Ask A Feminist

“Why Liar is further proof that TV's depiction of rape is damaging to women”

Posted by
Harriet Hall
Published

Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st-century context. This week, Stylist’s Head of Digital Features, Harriet Hall, explains why the proliferation of rape in TV and film is a real problem for the representation of women on screen. 

Something has happened in drama of late. A shift, perhaps driven by a desiccation of ideas, inspired by current events or coming about as the result of a lazy bid to create sympathetic characters, has led to a string of new storylines centred around sexual assault. Rape, it seems, has become a prurient mainstay of TV drama.

Someone, somewhere thought that perhaps the little screen had had enough of dead women on slabs, women as murder victims and women as sexy sidekicks and instead thought that in order to continue this dialogue, rape was more… exciting.

Perhaps it was there all along and it just feels like a deluge. It’s certainly not a new idea, but it has become a trend. In the last 12 months on prime-time television, 8.8 million viewers winced as Yvonne Carmichael (Emily Watson) was violently raped by a colleague in BBC’s Apple Tree Yard and teenagers were left traumatised as Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) head knocked against a hot tub while her emotionless assailant had his way with her in 13 Reasons Why. Despite consultation with rape charities and careful attempts to avoid victim stereotyping, Broadchurch also awarded viewers the delayed gratification of seeing the vile attack against Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh), be filmed for teenage enjoyment – a titillating gold star for anyone who made it to episode eight of the rape whodunit.

We’ve also seen rape take centre stage in The Fall, Poldark and in Downton Abbey. It even made it to the big screen in the dumbfounding Elle – for which Isabelle Huppert took home a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for playing a woman whose brutal rape was replayed for cinemagoers over and over from every harrowing angle, before she conceded and entered into an affair with her rapist. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals practically revelled in violence against women, fetishising the raped pre-Raphaelite corpses of two female characters.

Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Guffard in Liar

Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Guffard in Liar

For the past six weeks, we’ve sat and watched the latest rape-drama unfold: ITV’s Liar, from TV darlings, screenwriter brothers Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing, Relik). Centring entirely on rape, Liar follows Laura (Joanne Froggatt), who is drugged and raped by Andrew (Ioan Gruffudd) on their first date. The tiresome school teacher is no match for the charming consultant, whom viewers are persuaded to believe for three episodes - until his guilt is revealed.

What are we gaining, as women, from these storylines, I wonder? We can all see what the screenwriters, channels and distributors gain (a peppering of controversy, a pat on the back for broaching a ‘bold’ topic, sky-high viewing figures), but what message are we sending to the women? That victimhood makes great drama? That those who have yet to experience such trauma need wait just a matter of time? That female bodies are disposable vehicles for male fantasy (be it dramatic or sexual)? And, then, what message does it send to men when rape becomes a fantasy?



That’s not to say there’s not a place for rape storylines. Rape is a horrifying fact of today’s society – one that affects one in five women over the age of 16. Dramas are in a position to debunk myths and address stereotypes, to show women they’re not alone and to reassure them in the process of coming forward - if they choose to do so. But so often they fall flat on addressing these things. What we see, instead, is rape for rape’s sake, rape as a tool to weave an interesting backstory into an otherwise two-dimensional female character, rape as a canny plot device. Amongst the proliferation of rape on TV lately, the majority is gratuitous, damaging – and farcical.

Julie Hesmondhalgh as Trish Winterman in Broadchurch

Julie Hesmondhalgh as Trish Winterman in Broadchurch

Take Liar, for example. A drama set up to explore the murky waters of rape accusations, the difficulty in getting the reluctant CPS to prosecute, the doubt that women face… for the first three episodes Liar felt as though it was about to challenge all this.

Instead, it had us questioning the victim ourselves – a rather high-risk approach to take halfway into a series. Of course, ITV would not be so short-sighted as to commission a drama about false accusation, fuelling the Men’s Rights Activist’s fire and supporting the incorrect assumption by some that false rape accusations are rife. Nevertheless, those first three episodes toed the line in a very precarious manner, leading to a flurry of tweets about fake rape claims – something that only accounts for between 2 and 10% of all reports and almost never results in any kind of conviction.

After a prolonged did-he-didn’t-he back and forth, Liar revealed Andrew to be a rapist. But not until after Laura becomes unhinged (hello, crazy woman cliché) breaks into his house and posts potentially defamatory comments about him on Facebook. When we do discover the truth, Andrew is revealed to not only have ‘gone too far’, but in fact he’s a serial rapist psychopath who methodically drugs women and films his attacks.

And there, Liar went from a potentially interesting look at so-called date rape, to falling into the same old tropes of the dark alley rapist – a type of rape that accounts for only 10% of incidents. Unsurprising, then, that Liar was penned by two thrill-seeking men, free from the constant threat of sexual assault, able to look at this crime from afar. We just need look at the Harvey Weinstein accusations and the resultant viral hashtag, #MeToo, to see how pertinently sexual assault affects women.

Apple Tree Yard

Emily Watson in Apple Tree Yard

Lair must be praised for not giving in to the seemingly irresistible temptation so many screenwriters fall for, of showing the act itself in all its violent, drama-inducing form but, nonetheless, it fell down spectacularly in other ways. Fay Maxted, CEO of sexual abuse charity The Survivors Trust, told The Sun newspaper that the show turned a “real-life horror into a cheap thrill.” And that “there is a real risk the programme will deter victims from coming forward.” The Williams brothers responded to criticisms saying they were hoping to tackle “damaging stereotypes” but, one senses this wasn’t their sole motive with the show.

Liar might just be one drama among many, but the rise in rape depictions in drama is a symptom of a society that still views women to be victims. Women can watch and relate and men can watch and protect. It’s a trope as old as time: female victim, sympathetic male. Who gets most enjoyment out of watching that, do we think?



The abundance of sexual assault in dramas isn’t imagined, either. Last year, television producer Jeremy Slater estimated the number of scripts using rape as a plot device to be around 20% and described the abundance of rape scenes in TV as a “plague on the industry”. Game of Thrones practically languished in it, writing it into scenes in which it was never meant to be, taking it to the point of multiple complaints before the show creators changed the approach (although not until after justifying it by saying that the fictional setting of Westeros is simply “a brutal place”). These things, you see, just happen.

Beyond the wider message these programmes send (Liar seems to imply we are better off not going through the process of reporting, as did Apple Tree Yard – why try and be one of the 5.7% that get convictions?) the immediate act of filming rape scenes has also shown to be hugely traumatic for the female actors involved. Meanwhile, Game of Throne’s Jason Momoa jokes about “getting to rape beautiful women” while acting in the show.

Jason Momoa

Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa joked about "raping beautiful women" on the TV show

When we use rape as a story arc, it normalises this kind of sexual assault rather than condemn it as revolting. It provides yet another layer to the vernacular of woman as victim not as hero. We make it part of women’s story when, really, it should be part of men’s. We should be investigating why men rape not fecklessly dramatising women getting raped. Sexual violence is not a women’s issue, it is a societal one.

When around 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales and two thirds of those will not make it to court, we cannot afford to be glib when we approach rape. It’s time to stop utilising sexual assault as a sexy plot device, and start thinking, instead, about ways to make it stop.

Send your feminist story ideas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.

Follow Harriet on Twitter and Instagram.