Monday, January 6, 2020
January 6, 2020: AmericanStudying Unbelievable: Sexual Assault
[This fall I watched Netflix’s Unbelievable, one of the most compelling and important TV shows I’ve seen in a good while. The show opens up a number of AmericanStudies conversations, so this week I’ll highlight and analyze a handful of them, trying my best to avoid SPOILERS (but probably not entirely succeeding). Leading up to a crowd-sourced post on the TV recommendations of fellow AmericanStudiers—share yours in comments, please!]
On one historical and one ongoing context for the show’s central theme.
Unbelievable is far from the first crime drama to deal with sexual assault as a central theme—the entire third season of Broadchurch focuses on the investigation into a rape, for one example; or there are the roughly 50% of Law & Order: SVU episodes that deal with the crime, for another. But in my experience, those shows focus most of their attention on the investigations, and thus on the identities (mysterious at first, uncovered at last) of the rapists. Unbelievable has such a police investigation as one of its two plot threads, and I’ll have more to say about it in future posts this week; but even that thread focuses at least as much on the victims (and in some key ways more so) as on the investigation. And the other plot thread (which receives roughly half of the total screen time) follows all that unfolds for the show’s first victim after she is raped. All of which is to say, I haven’t seen any other TV show that devotes more screen time and more in depth attention to the experiences of sexual assault victims, a purposeful choice that immediately and importantly sets Unbelievable apart.
There would be lots of important ways to contextualize that thematic focus—not just sexual assault, but the experiences of its victims—in American history and society. But I don’t think it would be possible to AmericanStudy sexual assault without foregrounding the experiences of African American women. For the 250 years in which slavery was legal, sexual assaults on enslaved African American women (generally by their masters, but of course not limited to that community) were quite simply ubiquitous, a defining feature of American culture. Even after the abolition of slavery, as historian Danielle McGuire demonstrates so compellingly in her book At the Dark End of the Street (2010), sexual assaults on African American remained so common that they became a defining issue for the activists who helped launch the Civil Rights Movement. These histories are particularly ironic when we consider the longstanding American myth of the threatening black male rapist, a propagandistic falsehood that underlay the lynching epidemic (among many other destructive effects). But even that point risks losing sight of the women who should be at the center of our collective memories of these histories, just as Unbelievable seeks to center its attention on the female victims of sexual assault.
When we do center the victims of sexual assault in our collective memories and our contemporary attention, it becomes clear that these individuals are all too frequently forced to deal with a second, more subtle and insidious but no less damaging, layer of assault in the aftermath of the first. As a lawyer puts it to a victim late in Unbelievable’s 8-episode run (in a scene whose specific context I won’t spoil), “no one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying, or someone who says they’ve been carjacked. It doesn’t happen. But when it comes to sexual assault?” Or, as an empathetic therapist says to the same victim, “basically you were assaulted twice: once by your attacker, then again by the police.” Of course rape is an intimate crime for which there are rarely witnesses, meaning that the statements of the victims take on added importance but can at times be difficult to corroborate. But there is a wide chasm between recognizing those complex contexts and not believing those victims, or even treating their statements with suspicion (which, as the lawyer notes, is not at all the default position toward other victims of crime). Doing so not only makes it harder for those victims to get justice for what has happened to them, but, again, it risks echoing and even amplifying the violence and pain they have already experienced and are continuing to experience. One more vital context for sexual assault that Unbelievable helps us explore.
Next UnbelievableStudying tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post and show? Other TV shows you’d recommend and analyze?