The CW’s “Kung Fu” Powerfully Addresses Sexual Assault

SPOILER ALERT: Major spoilers for the fourth episode of Kung Fu (the CW version) lie beyond the period at the end of this sentence.

TW: Gender-based violence.

We interrupt the grading of junior high math tests (60 down, 40 to go) to share some reflections on a remarkable scene at the end of “Hand,” the fourth episode in the new Kung Fu series.

But first, if you haven’t heard anything about the show, here’s a TL;DR intro:

Kung Fu reboots the famously problematic 1970s TV series, but other than the martial arts theme, it’s totally different. It centers on a twentysomething-year-old Asian American woman returning home after three years off the grid at a Chinese shaolin monastery. Viewers witness stumbles and successes as she tries to make amends with the family she ghosted and to avenge the assassination of her shaolin master. Along the way, she works with her siblings, her ex-boyfriend, and her current love interest to bring justice to the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Even now, early in its first season, Kung Fu is already an extraordinary achievement in the ways it represents Asian Americans and their families. It fleshes out its characters such that none is a stereotype, and it catches even the smallest of real-life cultural details.

Nicky (Olivia Liang) and her dad Jin (the great Tzi Ma), representing their generations in the slippers / no-slippers debate.

But while I anticipated the series would break new ground in how it depicts race and culture, I didn’t expect to see another first, at least for me: Asian American characters talking about, and supporting each other, in response to an experience of sexual violence. I’ve seen a lot of TV in my nearly 50 years, and I can’t ever recall a moment like that. I strongly suspect that’s because such occurrences have been rare if not non-existent.

Not only is the attempt to depict such a conversation itself a breakthrough, but it is done so very, very well. As the kind readers of this blog may recall, I worked in women’s rights advocacy and in the gender-based violence prevention space for several years before returning to the classroom, even earning my state certification as a Sexual Assault Victim Advocate. And I can’t help but be impressed with a number of aspects of the scene.

Nicky (Olivia Liang) has an absolute ton she wants to share with big sister Althea (Shannon Dang). But she notices something’s wrong.

It opens on prodigal daughter Nicky (Olivia Liang) settling down for a good sisterly convo with big sister Althea (Shannon Dang). Nicky’s got a lot she wants to share; she’s had a huge day, to say the least. But she notices Althea’s demeanor and asks if she’s okay. Unbeknownst to Nicky, Althea is a sexual assault survivor and has buried her feelings about it:

ALTHEA: A profile of my boss was supposed to come out tonight – exposing him as a sexual abuser. He assaulted a woman at work. But she dropped out of the story because she was scared, I guess.

NICKY: My God.

ALTHEA: No, I know she was scared. Because what he did to her … (looks to Nicky, nervous of how she’ll react, then looks down again) … he did to me.

NICKY: (Pauses, stunned, and blinks back tears.) When?

ALTHEA: While you were gone. (Grabs Nicky’s hand.) It didn’t happen all at once, not at first. That’s the crazy thing; it’s the steps. First, it was a comment on the tightness of my sweater. Then a jab at how my chest is out of proportion with my ass. Then I’m his favorite employee at work and a promise of a promotion. But then I’ve overstepped, in some invisible way. He freezes me out for a week, so I’m dying to get back into his good books. I accept a whiskey after-hours in his office. I don’t fight back when his hand is on my knee. So he grabs me, tells me he can’t help himself, I’m irresistible, and he ….

(Both women are in tears.)

So he made a little mistake. I can’t ruin someone’s reputation over a mistake, right? And that’s why I couldn’t talk to the reporter. I was all mixed up, why I was so relieved to hear that another woman wasn’t. And she was braver than me, even though I’m so sorry it happened to her, too, but … relieved, in a way? That sounds so awful.

NICKY: Hey, no. I am so sorry for what you went through … for not being here.

ALTHEA: (Shaking her head and partially covering her face as the tears flow freely.) I know how that woman feels. And I have the power to make her – God, others – not feel so scared. If I just spoke out, but … but I can’t.

NICKY: (Nods.)

ALTHEA: I can’t do it.

(Nicky reaches out and pulls Althea to her in a protective embrace.)

Althea has carried the weight of what happened to her all by herself this entire time. No one has known but the reporter (played by Patricia Pemberton, seen in the image at the top of this post), and Althea sure didn’t tell her.

(As compelling as the dialogue is on the page, I can’t say enough about how Ms. Dang and Ms. Liang perform it. Even subsequent viewings bring tears and give me the proverbial lump-in-the-throat. I really just can’t get the scene out of my head. It’s haunting, in a good way.)

