Photo: Broadchurch
Photo: Broadchurch

TV

With one powerful story, Broadchurch has changed the way rape is portrayed on TV 

The final episode of Broadchurch aired last night – but its dignified, myth-busting and feminist portrayal of rape was an outright lesson in How TV Should Do Sexual Assault, says Frances Ryan

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By Frances Ryan on

"What about the women? Did you stop to think how they felt?" spat Broadchurch’s DCI Ellie Miller last night. "They didn't get the choice. Their bodies are not yours." 

The mystery of the Broadchurch rapist was finally solved on Monday but, as the last-ever episode of ITV’s Dorset drama aired, I can't have been the only viewer wanting to break into spontaneous applause for a fictional feminist policewoman. 

From its opening episode – in which we followed a rape victim from the moment she called the police, through her medical exam, to her meeting her sexual response worker – Broadchurch’s final series has been a blistering antidote to every crime drama that views a woman’s rape as little more than a default, usually erotic, plot device. The investigation of who attacked Trish Winterman, played powerfully by Julie Hesmondhalgh, has never been rape as a way to titillate the viewer – long pauses on bruised, lithe female bodies, or abusers as mysterious, darkly sexual figures. It’s been slow, dignified realism mixed with myth-busting and feminist one-liners. Essentially, an outright lesson in How TV Should Do Sexual Assault.

More than perhaps any programme I’ve seen, the series introduced a string of disturbing aspects of misogyny, from one rapist's girlfriend being “shared” with another ("She does as she's told," he bragged) to photos of a teenage girl being shared without her consent, and it did it against a carefully constructed central story of sexual violence.   

That Broadchurch is steered around the lives of local residents of a small town enabled producers to demonstrate, like many “real-life rapes”, the perpetrator could have been someone Trish knew – her ex-husband, boss and the man she slept with on the morning of the rape were prime suspects as much as the local cab driver or the local paroled sex offender. 

The viewer isn’t told to empathise with Trish because she’s pretty and young, or because she’s pure or nice. We're told to empathise with her simply because she’s a human being who’s been abused

Trish, meanwhile, has never been written as the “perfect” rape victim. She had consensual, unprotected, casual sex the morning before the attack (and early on refuses to tell the police who with); she’d been drinking heavily on the night she was raped; she has a hazy memory of the attack and waits a number of days before reporting it. She also doesn’t fit the mould of the “sympathetic, passive” female (for example, the man she’s had sex with on the morning of the attack was her best friend’s husband). The viewer isn’t told to empathise with Trish because she’s pretty and young, or because she’s pure or nice. We're told to empathise with her simply because she’s a human being who’s been abused.   

But as strong as the portrayal of rape was, what really stood out about Broadchurch was Olivia Colman's performance as a detective searching for the man responsible. Or in her words, "Swaggery little shit!" There hasn’t been a single episode in which Ellie hasn’t objected to some form of sexism, often with a well-placed eye roll or occasionally wielding a hammer. 

The narrative of the show and history of the character allowed Ellie to naturally take on this role. Scenes in which she raged at her young son for looking at porn at school, or her own dad for his dismissive sexism, had an added edge, considering (spoiler!) her ex-husband was series one's murderer. At the same time, we’d had two previous series establishing her as someone you’d want on your side in a fight – the sort of woman who could provide rage retorts (“With respect, sir, move away from me now or I will piss in a cup and throw it at you,” stands out), while making sure there was a Scotch egg or ice cream for snacks. 

While Poldark forced viewers to rant on social media (“Just because she loves you doesn’t mean she enjoys rape!”), in Broadchurch Ellie did that for us onscreen, with scenes with her own colleagues often used as a device to reject classic rape myths. When a new young officer, DC Katie Harford, dismisses Trish’s account of the night she was raped, Ellie steps in with an immediate slap-down: “When you've completed your sexual-offences training, Katie, you'll understand that we always start from a position of believing the victim. We're working on the assumption she's genuine." After her detective partner, David Tennant’s Alec Hardy, remarks a male character overhearing a rape must have been "a hell of a thing to live with", Ellie’s there to avoid it descending into Game of Thrones male-gaze territory by responding it was "nothing compared to what Trish's dealing with". Or, as she put it previously, "Typical men. A woman's been raped and they manage to make it all about them."   

In DCI Ellie Miller, Broadchurch and Olivia Colman gave us a new feminist hero. I, for one, will miss her.  

@DrFrancesRyan

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