How Tuca & Bertie helped me process my sexual assault
On July 24th, Tuca & Bertie show creator Lisa Hanawalt announced that Netflix would not be renewing the instantly beloved animated series for a second season. (Trigger warning: This essay describes memories of sexual assault.)
When I was 20 years old, I was sexually and physically assaulted in my dorm room. I spent the next four years pretending it never happened.
I rather successfully pushed down this painful memory. I tried to forget, convincing myself that it wasn’t a big deal, that it didn’t define me or affect me. I did well in school, dated, and had fun with my friends—but the memory, and the trauma that came with it, never truly disappeared.
Two months ago, I excitedly dived into Netflix’s cartoon comedy Tuca & Bertie, created by Lisa Hanawalt, production designer and illustrator of the animated series, BoJack Horseman. I was curious about this new series chronicling the lives of bird best friends, and I wasn’t disappointed. Tuca & Bertie is a fun, colorful, zany show about two 30-something birds (Tiffany Hadish and Ali Wong) navigating adulthood and friendship. Between the jokes and the cartoon breasts, the series featured a storyline that I did not expect but desperately needed to see: a story of dealing with the trauma from sexual assault.
From the beginning, the character I identified with the most was Bertie, the sweet, anxious songbird. She and I both had a love of baking, Downton Abbey-esque romances, and quirky TV. We also have near-crippling anxiety that, as her friend Tuca accurately puts it, makes it so that “literally everything terrifies me and my body is holding my mind hostage.” But that isn’t where our similarities end. Throughout the season, Bertie faces sexual harassment from her co-worker Dirk (a literal rooster) and being catcalled on the street. These situations make Bertie deeply uncomfortable, but she never really talks to anyone about it. In fact, the only reason Tuca knew about Bertie’s harassment at work was because her left boob told her.
This storyline comes to a boiling point in the ninth episode when Bertie tells Tuca that she was sexually assaulted as a young girl by a trusted adult, her lifeguard. The attack caused her to give up swimming—one of her passions—and left her with lifelong trauma.
Bertie doesn’t get into details about her assault; we don’t even see the lifeguard’s face. This scene, made from paper cutouts, was unspecific about the details on purpose., and it made the narrative even more powerful. There are also no male characters in the episode. Hanawalt told TV Guide why she didn’t want the audience to see the man’s face or hear his voice: “I…didn’t want to show the specifics of what happened to her, because I didn’t want anyone to judge whether or not she overreacted to it. We just wanted to say, ‘You know what? Something happened, and it traumatized her. And it really doesn’t matter what those specifics are.’”
This scene hit home for me because even though Bertie’s and my assault are different, we both experience guilt and shame around our traumatic memories. We were both taken advantage of by people we trusted, and we were both afraid to tell anyone; Bertie didn’t tell her longtime best friend until they were in their 30s. I didn’t tell my best friend until only a few months ago, even though she was in the next room when it happened. I was afraid of being judged or not believed. I was afraid that my experience would be belittled because “it could have been worse.” What happened to me was bad enough, and I didn’t wish to have it examined in the court of public opinion. But as Hanawalt said, something happened to Bertie, and it traumatized her. Something happened to me, and it traumatized me. Something happens to people, and it traumatizes them. There is no amount of pretending that can fix that.
Trauma, especially when it hasn’t been dealt with, can spill into other parts of life, even if you aren’t completely conscious of it. Bertie’s assault happened when she was young, but she is still feeling its effects. While it is unclear if her assault is the reason that Bertie suffers from anxiety, we do see how it impacts her in other ways—from her relationship with her boyfriend to her ability to speak up. When she has a “victory” in her life, she seems unable to enjoy it because she is working through other issues.
Watching this episode was an “a-ha moment” for me as my unaddressed trauma followed me in every area of my life. It worsened my anorexia, depression, and general anxiety. I became closed off and distant from my loved ones, and it affected every romantic relationship. I’d spend weeks feeling happy and loving life—then almost instantly become self-destructive. No one, not even me, could figure out these rapid changes. It finally dawned on me—my pain after the assault was trying to find a way out.
“We were both taken advantage of by people we trusted, and we were both afraid to tell anyone; Bertie didn’t tell her longtime best friend until they were in their 30s. I didn’t tell my best friend until only a few months ago, even though she was in the next room when it happened.”
Trauma also affects our understanding of other cases of assault and harassment. Sexual assault is complex and we don’t always recognize that we’ve experienced it until years later. When Bertie was sexually harassed by Pastry Pete, she considered it a very sensual experience, even masturbating after. It’s only when Pastry Pete does it to another bird that Bertie realizes how messed up it was. She’s then consumed by guilt; she tells herself that she should have done more to stop it, wondering why she allowed this to happen to her. These feelings were similar to what I endured after my assault. Originally, I assumed things had gotten “out-of-hand” with the person—I even interacted with my assailant socially afterwards. He probably still thinks we’re friends.
It was only when I found out that he assaulted another girl—a girl who went the campus police—that I realized just how bad it was. For a long time, I was consumed with guilt and shame. Maybe if I had spoken out, I thought, that girl would have been spared. The guilt still bites at me. Assault is rarely black-and-white—something that we think is okay in the moment could prove to be incredibly harmful later on. That’s a valid experience.
“You can imagine my devastation when I found out that Tuca & Bertie had been canceled, and I would not be getting the second season that I was so excited for—and that the story deserved. In the #MeToo era and in general, stories about women, created by women, are needed more than ever.”
Bertie started the show as a character who was afraid to take risks, but she slowly overcame each obstacle throughout the season. She’s brave, but she’s not “fixed.” There is still room for growth and healing. After she reveals her sexual assault to Tuca, Bertie faces her fears to go swimming again and returns home to “get her shit together.” She tries repairing her damaged relationship with her boyfriend, and while they are on good terms, they still need to work some things out. Acknowledging your trauma doesn’t mean you’ve automatically fixed your life, nor does it give you a free pass to be a disaster. But working on your shit does make your life better. Each step gradually heals you and puts you on the path to a better life. It takes years to fully heal, if ever, but it’s worth fighting for.
I had hoped to see more of Bertie’s fight.
You can imagine my devastation when I found out that Tuca & Bertie had been canceled, and I would not be getting the second season that I was so excited for—and that the story deserved. In the #MeToo era and in general, stories about women, created by women, are needed more than ever.
Tuca & Bertie not only made me laugh—it helped me get on the path to healing from my assault. Stories about sexual assault are more important than ever, but they shouldn’t be the graphic, borderline trauma porn that we are accustomed to seeing on TV. These stories should be real, raw, and complex. They should be focused on the survivors’ journeys to recovery and happy lives. A pair of cartoon birds gave me the nuanced, strong, hilarious story that I needed.
I want to see Tuca get her life together. I want to see Bertie grow into the woman (or bird) that I know she can be. Hell, I want to see more cartoon boobs! I hope another network picks up this beautiful, interesting show (hello to you, Comedy Central). I hope this cancellation does not stop others from creating these kinds of stories. We need them, because I don’t want anyone else to think that they have to hide their pain.
If you’ve been affected by sexual assault and need help, you can speak to a counselor at RAINN by calling 1-800-656-4673 or visiting their site here. Free counselors are available 24/7.