Clementine Ford: 'Unbelievable' Is An All-Too-Believable Indictment Of A System That Fails Rape Victims

If you haven’t yet binge watched all of Netflix’s latest detective drama 'Unbelievable', stop what you’re doing right now and get thee to a television.

Like, literally. If you are at work, make up a reason as to why you can no longer be at work. If you are busy dying, get busy living -- at least for the nine hours it’ll take to watch.

As a friend of mine recently put it, Unbelievable is what True Detective could have been if the latter had been conceived and written with even the slightest acknowledgement that women are real people.

The eight-part series takes an unflinching view of rape culture and the various ways rape survivors are further brutalised by judicial failure and institutionalised misogyny.

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But there is light at the end of this bleak tunnel -- showrunner Susannah Grant describes it as “a story about a rape investigation gone horribly wrong, and then a rape investigation gone brilliantly right".

Based on a devastating piece of investigative journalism that appeared in ProPublica in 2015, Unbelievable opens with the story of Marie (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever), a young woman living in Washington state who wakes up one morning to a stranger inside her apartment. He rapes her at knifepoint, using her own shoelaces to tie her up.

Marie reports the rape to local law enforcement only to have them undermine and gaslight her at every turn. She’s manipulated into recanting her statement, and charged with filing a false rape report.

Merritt Wever and Toni Collette in 'Unbelievable'. (Image: Netflix)

Years later, Denver-based detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever, surely one of the best actresses of any generation) is called to a rape scene in a local apartment building. Her husband tells her the details echo a case his colleague is working.

Duvall teams up with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette -- marry me, basically) to track down a rapist they discover has been terrorising women across the country. Their rigorous detective work, sensitivity for victims and understanding of the dynamics of male power strongly contrasts with the careless misogyny wielded against Marie, and it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and galvanising to watch.

Unbelievable excels as a meaty detective show, but it also has the capacity to start much-needed conversations about the kind of injustice Marie faced. Here are some of the most important messages imparted by the show.

The system is overwhelmingly set up to fail survivors of sexual assault

Marie’s experience with law enforcement is difficult and triggering to watch, but it’s not unusual. Rape culture infests every level of society, and this is manifestly obvious in the judicial system. According to RAINN, perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to be convicted and imprisoned than any other crime.

Additionally, in America one of the biggest barriers to rape survivors securing justice is the overwhelming backlog of untested rape kits. Basically, survivors submit to intrusive, violating physical tests that more often than not end up languishing in facilities.

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They’re questioned repeatedly by police investigators, none of whom can be 100 percent guaranteed to have been adequately trained in how to speak to rape survivors and who have a barely functioning understanding of how trauma impacts on memory recall.

Why would anyone report sexual assault under those conditions?

Marie goes through the system. (Image: Netflix)
The general public’s understanding of false rape reports is unreliable at best

There is a reactionary view especially upheld by men’s rights activists (MRAs) that maintains false rape reports are not only rife, but used by women as a means of getting back at men who’ve rejected them. Not only does this make very little sense given how hostile the system is to rape survivors, but it dismisses the practical statistical reality of ‘false’ rape reports, which is somewhere in the region of two to eight percent -- roughly the same number of false reports as any other crime.

But this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story either.

As Marie’s experience demonstrates, there are numerous reasons that reports are relegated as ‘false’. Survivors may have been intimidated into recanting allegations. They may withdraw charges based on fear of reprisal from the men who raped them, most of whom will be known to them. Or the police responsible for investigating these allegations may decide that there’s no case to pursue, which registers the initial complaint as being ‘unfounded’ or ‘false’.

The reality is that false allegations of rape are extremely low. With rare exceptions, women simply do not lie about being raped. And why would they, when the system proves itself to be so hostile to them?

Sensitivity training is absolutely key to dealing with survivors of rape

The lead investigator on Marie’s case (remember, this was closely based on a true story) had recently transferred over from narcotics. Marie’s case was his first experience of a rape investigation, and he mangled it so badly that he later pointed to it as a crisis of conscience that had him questioning his suitability to work in law enforcement.

Marie's rape investigation turns into an interrogation of Marie... (Image: Netflix)

In contrast, the investigation led by Duvall and Rasmussen demonstrates a level of empathy that assists survivors of sexual assault and violence. Instead of treating reporters as suspicious criminals or liars, the narrative shows what it would look like if kindness were the model for receiving reports. It’s a radically different approach that shouldn’t be considered at all radical or different, but that reflects the hypermasculine ideology that infects the judicial system.

READ MORE: How Rape Culture Protects Privileged White Men

Women-driven stories about sexual violence leads to better art

Unbelievable is a narrative told by women, whose cast is overwhelmingly populated by women. As a viewer, there’s something extraordinarily powerful about seeing scenes play out that were almost entirely filled with women. But when that narrative explicitly deals with sexual violence and rape culture, this becomes even more profoundly important.

Unbelievable doesn’t exploit rape for titillation. Men are not cast as the heroes and saviours of women. Rather, the narrative reflects a reality in which rape is traumatic and women more often than not are in charge of saving themselves.

We are in a golden age of television. It’s almost unbelievable that it’s taken us so long to get here, but there it is.