Unbelievable, feminism, and the importance of listening
According to the latest statistics, rape charges, prosecutions and convictions in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest levels in more than a decade (CPS 2019). In 2018, there were less than 2000 convictions for rape in England, despite there being 60,000 incidents of rape reported to the police (CPS 2019). In the US, the picture is worse still – with approximately 5 convictions for every 1000 sexual assaults (RAINN 2017). These statistics are stark, and highlight how, in the aftermath of sexual assault, many women are let down by the criminal justice system that they are taught to rely upon. In many situations, survivors of rape or sexual assault are simply just not believed. It is this situation that Netflix’s eight-part drama Unbelievable seeks to explore.
Based upon the 2015 news article ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’, written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, Unbelievable follows the story of 18-year old Marie Adler - ‘a teenager who was charged with lying about having been raped, and the two detectives who followed a twisting path to arrive at the truth’ (Andreeva 2018). The first episode takes place in Lynwood, Washington where Marie (played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Denver) tells the police that she was raped by a masked man who entered her apartment whilst she was sleeping. The more that the police question Marie, however, the more it seems that she made the whole thing up. Fresh out of the foster care system, Marie is not only an achingly vulnerable character, but also an equally unreliable narrator - switching between panicked and disinterested, before changing her story entirely. Unlike the rest of the series, this first episode belongs entirely to Marie, and from here on out we find ourselves trying to make sense of Marie’s story. Was Marie telling the truth - or had she made it up? And if so, why?
From episode 2 onwards, Unbelievable begins to unfold on two tracks. Whilst still focussing upon the aftermath of Marie’s rape accusation in Washington, the narrative shifts forward to 2011 and to Colorado, where Detective Karen Duvall (played by Merritt Wever) is working on a rape case with circumstances that sound very similar to Marie’s. In this instance, a woman named Amber (played by Danielle Macdonald of Dumplin’) was attacked by an intruder who broke into her apartment. Amber’s treatment by the police, however, differs entirely to how Marie was treated an episode earlier. Duval is kind and soft-spoken, unlike the dispassionate male officer who subjected Marie to endless questioning back in Lynwood. Arguably, we see from the get-go how Marie’s background and class, combined with a lack of compassion and understanding, affected the treatment that she received from the police. There is clear sense that Marie’s voice is dismissed not solely because she is a woman - but also because she is young and poor and the product of a hopelessly inadequate foster care system. As feminist theorist bell hooks contends, it is the voices of women like Marie that the wider feminist movement should pay particular attention to - for "Women in lower class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white… are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status’ (2014).
As further attacks take place, Detective Duvall eventually joins forces with Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), a Colorado detective who works in a nearby jurisdiction and is also starting to see similar cases. As the remainder of the series unfolds, we follow these two women as they work together in order to find the man who is responsible. Wever and Collette make an incredible team - authentic, realistic, and compassionate. However, what makes Unbelievable different to other crime dramas is the fact that it’s focus does not lie with the perpetrator of these crimes. Instead, the focus of Unbelievable lies with the victims of that rapist and how they are treated by an inconsistent criminal justice system. In 2019, this should not qualify as a radical approach to crime storytelling. And yet, it nevertheless feels radical. Fiercely feminist, Unbelievable highlights the difference it makes when a woman who says she’s been assaulted is not only heard - but treated with compassion. And for the women in real life, like Marie, whose voices are drowned out and who are not believed – the importance of this message cannot be overstated.
Andreeva, Nellie (2018). ‘Netflix Orders 'Unbelievable' Limited Series from Susannah Grant, Timberman/Beverly, Katie Couric & CBS Studios’, Deadline Hollywood.
Armstrong, Ken, Miller, T. Christian (2019). ‘Netflix Series Based on Our Work Explores Costs of Not Believing Rape Victims’, ProPublica. Available at https://www.propublica.org/article/netflix-series-based-on-our-work-explores-costs-of-not-believing-rape-victims. Accessed: 14/12/2019.
Barr, Topping and Bowcott (2019). ‘Rape prosecutions in England and Wales at lowest level in a decade’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2019/sep/12/prosecutions-in-england-and-wales-at-lowest-level-in-a-decade
Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2017). National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2016. Available at: https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system. Accessed: 14/12/2019.
hooks, bell (2014). Feminist Theory From Margin to Center. 3rd ed. (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis).