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Under the Bridge Showrunner on Crass Reactions to Murder of Reena Virk

Under the Bridge Showrunner on Crass Reactions to Murder of Reena Virk

It’s a Thursday morning and I’m barely awake when my phone greets me with a disturbing response to the fourth episode of Under the Bridge: tweet after tweet expressing anger, even hatred, toward Reena Virk. Someone saying, “I’m not even mad she gets killed.”

I’m upset, but I wish I could say that I’m surprised.

Quinn Shephard

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Sometime around 2004, as the Under the Bridge book I adapted was being published, Rebecca Godfrey made the decision not to include the story of how Reena ended up in foster care. She was concerned that this particular fact would make Reena too unlikable to garner sympathy from a reader. This choice, within the context of a book that largely relied on readers’ ability to sympathize with Reena’s murderers, is worth examining. No doubt pressured by the media environment at the time, which had even less tact than now when it came to discussions about murdered young women, Rebecca removed the detail of Reena falsely accusing her father of abuse and the circumstances that led to it. Like waving a wand, Reena was transformed in the narrative from a deeply complex and flawed girl into, well … just a girl. A girl who died. Her mistakes were erased in the name of likability, but with them, pieces of her story and her family’s story disappeared as well. Lost was the account of the racism her father faced at the hands of local police. Also lost was the context for Reena’s rage and loneliness, what might have fueled her to spread the rumors that ultimately led to her death. Perhaps most important, there was no longer a challenge for the reader to care about Reena, or what happened to her, despite her flaws. What happens to us as a society if we continue to perpetuate the notion that victims must be perfect to earn our sympathy?

Many of us don’t even realize how much we’ve internalized the myth of the “perfect victim.” We watch countless dead-girl shows with virginal brutalized bodies serving as metaphors of “lost innocence.” When Black teenagers are killed by police, news outlets run images that imply gang affiliation or drug use, encouraging viewers to buy into a narrative that refocuses the violence in an attempt to justify or soften the tragedy. When women are raped, the first questions we ask are, “Were they drunk? What was their sexual history?” Drinking, drugs, sex, rebellion — things that most humans partake in at some point in their lives — become moral checkpoints on how much a victim deserves what happened to them. Those who are not white and straight and beautiful are held to an even less forgiving standard, as if the absence of these qualities is a mark against them. All of this in search of proving “badness,” a goal that is inherently broken. A bad thing happening to a bad person doesn’t make it less bad.

I made this show in large part because I was drawn to the book’s radical plea for empathy, and its thesis that someone is not defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done. But it confuses me that empathy for Reena, through almost every iteration of her life and the stories that followed, seems to be the most conditional. It baffles me that as a society we put pressure on any victim to be likable, especially a child. And it worries me that in doing so, we imply that crimes like these can be justified. It’s worth saying this plainly: The implication that women who behave badly should be “punished” is the very mindset that caused Reena Virk’s death.

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With not just Reena, but all the leading characters in this story, we are attempting to demonstrate how empathy can ultimately stop a cycle of violence — a concept inspired by the actions of Reena’s mother, Suman Virk. Suman is the most powerful example of our core challenge: to forgive and attempt to understand, even when you find it the hardest. Because if we continue perpetuating the myth that bad things happening to bad people is a justified turn of events, we only create more bad people. Hurt people hurt people, and the cycle continues.

I’m not writing this to cast shame on the people who have expressed frustration when watching this show — I know the series is upsetting, provoking, enraging at times. But when you’re telling a story about a girl who died largely because no one considered the pain beneath her actions, it’s unsettling to witness her character being digested with the same disregard. Reena Virk was 14 when she made reckless choices, and while we must hold the utmost sympathy for how her choices affected her family, we also have to hold Reena’s teenage rage and her expression of it with care. Just as audiences seem able to draw the link between Warren Glowatski’s abandonment and homelessness to the rage that led him to this crime, surely we must be able to try and do the same for Reena. Reena lacked the tools needed to carve out her adolescent sense of independence and, in search of freedom and self, she grasped at the blunt instrument that was offered to her. We can admonish the method she employed, but not her root desire to be free. She was a girl who, as my showrunner Samir Mehta once said, “likely never felt understood a single day in her far-too-short life.” To me, it is the final ask of the show that we try our best to understand her — and not to judge her — in her death.

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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