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When Pain Becomes Pawn: White Women in “When They See Us”

Protection is a dignity not afforded brown women.

June 23, 2019

Montana Bass
Womens Media Center

n Ava DuVerney’s When They See Us, Trisha Meili, the victim of the brutal beating and rape for which five boys were wrongfully accused and convicted, appears only fleetingly.

However, even in physical absence, Meili’s symbolic presence is powerful. Through her metonym “the jogger” and the two white woman — District Attorney Sex Crimes Chief Linda Fairstein (played by Felicity Huffman) and Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farminga) — who effectively become her mouthpiece, Meili is weaponized under the guise of her protection.

DuVerney’s artful depiction exposes the process through which white women’s pain is perverted into pawn for white patriarchy.

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This process begins in the first episode of the series, during which Fairstein (Huffman) commands a group of police officers to “get an army of blue into Harlem” in the wake of Meili’s attack. They do, and while there arrest five young suspects: Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome).

Fairstein then instructs detectives to begin interrogating the suspects, who are minors — most in the absence of their parents. “No kid gloves here,” Fairstein asserts. “These are not kids. They raped this woman. Our lady jogger deserves this.”

Thus “the jogger” becomes a martyr, providing foundation for a narrative emblazoned through a long history of racist archetypes into the deepest nightmares of the white psyche — that of a white woman violated by brown men. In the harrowing scenes that follow, the boys are interrogated incessantly for hours until they are eventually coerced into confessing.

In a recent interview, Yusef Salaam described the Central Park Five as “modern day Emmett Tills.” This racist archetype of violent men of color ultimately ironically manifests in physical violence done to that very group; Fairstein, who is later joined by lead prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), uses these racially-charged archetypes to implicate the boys and reinscribe the violence suffered by Meili into their lives and onto their bodies.

While the connection drawn between a white woman’s victimhood and violence against black and brown boys is undeniable, the dehumanizing effect of this process on Meili herself is more covert. Fairstein views Meili not as an individual, but a symbol of white female victimhood.

For instance, when Lederer pushes back on Faristein’s request that she bury important evidence — DNA from semen collected from a sock at the crime scene did not match any of the accused boys — claiming that Fairstein is crossing a line, Fairstein retorts, “What line? Where’s the line for Patricia, huh?… Remember her.” Pressured by Fairstein, Lederer participates in obscuring the path towards finding Meili’s true attacker. Together, the two women prioritize convicting the boys over seeking justice for Meili — effectively decentering her from her own rape.

Lederer and Fairstein’s collective objectification of Meili is clear when Lederer calls Meili to the witness stand. The camera is so focused on Meili’s entrance to the courtroom that her body does not fully come into the frame; instead, the camera follows her abdomen, her limp hand, and focuses on the people in the pews staring and grimacing as she passes.

Lederer asks Meili not once but four times whether or not she had memory of the hours surrounding the attack. She then holds up a blatantly blood-soaked shirt, asking Meili to first identify it as her own, then to disclose the color that it had been: white. Meili’s throat catches as she answers. Lederer asks Meili to list her many injuries. The scene is garish, tedious, and completely at odds with trauma-informed practices.

Lederer does not need Meili for factual evidence; rather, she needs Meili to perform the role of “the jogger.” She makes a spectacle of her, prioritizing the state’s predation on the boys over its duty to Meili. Consequently, she manipulates Meili into reliving the rape and quite literally uses her pain as a prop to persecute brown boys.

Ultimately, instead of helping an assaulted woman find justice, the state itself assaulted five boys — and, on top of that, allowed the true assailant to continue attacking women. As episode four depicts, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist already in prison, confessed to raping Meili in 2001.

Reyes assaulted nine other women over the course of 1988–1989 and killed one: Lourdes Gonzalez.

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In addition to the harm done by Lederer and Fairstein in this case, the media’s coverage of the case at the time was also incredibly damaging.

Sensationalizing the “stranger in the alley narrative,” renders systemic misogyny less visible and obscures important truths about sexual violence — namely, about eighty percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Further, it allows more privileged assailants to “separate their own criminal tendencies” from this narrative, as DuVerney herself explained in an interview. Most notably, Donald Trump, who has since been accused by 23 women of sexual assault, took out ads in New York City papers at the time calling for a return of the death penalty in relation to the case.

White patriarchy’s desire to protect white women is in itself predicated on rape culture in its grasp for power and control over our bodies. It is rooted firmly in white female virginity, and white patriarchy’s desire to possess that.

However, protection is also a racial privilege that offers comparative power and is often disguised as dignity, a dignity not afforded brown women.

Acknowledging this intersectional aspect of our experience with rape culture can be extremely challenging for white women. For example, while the experience inspired her to dedicate her life working with survivors of sexual assault, Meili has expressed doubts about the exonerated men’s innocence and misgivings about their awarded settlement.

The trio of white women at the center of When They See Us is a stark reminder of an alliance between white women and white patriarchy.

Continuing to leverage racial privilege for power within a male-dominated system is an obstacle in the path toward true liberation from patriarchy, a system in which sexual violence against us is so common.

White women must break this alliance; we must learn to question our racial protection so that we can resist, rather than enable, white supremacy and seek to understand the ways our suffering is fundamentally linked to others’. Let us learn from the white women of When They See Us not to allow our own pain to become pawn.

This essay was originally published on the Women’s Media Center’s FBomb blog under the title “‘When They See Us asks white women to question our role in white patriarchy.”

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