Three Girls is a drama focusing on the lived realities of the women involved in the Rochdale rape ring (image: supplied)

Television doesn’t need to make someone else’s agony our entertainment

The three-part mini-series Three Girls tells the story of the horrendous Rochdale child rape ring in the UK. It’s a harrowing watch, says Emily Writes, but it’s important we don’t look away – on screen and in real life.

I’m not a fan of true crime; it too often feels like ingesting someone’s agony as popcorn. I’m not being high and mighty – I’m a big fan of nature survival documentaries and movies and just last night enjoyed a film simply because a man was eaten by a bear. I felt he deserved it. There’s just something that makes me feel sick about shows where the body count increases episode to episode, where rape is simply a way to move the plot forward, where someone’s precious life is turned into an hour and forty minutes that can be turned off as simply as it was snuffed out.

So I wasn’t the ideal candidate to review Three Girls. I’d avoided details of the case which seemed to have focused on the ethnicity of the attackers because it’s not news that girls and young women are raped and abused and taken advantage of by old men.

In 2011, when the Rochdale rape ring hit the news in a big way, that side of the story was barely covered. The white victims were suddenly viewed as precious by the white men around them, if only because brown bodies had attacked them. It was a first generation British-Pakistani Nazir Afzal who brought the case to public attention, overturning the original decision to drop the case because those involved didn’t think it would hold up in court.

Three Girls feels like the first time the story of the girls is being told. The details are more horrific than you can imagine – girls as young as 13 raped by packs of men daily, given away as “birthday presents” to disgusting old men, as one girl describes “passed around like bowls”.

It’s harrowing stuff but Three Girls handles the brutality carefully. In a world where we have rape entertainment like Game of Thrones and 13 Reasons Why, I was incredibly worried about watching Three Girls. As a survivor myself I knew I didn’t want or need to see it to know how bad it is.

Three Girls does what others can’t – it recognises that so many women know what rape is like, and they don’t need to see graphic, extended versions of it to understand the horror. It also seems to recognise that men who do want to see this, who insist that they must see it “because it’s real”, should not be given the privilege. It’s just one of the most powerful statements in the series.

Watching the girls dropped at locations and then picked up afterwards conveys every bit of horror needed. It doesn’t turn these experiences into snuff porn. It sets an example to others to consider their audiences – there are plenty of things that are “real” that we don’t show on TV, like someone peeing or taking a dump. People have said that’s because “nobody wants to see that”. Well, that’s something directors should ask themselves. Who wants to see rape?

It’s clear that Three Girls is written and directed by women. Writer Nicole Taylor pulled directly from the testimony of three of the girls involved in the case, three of 47 girls who were raped by more than 19 men.

You can hear their voices, it all sounds so true and authentic – and that’s what just compounds the tragedy that they were ignored, diminished and betrayed by the many adults around them who should have been there to protect them. Three Girls is more than a story of horrific men and brave girls. Over three episodes it tracks the appalling failures of authorities to do anything to help these girls because of how they perceived them.

The story is told from the viewpoint of three of the victims: 14-year-old Holly Winshaw, played by Molly Windsor, 16-year-old Amber Bowen (Ria Zmitrowicz) and her younger sister Ruby, 13, (Philippa Lowthorpe). It shows their grooming and how their lives were eventually stolen by these men. It is completely believable. Even in an age where men will do backflips not to believe women when they talk about their rapes. In a time where women are asked: Why didn’t you report? This series should tell all why.

But it is a story of hope somehow too – in the face of so many adults who gave them cause not to trust, they did trust. The hero of this story is Sara Rowbotham, the sexual health worker who first recognised patterns of child abuse in the community and fought to bring these crimes to police attention. She is the shining example to us all of how just one adult giving a shit about children can save lives.

We know that in New Zealand we have had pack rape groups – from gangs to the Roastbusters (who got off scot-free) and even our own police. There may be a desire to consider the events of Rochdale as being unique in someway – unique to the UK, unique to the ethnicity or religion of the rapists.

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Women know better but my hope is that after Three Girls many will know better. Many will see how the grooming process works, how we minimise and treat young girls and women, how we view teenage girls, power imbalances and the way the court system is weighted in favour of rapists – if you even get there.

Three Girls is important. It’s vital television viewing – as vital as it is gut-wrenching. It’s exactly what a “true crime” dramatisation should be. It should serve a purpose. It shouldn’t be entertainment but rather a call to look at ourselves. If we’re asking – what would we have done? Maybe the better question should be – what can we do now?

The most powerful scene in the miniseries isn’t an act of violence. It’s nurse Sara Rowbotham seeing Holly Winshaw, just 14, crumbling before her eyes and knowing she must do something. She didn’t turn away. Can we do the same?

Watch Three Girls on Lightbox


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