Content warning: rape/sexual assault.
The new 8-part Netflix series, Unbelievable, has garnered a largely positive reception since its release last week. Critics and reviewers alike have pushed the show as a nuanced portrayal of trauma and power.
The series follows two main plot lines, based on influential reports, which exposed the failings of law enforcement in the investigation of rape cases in Washington and Colarado. Most notably, an article titled An Unbelievable Story of Rape is a major influence on the plot, with actual quotes placed within the dialogue.Similar to Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Unbelievable has been labelled, by audiences, as a ‘hard, but necessary watch’. After getting through the whole season, in one extended weekend binge, I can confirm that the description rings true.
Drawing heavily on the events and structure detailed in the article, Unbelievable gives a voice and important visibility to victims of sexual assault. The first storyline follows Marie Adler in 2008, who is attacked in her own apartment, and then dragged through an inept police system. Imposing male officers launch an investigation into Marie herself, interrogating her without empathy or sensitivity, and manage to convince her to retract her statement. She is forced to say she made up the attack, and her life falls apart due to their incompetence. Marie, who is based on a real victim of the same name, loses so much to this event. Her relationships with friends and foster-family are entirely destroyed, she quits her job, and she continues to live with PTSD. Eventually, the department actually charges her for placing a ‘false’ report, which she pleads guilty to, in order to avoid jail time.
In the second storyline, two detectives investigate a serial rapist in 2011, 3 years after Marie’s attack. Through their endless commitment and empathetic response to the victims, Det. Duvall and Det. Rasmussen are able to link the cases to many other unsolved attacks, and catch the man responsible. As they run through evidence collected in his house, they realise Marie is another woman he attacked in the past, they clear her name. The behaviour of the two detectives here is completely contrasted by the bullying of the first officers we see. Det. Duvall and Det. Rasmussen listen to their victims, checking up on them in the time since the assaults. The two women are completely antithetical to the men assigned to Marie’s case, offering a cathartic sense of relief and hope for the audience.
Unbelievable is a masterclass, teaching us etiquette around sexual assault, and setting an example for other media. Sexual assault is often treated as a mere plot device to up the stakes. It is used to justify male bravado, or set up for an exploitative revenge fantasy story. In the worst cases, the violent attack is portrayed in a graphic manner, with nudity and the male gaze situated at the centre of the brutality. In weekly TV, procedural dramas utilise sexual assault as a hook in the five opening minutes. The representation of sexual assault in media is so often problematic, and traumatic for anyone viewing who may have experienced it. Adding graphic sexual assault to a story, in a time where we are increasingly aware of the terrifying scope of this issue, is utterly irresponsible. Representations and images of sexual assault need to be used productively in media.
Unbelievable achieves this productive interaction, giving the most screen time to Marie, and offering a positive representation of helpful detectives. The show addresses systemic issues of power present in legal systems, while pointing to an alternative approach. The aftermath of sexual assault is often framed in the perspective of a grizzled detective, where their story receives more screen time than the victim. In Unbelievable, the entire first episode revolves around Marie Adler, with the second storyline not introduced until the second episode. The audience is primed to feel the loneliness, hopelessness, and fear with her. The introduction of Det. Duvall and Det. Rasmussen allows for viewers to feel a sense of retribution and justice, urging the detectives along in their investigation, with a closer understanding of the urgency of the situation. Hopefully, through the show’s nuanced structuring and characterisation, Unbelievable is able to address a wide audience, and educate those who lack access and knowledge. Centring the voice of Marie, a survivor, sets Unbelievable apart from other representations of sexual assault, and proves the importance of responsibility in storytelling.
In mainstream entertainment, grounded stories of sexual assault, and the nuances of societal responses to it, remain in our peripheral vision. Unbelievable poses a question to other writers and directors; what do you achieve by depicting graphic sexual assault on screen? Is it a contribution to the existing culture of exploitation, or a responsible, necessary piece of a sensitive conversation? Only one answer justifies its use. Believe me.