7 films and TV shows that force us to rethink what we know about sexual assault
A nuanced approach to the reactions, legal processes and coping mechanisms that surround a victim’s trauma
Trigger warning: This article discusses instances of sexual assault and violence.
In Unbelievable, a young woman is sexually assaulted in her own home. She reports the crime immediately, and is forced to repeatedly relive the ordeal in excruciating detail to a range of strangers, from police officers to lawyers. We witness her uncomfortably poked and prodded, grappling with the shock of her home and body being invaded. Not to mention the emotional and mental turmoil of fighting a system that doesn’t believe her.
While the subject of sexual assault is no stranger to our screens, until recently, its depiction was fairly predictable, oversimplified even. A woman’s life is shattered following a vicious assault by an evil man. Sometimes, the damsel in distress is rescued and given justice by a third-party saviour.
We’ve rarely looked at it from a survivor’s perspective, documenting the aftermath of such trauma with tenderness and nuance. Unbelievable did just that. Perhaps it was the #MeToo movement that brought the conversation about sexual assault and consent into the mainstream. It’s given writers, directors and actors a new lens through which to approach the topic.
These layered narratives visualise not just the black and white of the situation, but all the greys many survivors find themselves navigating on a daily basis.
What these films and TV shows bring to the fore is that there is no singular survivor experience or a ‘right way’ to deal with it.
From public trials and victim shaming to self-loathing and finding the courage to move on — these cinematic representations of sexual assault are helping us better understand a survivor’s experiences.
A bus, local train, metro station and crowded market. We’re all too familiar with that uncomfortable bump from behind or a wandering hand, violating your personal space and body. It’s what Aimee (Aimée Lou Wood) experiences while travelling by bus in season two of Sex Education, when she catches a fellow passenger masturbating against her leg. Without fear and shame, just a grin on his face.
It reminds us of a comment made by author Taslima Nasrin regarding public masturbation not being a “big crime”, in comparison to rape. But the ‘lesser’ experience doesn’t make it any less harrowing for the person experiencing it.
Aimee finally opens up about it to her schoolmates during detention. It becomes a shared experience, one they can all relate to. We become listeners to an important conversation about the different kinds of assault. All real, no matter how ‘minor’ someone views it as.
It’s unfortunate that others speaking out is what validates her experience as traumatic. Years of being ingrained with ‘it’s not that big of a deal’ and ‘that’s not even sexual assault’ had her questioning her own response to it.
With her new support system, she’s able to process fully what happened to and with their help, Aimee gets back on “that stupid bus”.
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Big Little Lies
”He loves me so much that he’s overcome with passion and just can’t control himself. It’s just at the moment, he’s a good person otherwise.”
There are many ways that Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) rationalises the marital rape and violence she experiences in the show Big Little Lies. He’s a good husband and father, and her children need the family. Men are just like that sometimes. What would people say/think if they found out?
She justifies his actions, to others and herself. In the heat of the moment when emotions are running high, he just gets carried away. Domestic violence turns into sexual assault, and she hit him too, so isn’t she at fault as well?
When her husband is accused of rape by another woman, she finally begins to process his actions for what they are.
The conflicts and conversations that she has with herself make us question our own understanding of boundaries within a marriage, especially in a country like India where marital rape is not illegal.
According to exception 2 in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, that one signature in a marriage register gives your partner a license to your body for life. But no means no, even if you’re married.
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The movie received mixed reactions for its execution, but it shows how a ‘he said-she said’ can play out. The accused is a beloved figure of the community (VJ played by Gurfateh Singh Pirzada) and the accuser presented as a character with ‘questionable’ morals who had been publicly swooning over him.
A night of music and partying leaves people with blurred memories and their own versions of truth where they’re protecting their friend against an outsider’s claims.
His girlfriend Nanki (Kiara Advani) becomes his staunch defender. Women are pitted against women with sexism, classism and slut-shaming coming into play.
What would you do if someone you love is accused of a heinous crime? While the climax and end of the film are quite predictable, there are still some important questions that the viewers are left with. It’s easier to find the black and white in such cases when you remain untouched by the outcome.
