What Broadchurch got right (and then very wrong) about rape

The latest season of Broadchurch has been applauded for its nuanced handling of sexual violence in a way seldom seen on television. Charlotte Graham looks at what the show did right, and what it got very, very wrong. 

Contains spoilers for season three and frank discussion around sexual violence, please take care. 

I don’t watch TV shows or movies that feature rape anymore. I need to save my sanity for news stories about rape, the times my friends are assaulted or raped, dumbass shit that people say at parties about rape, and just random surprise instances of rape-related collateral that pop up in everyday life.

I’d read rumours about the ‘groundbreaking’ new season of Broadchurch: that it centred the narrative on survivors and worked to explain rape culture in a way that television has traditionally missed. Women have been sexily dismembered in crime shows since the dawn of time, serving only as a backdrop to man detectives engaging in idle circlejerks about whodunnit.

Remember when Criminal Minds used to actually be about forensic profilers trying to get into the minds of serial killers? Then Mandy Patinkin wandered off and never came back, Thomas Gibson got fired for kicking a writer and the show inexplicably booted all the women characters for a while but then brought some of them back, which was awkward because one of them was meant to have died?

Like many other crime shows, the intelligent musings on criminal psychology changed to 32 minutes of a lady being chased through a forest in lacy knickers, followed by nine minutes of Matthew Gray Gubler chewing the scenery. But the third season of Broadchurch was different… for seven out of eight episodes, at least.

Here are some of the things they did really well in those first seven episodes:

1) They did not depict any rape in a show about rape.

This season told the story of Trish Winterman (Hayley Cropper off Coronation Street), who is raped at a party. I watched the first episode with my trigger finger poised near the spacebar on my laptop. Surprisingly, the show managed to wring every drop of necessary emotion out of the situation without ever a showing the aggressive act itself.

Instead, the story only ever came from Trish, and Trish was believed by those who mattered. Even when it came up that she’d been drunk at the party, and that she’d had sex with her best friend’s crappy husband the morning of her rape, the message was: that doesn’t fucking matter. Did she ask to get hit with a cricket bat then raped at a party? No. So it’s rape. This should not have been revolutionary, but it was.

2) They showed the procedural stuff that TV doesn’t usually bother with.

It was a great public service to depict what actually happens when someone shows up to a police station to report a rape. It was emotionally devastating, but realistic and important. I loved the fact that Trish had Victim Support on standby for when she needed it, because there are similarly wonderful organisations around the world.

Of course, in real life, there are always a couple of caveats. You might get a shitty cop who doesn’t believe you (the cops on Broadchurch are all wonderfully supportive and encouraging to the survivor, another change for the telly), or there might not be the facilities to give you the support and help you need in the long term.

Please do not let this put you off – if you’re in New Zealand, ACC can help you.

3) They showed a full spectrum of sexually abusive behaviour, committed by otherwise normal men.

The rape bogeyman – the hulking dude who jumps out of alleyways to commit what people imagine are “actual” rapes – has grown out of our misunderstandings and willful ignorance about consent and sex.

Too many shows depict rape in a vacuum, committed by bonafide gold-plated psychos. It allows people to relax, watching at home, and think: not me. Not anyone I know. With statistics showing 1 in every 4 or 5 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, all the rapes must be being getting done by someone. Why would it not be someone you know?

In service to the idea that rape comes at one end of a spectrum of sexually controlling, manipulative and violent behaviour, Broadchurch created a town of skeevy pervs. Setting aside whether there would be quite that many predators in such a tiny village, they manage to paint the problem without ever feeling preachy.

Sure, the ex who installed spyware on his wife’s computer might not have raped her, but he still wanted to control her life and her movements. Same with the boss who stalked Trish, keeping thousands of pictures of her on his phone. Same with the boys passing pictures of naked girls round at school, without the girls’ consent. Same, even, with the toxic masculinity that led to Mark Latimer’s obsession with finding and murdering Joe Miller as revenge for Joe killing Mark’s son.

Broadchurch made the point that sex crimes were about power, not sex, and that predatory, violent sexual behaviour didn’t only include rape. It also showed that it was “normal” men who did this stuff: dads and bosses and husbands and friends. It was such a relief to hear someone say acknowledge on mainstream television that predatory sexual behaviour is a power-grab perpetrated by ordinary men.

