In fairy tales, the woods are where people go when they want to pursue their hearts’ desires, to test themselves and to face off against grave dangers. Because the world we actually live in is simultaneously more prosaic and more magical than the Brothers Grimm ever could have imagined, the woods have been replaced by the Internet, which is simultaneously a way to access much of the world’s wisdom and a treacherous zone where trolls and wolves have free rein.
The way we think about our digital woods often shades into paranoia, often when we discuss the way teenage girls use it. So “Audrie & Daisy,” a documentary about teenagers, rape and social media that arrived on Netflix on Friday, is highly refreshing for the sensible approach directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk take to the Internet. While they recognize that social media can be a source of enormous cruelty, it can also be a powerful tool for forging life-saving connections.
“Audrie & Daisy” follows two girls, Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, both of whom said they were sexually assaulted and were subjected to vicious harassment afterward — bullying is really too mild a term to adequately capture what happened to them.
The three teenage boys who assaulted Audrie circulated pictures of the attack afterward. They ultimately pleaded guilty to the assault and to possessing pictures of Audrie, but by that point, Audrie had committed suicide by hanging.
Daisy and her best friend, Paige, were both allegedly assaulted at the home of Matthew Barnett, a friend of Daisy’s older brother. The attack was reportedly videotaped and the footage distributed, though the prosecutors in the case said they were unable to find the footage. Daisy was 13 at the time of the attack. She was left outside in the snow afterward, her family’s home was burned down and she attempted suicide twice. Prosecutors initially charged Barnett with sexual assault, but those charges were dropped. He eventually pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child.
These are awful stories. But Daisy’s doesn’t end there. Though social media was one of the instruments of Audrie’s harassment, it was also the way that Delaney Henderson, a sexual assault survivor and activist, reached out to Daisy. As horrifying as it is to watch “Audrie & Daisy” re-create Audrie’s Facebook message comments in the days leading up to her death, Delaney’s message to Daisy arrived through social media, too. That gesture of kindness feels a little like the dove returning to Noah during the flood, a promise of hope arriving across a sea of nastiness.
When I moderated a panel on the film at the AFI Docs festival here in Washington this year, both Daisy and Delaney pointed out that teenagers live a great deal of their lives on social media today. Withdrawing from the Internet might be the simplest solution to bullying and harassment, because it doesn’t require tech companies to build strong tools or invest in moderation systems. But telling young women to just walk away from social media also denies them sources of support.
Cutting Daisy off from the the Internet might have spared her some gossip. But online abstinence wouldn’t have protected her family’s home from fire, or saved her brother from the experience of having a friend allegedly attack his sister. And if Daisy weren’t online, Delaney would have had a much harder time reaching out to her.
Watching “Audrie & Daisy,” I was reminded of a section in Nancy Jo Sales’s regrettable book about teenagers, “American Girls,” where a 13-year-old gets a text from a boy asking her for nude pictures and responds by sending him an image of a naked mole rat. In her justifiable horror over the fact that the girl had even received the request, Sales seemed to miss the resilience of her response.
Both this story and “Audrie & Daisy” are powerful reminders to avoid knee-jerk reactions to horror stories that seem to have their roots in the Internet and social media. A quick response might be to cloister girls from everything that can hurt them. But a more lasting solution might be to help teenagers develop the tools they can use to support each other.