Unbelievable has delivered a rare honest portrayal of rape survival on TV – it should be our new blueprint

Unbelievable it is the latest drama to change how sexual assault is portrayed. It takes a sensitive and nuanced look at the suspicion levied at claimants as well as the difficulty, and even reluctance, the police have when building a case

Harriet Hall
Tuesday 24 September 2019 17:59 BST
Unbelievable trailer

There is a scene in episode seven of Netflix’s Unbelievable in which viewers see a rape survivor, Marie, vindicated for her behaviour following her harrowing treatment at the hands of police, when her therapist says, “basically you were assaulted twice – once by your attacker, then again by the police”.

The series has received huge critical acclaim since its release on 13 September. Based on a Pulitzer prize-winning ProPublica article that recounted the story of an 18-year-old Marie Adler who was charged with gross misdemeanour in 2008 when police pressured her to state that she had made up her rape claim, the series sees Marie forced to repeatedly recount her story and then questioned as to why minor inconsistencies occurred. She is treated like suspect, not victim.

Rape has become a mainstay of television drama in recent years; a titillating, dangerous and brazen addition to our popular culture that raises the perceived threat against female protagonists, or simply serves as a tool that makes them more “relatable” as characters. It is the lowest common denominator of cheap thrills, numbing viewers’ perception of the crime and entrenching dangerous stereotypes.

It’s now no longer enough for crime dramas to centre on murder or kidnapping, they must pivot on a sexual assault. Take Game of Thrones as one example – the series was full of sexual violence as a means of developing character arcs – or teen drama 13 Reasons Why, in which the camera lingers over the horrifying ordeal of Hannah Baker, as her head knocked against a hot tub while her attack took place and then, as if that image wasn’t enough for us, saw a group of men rape another man with a mop, as his head was submerged in a toilet. Meanwhile, the much-celebrated TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale presents mechanical, repeated rape. Rape so routine that some viewers troublingly refer to them as "sex scenes".

In recent years we’ve seen rape take centre stage in Apple Tree Yard, Liar, Broadchurch, This is England, The Fall… the list goes on.

In a post #MeToo world, such depictions of sexual assault have troubling implications. This is why a show like Unbelievable holds such importance.

Unlike its predecessors, Unbelievable takes a sensitive and nuanced look at the suspicion levied at claimants as well as the difficulty, and even reluctance, police can take towards building a case. It presents a complex and – vitally – imperfect victim, one who doesn’t conform to the damsel in distress model and responds to her attack in a closed-off and occasionally inconsistent manner. Seeing these attributes used against her shows how dangerous victim stereotyping can be.

This approach isn’t unique to Unbelievable. The most recent series of Big Little Lies also carefully observed how victims might respond to attack, from introspection to confusion and denial. A particularly difficult courtroom scene sees Celeste (played by the actor Nicola Kidman) questioned as to whether or not her rape by her husband, might actually have been consensual, given their previous rough sex life.

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13 Reasons Why responded to criticism from viewers, using its most recent series to explore the issue of victim trauma. Viewers see Jess undress in front of a mirror, tears flowing, as she attempts to reclaim her body following her rape; other victims express rage, while some keep quiet altogether. The later series of Orange is the New Black also observed how grooming and coercion might see a victim return to their attacker, as Pennsatucky did with warden Charlie Coates.

These moments mark a vital and overdue shift from women as the collateral damage in popular culture – their bodies used as slabs of meat, their pain as story-fillers – to an exploration of survivor pain.

Popular culture plays an important role. Victim stereotypes directly affect conviction rates, which remain low. Figures released in April of this year revealed that the proportion of rapes being prosecuted in England and Wales had dropped to just 1.7 per cent, down from 3.3 per cent in 2017. Among the numerous contributing factors to these figures, delayed reporting, mobile phone communication and inconsistent recounting of events (all confirmed as being consistent with the behaviour of sexual assault victims, according to psychologists) played a large part. The more we see lazy stereotypes over how rapes happen and the abused respond portrayed on screen, the more they contribute to a social consensus over the right way to be a victim.

Marie’s story in Unbelievable also reminds viewers of the stark contrast between how her “low status”, having grown up in the system, might worsen her chances of securing a conviction for her attacker – compared with someone like Brock Turner, for example, whose high status and potential, was ruled by a judge to be of significant import when it came to his lenient sentencing for sexual assault. Of course, the myriad reasons why rape convictions remain so abysmally low stretch far beyond mere pop culture influence. But it is a contributing factor that screenwriters and directors would do well to consider.

Anyone who has asked themselves why victims don’t report, why we continue to see such low conviction rates and how repeat offenders are able to walk, should pay close attention to how rape is portrayed on screen. Unbelievables sensitive and nuanced depiction of trauma should be the blueprint for how rape is presented on television. Perhaps that’s why the real Marie called it perfect.

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