Question: How did it take so long for mainstream television to notice?

Answer: because they don’t really let women write or make the shows. That’s why!

So Broadchurch S3 nearly had it all, until it shat its pants on national television during the final episode last week. For all the things that went right, here’s what went wrong:

1) The story’s twist took the heat off the perpetrator

As soon as Hardy and Miller (David Tennant and Olivia Colman) realised whose DNA was on the sports sock at the start of episode eight, I thought, “Ahhhhh, that’ll be the twist. That cab driver has a son, and the father-son DNA might be a close enough match for them to think it’s the abusive Dad but, actually, it’ll turn out to be the teenage son who’s been shopping porn around his school.” This turned out to be correct, which was amazing because I am horrible at guessing twists.

I get that Broadchurch is a drama, not a school speech about how rape is terrible, so they had to have some plot twists that were not as socially aware. As the son’s guilt was realised, it turned a taut show into a damp squib. It turned out Michael, the son, only committed the rape extremely reluctantly – metaphorically at gunpoint – at the hands of an older boy.

This made me furious, not least of all because it took the blame away from the rapist. The kid was 16 and he hadn’t even wanted to rape a lady! You felt sorry for him, really. You still felt sorry for Trish, but it took the edge off your ferocious anger on her behalf. It allowed people watching to turn off the telly with a satisfied sigh, and saying, “See?! Women like to pretend they’re the victims in these cases, but there are two sides to every story!

No there aren’t, and fuck you Broadchurch. Most rapes aren’t committed by a perpetrator who is conveniently underaged and being forced to do it at the hands of a violent psychopath. They’re committed by men who primarily want power over a person so they just fucking take it. After telling this story ON ITS OWN SHOW for seven fucking episodes, Broadchurch let its compelling message about sexual violence fizzle out, all for the sake of a cheap plot twist that I spotted coming a mile off. Great writing, shitlords.

2) Turns out it was a gold-plated psychopath after all.

Broadchurch turned Leo into the exact Rape Bogeyman they’d spent all season trying to deconstruct. In a scene reminiscent of every boring crime procedural ever, smug Leo coldly talked about his enjoyment of the various rapes he’d committed, while Hardy and Miller hung on his every word. Just once in those scenes, when a rapist is going on about power making his dick hard, I’d love to see a cop say, “No one fucking cares mate,” and leave the room.

But no, Leo got not just the last word, but quite a few of them. The scene where Trish learned her attackers’ names was rushed, and she didn’t get too much to say. But we learned all about how much Leo liked to film his rapes and watch them back later, a story we’ve seen on every crime show ever made.

It also allowed Alex Hardy the most awful clanger of a line in an otherwise decent series. When he went outside to comfort Ellie Miller on the Police station steps after Leo’s interview, Hardy told her: “He is not what men are.” Almost literally, “Not all men.”

The whole point of the season up to this point had not been “yes, all men,” but rather, “yes, a lot of men, and you probably know some of them, and did you know that rape’s not the only way men exert violent control over women?” And then in one sentence, the writers of Broadchurch swept all of that away. The rapist was a cold, sneering psychopath in an alleyway all along.

3) A happy ending for the cyberstalker.

At the season’s end, we saw Trish’s ex-husband – a man who has spied on her and tried to control and police her behaviour since they split up – coming over for Chinese takeaways. Sure they have a kid together, and the show doesn’t say for sure what their relationship will be going forward.

But Trish. GIRL.

He was watching you through your fucking webcam through spyware he installed on your computer! Do not let that motherfucker in your house! OR, let him bring the Chinese round and then tell him to leave it on the doorstep and fuck off. Maybe he can watch you enjoy it from his house. On his laptop. Psych!!

And therein lies the problem for Broadchurch. What seemed like a trailblazing way of talking about sexual violence might have just a build-up to a plot twist all along. What appeared to be the centring of a survivor’s narrative turned out to be the co-opting of that narrative in order to create mystery and suspense.

So the criminal gets caught. The town comes together. And Trish gets Chinese takeaway with a dude who broke into her house in the middle of the night to steal her laptop and put spyware on it, which really is too high a price to pay for sweet and sour pork.

I’m tired. Wake me up when someone makes the show that Broadchurch was pretending to be.

Click here to watch Broadchurch on TVNZ Ondemand

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