too betrayed to accept her protection. In choosing to reject Eleanor, Max is abandoned to the pirates’ cruelty.
All the women of Nassau know Max, and all the women in Nassau understand that the violence that she’s being subjected to is a type of torture that can’t be compared to any other. When confronted about it, the pirate Anne Bonny tells Max that she’d thought that they would only kill her. Max doesn’t question the idea that rape is worse than death.
Seeing Anne Bonny and Eleanor Guthrie team up to murder Max’s rapists is satisfying, yes. But what really makes this show worth-watching is seeing Max after that. We get to see her slowly recovery, we witness her rise within the brothel until she’s running it, we walk by her side as she falls in love with Anne. And all along this journey she remains kind, determined, empathetic, and relentlessly ambitious.
We get to see Max win, or as close as a lesbian Black woman in colonial times could ever get to “winning”, and it’s one of the most satisfying stories to watch. Where trauma often makes us feel like the future is something unattainable, something not made for us, Max’s story reminds us that nothing is ever truly lost. Recovery is possible. Happiness is possible. Sometimes, we get to win.
Advisories: There are scenes of semi-explicit sexual violence and abuse. The scenes don’t show assault, directly, but the moments leading up to it or immediately after. We can hear the assault happening during prolonged moments, even though we don’t see it. After Max’s assault, there are no other rape scenes in the show. Exact time-stamps can be found here.
Survivors of color, especially survivors of color who get to have their stories told in a respectful, genuine and humane manner, are still a rarity in mainstream media. These five stories shine for the honesty, care and respect with which they are handled, but they aren’t the only ones.
We could (and should) mention the hip-hop drama “The Get Down”, which featured multiple Black and Latinx survivors of assault and abuse; and took particularly daring steps by showing not one but two male survivors, both assaulted by women. The fact that one of them is Shaolin, co-protagonist of the series and romantic hero, makes it a mold-breaking narrative. But the show often handles abuse with a too-heavy hand, and these characters hardly get any closure. After eleven episodes of doing everything in his power to break free from his abuser and a heartfelt scene where he finally got to put words to his trauma, Shao was pushed back into Fat Annie’s orbit and the show was cancelled without ceremonies, leaving him at the whims of the woman who exploited him since childhood. Shaolin was a life-changing character for many people, but the ending he got wasn’t the empowering, uplifting narrative we were looking for.
Other stories didn’t make it to the list because they don’t deal with the specific experience of surviving sexual trauma, but the way they handle autonomy, agency and recovery is good enough to guarantee a mention. Sy-Fy’s “Killjoys” and “Dark Matter” are two very different shows with some very stark similitudes: both are set in dystopian neo-capitalistic galaxies, both are led by bisexual women of color, both heavily focus on the ways in which agency is taken and reclaimed. There is no simple way to explain how these shows tackle the themes of bodily autonomy, consent, trauma and recovery without spoiling them but, because they don’t touch on sexual assault explicitly, we chose to keep them off the list.
Like we said at the beginning, surviving is not an homogenous experience. The narratives we picked might or might resonate with any number of survivors, and hopefully this piece will spark a conversation and bring other good stories about survivors of color to light. There are endless stories missing still, but these are five narratives that, maybe, will be able to reach to you and remind you that you are not alone.
Editor: Ricardo Biramontes