Strong Women and Despicable Men: The Story of Sexual Assault in Broadchurch | TV

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By Rachel

** Warning: Spoilers and discussion of sexual assault

Now finished its third and final season, the newest episodes of British crime drama Broadchurch have revealed many things to its viewers that were never thought possible in previous decades of the genre. Strong-willed female characters can dominate crime and (no surprises here) still make it great television. Some offences (not necessarily of the criminal type) are forgivable and can even change a person’s life for the better. And, perhaps most surprising of all, Detective Hardy can be found on Tinder.

Amongst the crime and the intrigue, there is a consistent sense that women are integral to the unravelling plot of this show. A no-brainer for some – of course women work in law enforcement – but there is still a persistent domination of the crime genre by male characters, providing not-so-nuanced perspectives of criminals and their wrongdoings from a male point of view, even regarding crimes that specifically affect women. On the other hand, Broadchurch provides the viewer with an insight into a more diverse police force. This allows for a subsequently distinct outlook on crime and the people affected by it.

Detectives Miller and Hardy make one unstoppable team. (Image Source)

Season Three in particular has demonstrated a very unique portrayal of sexual assault in only eight episodes. The season begins with local woman Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh) speaking to Broadchurch police after being raped days earlier at her friend Cath Atwood’s (Sarah Parish) 50th birthday party. What will surprise viewers is that Trish is in her 40s, and not particularly representative of the rape victim stereotype reflected in other crime shows. Trish is mother to a teenage daughter and recently separated from her husband, Ian (Charlie Higson), also in attendance at the party. It is later revealed that she has been sleeping with multiple sexual partners following the separation, including Cath’s husband in a one-off affair on the morning of the party. A thought-provoking binary – on one hand, Trish has experienced an undeniably brutal crime and, on the other, has committed an in many ways unforgivable offense against a friend.

Of course, a brutal rape and a consensual sexual indiscretion are in no way comparable. Nevertheless, after hearing the news of the affair, Cath lets her anger get the better of her, incredulously asking: ‘Of all the women at that party, why would someone rape you?’ Cath’s situation is not enviable – she is seemingly stuck in a marriage devoid of love and intimacy, and has just lost a close friend due to a moment of weakness and a bad decision. But ultimately, we side with Trish – she makes some terrible life decisions, as almost every character in the show does. However, none of her minor wrongdoings are deserving of punishment by a horrifying sexual assault.  

She is portrayed as an everyday person, trying to survive a slightly messy break-up with her husband, but having a bit of fun in the meantime – and who can blame her? But the writers of Broadchurch are in one way testing the viewer – does our perspective of Trish as a survivor of rape change after we learn the news of the affair? It shouldn’t, and this is indeed one of the novel elements of the show.  

Trish revisits the scene of the crime with Detective Miller and Beth Latimer. (Image Source)

Again, this might be a no-brainer – of course a rape committed by another person has nothing to do with the victim’s life choices. But past film and media would suggest otherwise. When Jill Meagher was raped and murdered by Adrian Bayley, a criminal whose past crimes should have been enough to encourage the public to focus on what he had done wrong, Jill was instead criticised for walking home at night rather than getting a taxi or accepting a lift from a friend. Speaking to the press regarding the murder of 17-year-old Masa Vukotic in almost broad daylight at 7pm (during daylight savings), homicide squad chief Detective Inspector Mick Hughes suggested that women walk or run with a companion in parks rather than alone. Well, maybe we should just lock ourselves up inside (where many of violent crimes against women occur anyway) and not interact with the public at all? When men are murdered in public, why is no similar suggestion made?

Alcohol consumption, level of sexual activity, how one dresses - all are aspects of a rape case that, when mentioned by the media, suggest the victim intentionally chose to be in a particular place, in a particular state, with the full knowledge that they would be raped. (In the now over-quoted film Taken, for example, it always bothered me that the more sexually willing friend of Bryan Mills’ daughter who invites the kidnappers inside is raped and drugged to death, whilst her naïve friend – a virgin – escapes this fate. Perhaps not an intentional metaphor, but an unwelcome one all the same.)

