Culture

Just a Thought: ‘Unbelievable’ On Netflix

Rape is a delicate subject. A complex subject. A cruel and traumatic subject. It’s rare a television drama deals with it as thoughtfully and fully as this one.

By Jamila Rizvi

Culture

Rape is a delicate subject. A complex subject. A cruel and traumatic subject. It’s rare a television drama deals with it as thoughtfully and fully as this one.

By Jamila Rizvi

There is so much to applaud about Unbelievable, the latest must-watch drama on Netflix, that it’s hard to know where to begin. Starring Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, as detectives who pair up to solve related rape cases, this is a crime show that centres the role of women. Importantly, it’s not just the crime-solvers whose lives are in the spotlight but also the rape survivors.

The usual trope of a drama like this is to kill off a rape victim early – and then introduce some big burly men to get to the bottom of the crime. Women are mere pawns in the story. Their bodies serve as either brutal collateral damage or decorative office assistance. Blokes get to confidently save the day and women get to be grateful to them. Or dead. More often than not they get to be dead.

Unbelievable turns that tired and sexist storyline on its head. Women are the ones solving the crime. They work across district boundaries, setting aside territorial arrogance to find justice for those who’ve been wronged. The way the series’ lead women detectives engage with victims is kind and respectful. Their primary strengths are empathy and listening. They collect granules of evidence others would almost certainly miss.

Critically, the drama includes women who’ve been the victim of crime as well. Exploring their experiences fully and developing them into complete characters. Instead of victims becoming a side-issue to the main story, they are centred within it. Through their experience, the narrative questions a culture of male entitlement, victim blaming and a prevailing ‘she asked for it’ mentality.

 

“In Australia, only one in ten reported rapes results in conviction. The statistics in the United States are similar. Women are regularly disbelieved, especially when the only evidence that exists is one person’s version of events.”

 

In Australia, only one in ten reported rapes results in conviction. The statistics in the United States are similar. Women are regularly disbelieved, especially when the only evidence that exists is one person’s version of events. Unbelievable initially focuses on 18-year-old Marie Adler, an unreliable narrator who starts to question her own experience, along with the viewer. Her class and background contribute to people’s willingness to assume she’s made it all up. The system swallows Marie up and spits her out; more damaged than when she begun.

The performances from the actors are strong and even our detective heroines are multifaceted. They experience doubt and exercise poor judgement occasionally. They are imperfect. Importantly the show isn’t excessive or gratuitous with its portrayal of sex and violence. Given the subject matter and genre, this is a triumph in itself. The cinematography drives the distress and horror home, without causing trauma to the viewer.

I especially loved that this story doesn’t end with the cops getting their guy. Unbelievable then shifts focus to an imperfect justice system and how the survivors seek closure and ultimately a way to continue their own lives. Rape is a delicate subject. A complex subject. A cruel and traumatic subject. It’s rare a television drama deals with it as thoughtfully and fully as this one. Unbelievable is worthy of its continued applause.

Just A Thought explores the cultural and political musings of Jamila Rizvi.

If this article brings up any issues for you, or if you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.