The Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich documentary erases Black women's involvement in the story

Laura Jane Turner
Photo credit: Rick Friedman - Getty Images

From Digital Spy

In July of 2019, after years of silencing those who had tried to speak out against him and evading accountability for his actions, Jeffrey Epstein was arrested for sex trafficking. It finally seemed as though he was going to face real consequences and that, most importantly, his survivors would be heard and see justice done.

Although this did not mark the first time that the billionaire faced charges, there was something different in the air this time around. In 2008, an unprecedented plea deal had ensured that Epstein's 'punishment' was little more than using a private wing of a county jail as a B&B for a mere 13 months. He was still allowed to leave for work, six days a week, and worse still the deal protected any co-conspirators from federal charges.

What's more, it reportedly was effectively responsible for shutting down an ongoing FBI probe to find more victims and uncover other powerful people who took part (according to documents examined and reported on by Miami Herald).

This deal was later ruled to have been a violation of the victims' rights, but it had already proved what so many already knew to be true: if you're a white, wealthy man in a position of power then the usual rules don't apply.

Photo credit: Davidoff Studios Photography - Getty Images

The shift of 2019 did not happen in a vacuum. As detailed in Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, the #MeToo movement played a critical role in further propelling wider social change around the treatment of abuse victims. It had helped build a sturdier platform for those affected to come forward with their own stories of abuse, assault and harassment, handing the microphone over to them and giving their words a weight not often felt before.

The documentary, however, did not go into any real detail about how the #MeToo movement actually came about. Crediting a white actor for her Twitter post that made the now-famous hashtag go viral, the series erased a long-standing movement that had been pioneered by a Black woman.

Many attribute the groundbreaking work of the New York Times and New Yorker for their investigation into Harvey Weinstein (now a convicted rapist) as stirring up a reversal of the narrative.

Yes, each of these mark notable and commendable moments fed into the wave of change – but it is not where #MeToo began.

Photo credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

Tarana Burke actually coined the phrase 'Me Too' back in 2006. She had been working with survivors of sexual violence, including young people, for over 10 years.

In 2017 Alyssa Milano, the aforementioned actor, came across the term without realising where it had come from. As is the nature of the internet, her rousing statement spurred many others to come forward with their own accounts and a trending topic was born.

It would soon be used more than 12 million times, and very few people would think to dig any deeper into its origin – although it's important to note that many people of colour did point this out at the time, also highlighting that Burke's Me Too initiative had not received this support from prominent white feminists (via New York Times).

"Initially I panicked," Burke said of her reaction to Milano's tweet. "I felt a sense of dread, because something that was part of my life's work was going to be co-opted and taken from me and used for a purpose that I hadn’t originally intended."

After realising, Milano reached out to Burke days after posting and also moved to correct herself by publicly crediting her on Good Morning America.

Photo credit: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Lifetime - Getty Images

Burke herself has since said that Me Too is "is bigger than me and bigger than Alyssa Milano", while emphasising that the focus should be "about survivors" (via New York Times). But the documentary, for whatever reason, made an editorial choice to only credit one of these names within its own storytelling.

When you consider the complex history and unsavoury discourse that has long existed within feminism, and its known history of exclusion when it comes to non-white voices and experiences, it feels like a failure. It is also one that now echoes even louder, given the current (and greatly needed) attention on the Black Lives Matter movement and its focus on dismantling white supremacy.

For too long Black experiences have been overlooked and conversations – around feminism or otherwise – have been whitewashed. Many white-led feminist movements have ignored the very specific and varying forms of oppression that are only experienced by those without the privilege that comes with being white.

It would have taken mere seconds to name-check Tarana Burke as the originator of Me Too within Filthy Rich's episode.

Talking to the Guardian earlier this year about how her #MeToo movement has grown, Burke explained: "When I first started Me Too, young people had no language to talk about this… And that's something I've seen change; young people have a way to talk about it now. Hearing the words 'rape culture' doesn't seem foreign to them."

While her work used to be very much under the radar, the growth of #MeToo has placed Burke in the spotlight herself – something she didn't ask for, or necessarily desire. But now she's got it, she has talked of the need to use her newfound platform.

"Now that I have it, I'm trying to use it responsibly," she told the publication. "But if it hadn't come along I would be right here, with my f**king Me Too shirt on, doing workshops and going to rape crisis centres."

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is available to stream now on Netflix.

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