In Broadchurch, Detectives Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) and Alec Hardy (David Tennant) reiterate over and over again to Trish: ‘This is not your fault.’ Trish’s one-time affair with Jim Atwood (Mark Bazeley), whilst somewhat relevant in terms of finding a suspect, is not at any point made an issue in terms of the reliability of Trish’s story. Miller and Hardy believe Trish, and they want her to know that.

Meanwhile, Miller is dealing not only with the personal aftermath of Season Two, in which her husband Joe is acquitted of murdering Danny Latimer, but with the recent actions of her teenage son. Reeling from the crimes of his father, Tom (Adam Wilson) is caught at school with pornography on his phone. Miller is furious – in many ways that you would expect, at one point smashing his laptop with a hammer when she discovers him with the porn still on his phone. This reminds us that Miller is exposed to the threat of sex crimes in a way that her son is not, and seems to connect pornography with the rape culture still prevalent in their town.

Miller’s aging father comments that these days everyone’s a victim of rape, reflecting the still unbelievably strong conviction that intoxicated women cannot be victims of sexual assault. Miller proceeds to inform her son of how important consent is, no matter what the situation; she wants to make sure that Tom does not commit the crimes of his father or the unidentified rapist, and she views his exposure to porn as relevant to this.

 Michael Lucus (left), the later-revealed rapist, shares pornography with Detective Miller’s son Tom (right). (Image source)

Whilst no character is perfect, the writers’ emphasis on the flaws of a large number of the town’s male population can’t really be denied. In this season especially, we’re introduced to serial cheater Jim Atwood, stalker Ed Burnett (Lenny Henry), installer-of-software-on-ex-wife’s-computer-so-he-can-spy-on-her Ian Winterman, and, finally, the person responsible for the rape – 16-year-old Michael Lucas (Deon Lee-Williams) who has been ‘groomed’ to assault women by a slightly older and arguably more despicable man (who many viewers would no doubt consider the true villain of the story).

And yet, even after seeing the intense trauma experienced by Trish as a rape survivor and the desperation of Miller and Hardy to apprehend the person responsible, the final result is a sad, unsatisfying, one. Rather than feeling outright fury towards the rapist, I felt mixed emotions of anger, incredulity, and sadness This is because a young, extremely impressionable man has committed a horrifying, life-changing act. Trish, too, on hearing the news, appears more shocked than angry, because her rapist is a boy that her daughter knows from school.

We are reminded that just as rapes can be committed against anyone, so too can anyone become a rapist. Whether in cases of alcohol consumption and ‘confusion’ over consent, or of more aggravated assaults and kidnappings, Broadchurch demonstrates that rapists are not ‘monsters’ – many, if not most, are what society considers ‘ordinary’ men; the men that we don’t expect to be committers of violent sexual crimes. 

As Tom Meagher, husband of Jill Meagher, wrote following the conviction of Adrian Bayley, the public and the media must no longer spread the pervasive ‘monster myth’ of the rapist. The idea that brutal rapists are inhuman monsters, whilst other, supposedly less serious sexual criminals, such as someone’s husband, boyfriend, or one-night stand, are just people who ‘make mistakes’ is a dangerous one. Although Hardy may tell Miller that Leo Humphries (Chris Mason), the man who pressures Michael to rape Trish, is not like other men, the reality is that the actual rapist in this situation is a seemingly ordinary teenager, with an undesirable home life, who is peer-pressured into assaulting a vulnerable woman. And yet, as ordinary as he is, he is still, and will always be, a rapist. That the ordinary can also be the despicable is a reality that many of us still need to come to terms with, and is something that Broadchurch portrays in a nuanced and confronting way. 

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