But when it hits closer to home, that’s when we have to sift through the in-betweens, your relationships and allegiances, and what those mean when it comes to such a crime being committed.
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The mini-series is based on a real case reported in a Pulitzer prize-winning article by T Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong for ProPublica and The Marshall Project. Troubled teenager Marie is working her way out of the US foster care system and starting to build her independent life when she is blindfolded and raped in her apartment. She reports the case to the police the next day and soon, things go awry.
The show focuses on the different ways investigations about sexual assault are carried out. In one, police soon start to doubt Marie’s report because of ‘missing’ details. The vulnerable victim doesn’t ‘behave’ how one should after such an act, which is questioned by those close to her as well.
A few years later, in another part of the country, another case opens into a series of rapes being investigated by two female officials, who exhibit empathy and a nuanced understanding of how victims might respond to trauma.
Unbelievable show the audience how such cases should and shouldn’t be handled. It’s also a study into our reaction to assault survivors and our understanding of what they should and shouldn’t do, say or feel.
It leaves you cheering for the courage of the characters in this show – the survivors who speak up and fight to rebuild their lives, as well as detectives who seek justice where the odds are often stacked against women.
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I May Destroy You
Arabella, played by Michaela Coel (series’ creator, writer and co-director), is a young writer in London. She steps out one night for what is supposed to be a drink with friends, but it turns into a blur with broken memories and vivid flashbacks.
It’s a show full of complex characters and layered stories that discuss rape, trauma, consent and assault and the grey areas that lie in between. These deep discussions are written beautifully by Coel with humour in places you wouldn’t expect and a rawness when taking on difficult topics.
The protagonist reports a drug-induced rape to the police and follows it with behaviours we as a society don’t attribute to assault survivors. She’s back to work, dating and sex, but still lives with the trauma of her experience that she slowly unpacks. She again experiences assault when her partner removes the condom mid-intercourse without telling her – known as stealthing – following it up with gaslighting her, which she only realises later on.
Perhaps the most gripping aspect of I May Destroy You is how Coel positions the resolution to her trauma. What would happen if you face your attacker?
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Loev is unusual not because it’s among the very few to feature homosexual love and intimacy, but for its complex narrative. The protagonists are Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh), Jai (Shiv Panditt) and Alex (Siddharth Menon). Their relationship with each other are quite ambiguous in the beginning, leaving it to viewers to put together the pieces.
Jai is visiting Mumbai on a business trip when he meets up with a younger Sahil to take a weekend trip together in Mahabaleshwar. Sahil, on the other hand, leaves the city after quarrelling with a free-spirited, rather childish Alex, whom he lives with and we’re left to assume is in some kind of relationship with.
There is kindness between Jai and Sahil as we see an exchange of loving words and gifts, but we’re caught off-guard with Jai aggressively forcing Sahil into sex. This is following the weekend’s flirtatious back and forth and Sahil outing Jai in front of his business partners.
It’s rare for an Indian audience to experience the power dynamics of a homosexual relationship. The relationship is not filled with tropes, but offers a multilayered look at same-sex relationships.
And it makes us look at sexual assault within the LGBTQIA+ community head-on, and our lack of understanding, considering it’s not spoken about.
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13 Reasons Why
When 13 Reasons Why creator Brian Yorkey heard the statistic that only six out of every 1,000 rapists will be incarcerated for their crimes, he decided to focus on this aspect.
The American teen drama revolves around high school student Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and the aftermath of his classmate Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langord) suicide. Across its four season run, the show has tackled a range of social issues, including suicide, sexual assault, mental health, and more.
While the problematic depiction of several of the issues remain debatable, in its second season focus shifted to serial rapist Bryce (Justin Prentice), and the turmoil many women face as they wait for their assailants to face the consequences for their actions.
Three of his victims reflect the various ways survivors grapple with being assaulted. Hannah was pushed to suicide, Jessica (Alisha Boe) grapples with the consequences, ultimately becoming an activist, while Bryce’s ex-girlfriend Chloe ( Anne Winters) chooses to disconnect and start over.
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