I’m struck by several things:

1. Althea’s description of “the steps” is spot-on. In workplaces, sexual predators often groom their victims over a period of time, just as it happened to Althea, step by step. They violate their potential victims’ boundaries, a bit at a time, testing to see if they’ll get pushback. But they do it with such subtlety that they can easily give plausible deniability, if confronted, that they intended anything inappropriate.

2. Sexual predators indeed often have multiple victims. It’s not hard to see how this can happen in a workplace environment. Reporting a boss for harassment or assault can have serious repercussions; a victim could end up fired and without an income to provide for herself and, if she has a family, her children. Yes, it’s illegal to punish someone who comes forward with a report, but the justice system takes months, even years, to process claims and counter-claims – and in the meantime, groceries still need to be bought, rent still needs to be paid, illnesses still need to be treated by doctors’ visits and medicines, child care still needs to be hired, cars still need to be fixed, and so on. That power differential between boss and subordinate – the power of potentially cutting off a worker’s income – is key to ensuring the victim’s silence. And the predator takes advantage by finding others to groom and assault.

3. Victims commonly blame themselves. Hear it again in Althea’s words:

First, it was a comment on the tightness of my sweater. Then a jab at how my chest is out of proportion with my ass. Then I’m his favorite employee at work and a promise of a promotion. But then I’ve overstepped, in some invisible way. He freezes me out for a week, so I’m dying to get back into his good books. I accept a whiskey after-hours in his office. I don’t fight back when his hand is on my knee. So he grabs me, tells me he can’t help himself, I’m irresistible, and he ….

Note that Althea begins by describing her ex-boss’s behavior toward her. But then she starts listing things she wishes she hadn’t done – I’m dying to get back into his good books, I accept a whiskey after-hours in his office, I don’t fight back when his hand is on my knee. She feels, as many survivors do, that she brought it all on herself by not stopping him, and that maybe she even led him on, giving him the impression that she wanted him sexually.

This reporter (Patricia Pemberton) simply will not leave Althea (Shannon Dang) alone. (Image is from the third episode of season one.)

4. Related to self-blame, survivors often worry that if they report their assailants, they will have ruined their attackers’ reputations. 75 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by people the victim already knows, so the victim may know how highly regarded and beloved their assailant is in their community, organization, or church. They may also know the attacker’s spouse and kids, if they exist, and can imagine how devastating it would be to said spouse and kids if they report the assault. So they may fear, ironically, for the reputation of the person who did them wrong – in part because they feel somewhat at fault anyway.

5. Victims often shame themselves for not speaking out. They know that if they report the crime, it could protect others from falling prey to the sexual predator. So they criticize themselves for not being brave enough to say something, and they may even shame themselves as being selfish. Yet the trauma of what they’ve experienced, and the ongoing terror, is very real; no survivor suffering from these should have their arm twisted into telling their story to reporters, the authorities, or anyone else.

6. Nicky’s response to her sister is a wonderful example. When a sexual assault survivor confides their story to another person, they’re really making themselves vulnerable. And often confidants turn out to not be emotionally safe people. They may jump to criticizing a victim: Why were you drinking? Why did you wear that slutty outfit? Why did you go there when I told you not to?

But Nicky doesn’t question Althea; she shows that she absolutely believes her. That belief can mean so much in helping survivors to heal. In fact, when someone confides their experience of sexual assault to me, one of the first things I say is “I believe you.” (And I always give that person the benefit of the doubt – that it did happen the way they’re describing it. Only if there’s compelling evidence that an accusation is false – a rare occurrence that happens in only 2 to 8 percent of sexual assault cases – will I take a skeptical view.)

A big part of what makes Ms. Dang’s and Ms. Liang’s scene so powerful is that it has real-world impact. I haven’t done any viewer surveys, but I have zero doubt that among the hundreds of thousands of viewers watching, there will be many sexual assault survivors that feel more seen and even understood because of it. That’s how prevalent sexual assault is in our society. (For instance, according to the CDC, 19 percent of all American women will experience rape in their lifetimes, and 44 percent of all American women will experience some other form of sexual violence.) Some will gain the courage to talk about what happened to them for the first time; others will decide to finally see a therapist; yet others will feel compelled to report their assailants to the authorities. Some will even decide not to take their own lives, but to pursue help and healing.

Brava to actresses Shannon Dang and Olivia Liang, as well as writer Kathryn Borel and director America Young! Thank you so much for using your gifts and abilities to educate and to heal!

Heaven help that ex-boss if Nicky ever gets a hold of him.