Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Just last month, Netflix added to their catalogue of ‘binge worthy’ crime mini-series with its adaptation of Miller and Armstrong’s 2015 article ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’. I often find myself easily hooked, saying ‘I’ve become so invested in the characters, but ‘Unbelievable’ was the first example that left me feeling genuinely affected as a viewer.
Firstly, the show dramatizes the true story of an 18-year-old rape survivor under the pseudonym Marie, and condenses the series of investigations that took place from 2008 to 2011 into just nine episodes. Initially, ‘Marie’ was charged with a gross misdemeanour, having been pressured into an admission of fabrication, but the case was subsequently reopened by two female detectives pursuing other serial rapes committed by the same man. ‘Marie’s’ story is one prominent example of the injustices survivors face in a culture and system that seeks to silence victims. Consider this: at the time of ‘Marie’s’ assault, it was believed that only 15 to 35 percent of rapes in the U.S.A. were reported to the police. And whilst the figure of reported crimes has climbed, indicating a positive change in the culture, a lack of understanding and education on sexual crimes maintains the apprehension that survivors face in reporting their assaults.
It is clear that more needs to be done for people to understand why sexual assault cannot be investigated in the same way as other non-sexually motivated crimes. For me, this is why the show is so powerful. Arguably, audio-visual media is the most potent tool for exploring gender issues. Firstly, the cast features the likes of Toni Collette and Merritt Wever who embody one of the most compelling detective duos on screen, but more importantly they deliver the story in a way that isn’t a crime drama cliché. I felt like I was watching two real detectives pursue justice, motivated by real world experiences and emotions. For viewers this is genuinely palpable.
Furthermore, I would argue that creator-director Susannah Grant’s artistic choices are made possible by her understanding of rape-culture as a woman. Primarily, ‘Unbelievable’ utilises the power of the camera as a gendered tool. By this what is meant is that it has the ability to allow an audience to begin to understand and empathise with the experiences of the survivors. In essence, as the camera documents the protagonists’ experiences, they simultaneously become our own. Much like ‘Marie’ becomes overwhelmed and thus reluctant to share her story, I felt enraged, confused and distraught at what was happening and why it was happening. In contrast to the ease with which the male detectives doubt her honesty, the viewer feels nothing but horrified by her reality. Assault flashbacks interject the diegesis, and shape the way that we react to all subsequent events; much like memory of the trauma can be so damaging for survivors’ futures.
The camera also allows us to understand the complexity of such a personal and violent crime. It is clear that each survivor in the series reacts differently; each troubled by different aspects from their experiences and all questioning why they feel the way they do. Undoubtedly, due to the nature of this type of crime, the system through which victims pursue justice needs to change.