I will try my best to refrain from blanket statements like “such and such is important” and other trite manifestations of “being seen” in this little blog post, but I will say up top that these cliches are the main drive for my writing this. I recently watched the Netflix show, Tuca and Bertie. As many reviewers have stated in more eloquent ways than I, the show is a pure delight. I won’t get in to all of that, but I am going to talk about Bertie.
I’m sure many women watching related to both characters for various reasons, but my life paralleled Bertie’s in ways I have not previously seen in a TV show. Bertie is a caregiver in many regards, often taking on more than she really needs to in order to take care of those around her. She has strong feminist convictions, but in the face of standing up for herself in situations where men make her feel uncomfortable she has difficulty speaking up. Our similarities were even as specific as her hobby of baking. She was me in so many ways. And then in the third episode of the season, “The Deli Guy,” I saw an even bigger parallel start to form. Something I had never witnessed in all my 30 years of TV watching. The episode begins with Bertie complaining to Tuca about the state of her relationship. Since moving in together, she and her boyfriend Speckle have a very boring and formulaic sex life. She knows their pattern down to the minute. She’s frustrated, of course. This is a typical sitcom storyline and the beats are practically written in stone, but a hint is dropped in this storyline that caused my senses to perk up and pay attention. I was about to witness something so close to my experience unfold in a show about anthropomorphized birds. When Speckle comes home from work and the routine starts, Bertie stops him and asks if they could try something a little different.
“What if, I don’t know, you ordered me around?” Bertie asks. Speckle is into this idea of role play and offers up that they come up with a safe word (very responsible). Bertie wants to just jump into it. Part of my stomach turned when she said that. I had an inkling, but of course I wasn’t sure. Maybe this was just setting up a joke where they get way in over their heads in some ridiculous, humorous manner and we get to laugh at them dressed up in vibrators and not knowing what to do. That’s comedy (I guess). Instead Speckle launches into the role play quickly, instructing Bertie to bend over and get “punished” with some light spanking. Bertie is into the idea at first, even enjoying the spanking, and then Speckle calls her a “bad” and “filthy” bird. Bertie begins to break down. She’s bawling and apologizing. She says she doesn’t know why she’s reacting this way and offers that they go back to their usual way.
And with this moment I knew. Bertie is a rape survivor. The episode resolves with Bertie showing Speckle a romance on par with Pride and Prejudice and explaining the aspect of longing in female desire and sexuality. All very fun and interesting, but I knew that wasn’t the end of it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to pick up on this narrative cue to the reveal in episode 9, “The Jelly Lakes,” that Bertie is a victim and survivor of sexual assault. But the depiction of a sexual trigger was all too close to home for me. I was curious to see what other cues we would get as an audience to Bertie’s past and I was even more surprised by what was delicately fleshed out through Bertie’s narrative of sexual desire.
In episode 5, “Plumage,” Bertie takes a day of self-care leading up to her starting a baking apprenticeship with a chef she admires (and finds attractive). In the episode she takes a class on learning to speak up against catcalling and men’s demeaning behavior. She enters the door to the bakery for her shift and after a day of personal growth and finding her voice against men and the situations that make her feel small. We can see she is ready for this challenge. But almost immediately her voice is silenced by Chef Pete who crowds her personal space and speaks over her attempts to tell him to respect her bodily autonomy. He even goes as far as holding her face down near a pot fruit roux claiming she needs to witness the exact moment of the color and smell change of the roux to understand how to make it. We see her struggling. She is obviously uncomfortable. And then the moment breaks and she excuses herself to bathroom. And here is the moment that my heart caught. You might think as an audience member not cued into the potential of a sexual abuse storyline (and maybe even if you have the idea that she has a history involving rape or sexual abuse) that you are going to witness another break down—tears, confusion, apologies. But instead Bertie masturbates against the sink.
I think my jaw dropped.
Something that has been one of the hardest things for me to compartmentalize and address as a survivor of rape has been the crossing of wires in my sexual urges. It’s something that is common, but not any less confusing. I have dealt with triggers like the one Bertie experienced with Speckle with every sexual partner. Some partners are more involved and concerned than others. It’s something that I have worked very directly on with therapists and have (more or less) a grasp on how to work through, both by myself and with a willing partner. But this other aspect of my sexuality is harder to talk about, harder to grasp and look at directly. My personal fantasies often have an element of coercion or rape involved. It creates a spiral of shame when it comes to personal masturbation. And more confusingly, I haven’t found a way that is enjoyable to act them out with a partner. Similarly to Bertie—even with a safe word and a partner that is loving and safe—I am never turned on by these practices in a relationship. It’s only triggering. And I feel uncomfortable even talking about it.
No part of me wants to be raped or enjoyed it when I was. I mean I was unconscious, anyway. But often times the synapses in our brains have a weird way of crossing pathways with the interactions occurring in our bodies. At least that’s how my therapists have described it. It’s not something I’m an expert on. It’s just something that I couldn’t help but relate to in Bertie and something I had never seen portrayed with such precision and nuance.
Sexuality and desire are complex enough, but when you are subjected to trauma these complexities compound on themselves. New triggers can pop up when you don’t expect them. You can find your mind and body wandering into territories of desire that feel completely at odds with what you really want. Indeed, any action in the direction of fulfilling these fantasies come with a high risk or re-traumatiziation when not handled correctly.
At the end of the season Bertie relates to Tuca her experience with sexual assault and rape in a truly moving and beautifully animated sequence. I am curious where the storylines will go from here with her. Will she tell Speckle in more detail about her past trauma? Will they go through the work of helping her cope with her triggers? Will she find a therapist that helps her contextualize and work through her desires in a healthy way? I am deeply moved and invested in this portrait of a sexual abuse survivor. So many of the stories surrounding rape in media are used as an instigation for a hero’s (i.e. a man’s) motivation for revenge or only address the direct aftermath of rape for a woman. There have been fewer stories that tell the tale of living with trauma and the ways it resurfaces for the rest of your life. Jessica Jones was an important portrayal that comes to mind. But she dealt a lot more with revenge and the early emotions attached to being a survivor, i.e. anger and and a numbing depression. Bertie is well-adjusted in many ways. She has a loving boyfriend and a good life. But occasionally this other thing rears its head. It doesn’t define her, obviously, but it is a part of her and it informs so much more than you might think it would. So much more than you want it to. Thank you to Lisa Hanawalt and her team of writers for this significant storyline. I look forward to seeing her story unfold in more seasons.