It’s the moment in the HBO docuseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark when a female police detective who investigated a serial rapist in California says of her male colleagues, “They could have solved these cases. But rape was written off: ‘It’s a university town, what do you expect?’ The Reagan ranch was 15 miles away. They didn’t want negative publicity. Property values would decline.”
It’s the moment in the Netflix docuseries Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich when a few of the more than 30 underage victims of Epstein’s serial sexual abuse learn that Alex Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida, not only struck a non-prosecution agreement for Epstein that protected him and his associates in perpetuity but also concealed the deal from his victims.
It’s the moment in the Netflix series Unbelievable – based on a Pulitzer-winning ProPublica story – when the two lead characters, female detectives played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, react to evidence that the serial rapist they’re tracking may be a cop: They go still and drop their voices to a whisper.
But mostly it’s the moment in the HBO series I May Destroy You when writer Arabella (Michaela Coel, who also wrote, produced and directed all 12 episodes) tells her literary agents, “I was raped,” in the same matter-of-fact tone she would use to say, “I was robbed.”
I knew, with a jump-off-the-couch jolt, that this was not the Rape TV I’d spent the past 50 years consuming.
We all know what that looked like. Pretty young victim. Skimpy clothes. Out too late. She walks into a parking garage or down a dark street, glancing nervously at the shadow following her. The suspense becomes sexual. Her clothes are artfully torn, her screams artfully pitiful. If she’s lucky, she gets to tell her shameful story to cops who dismiss her. If she’s unlucky, viewers will see her naked body, artfully bruised, in an unnecessarily long scene at the morgue. The message is always clear: She brought this on herself. She shouldn’t have worn that skirt. She shouldn’t have had that drink. How dare she walk into that parking garage, or down that street, as if she had the right to? The world isn’t hers to walk safely in.
The shows above, however, are made by women – Coel, who based I May Destroy You on a sexual assault she herself endured; Susannah Grant, the writer/director/producer of Unbelievable, who also wrote the film Erin Brockovich; Liz Garbus, who directed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, based on the book by the late Michelle McNamara; Lisa Bryant, who directed Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich; and, to add a slightly older example, Jennifer Fox, who wrote and directed the HBO film The Tale, about a woman who realizes as an adult that what she thought had been a teenage affair was actually an act of grooming and assault. It is impossible to overstate the difference a female creator makes.
First, of course, the gaze changes. There’s no nudity, no titillating re-enactments. The few crime photos we see depict the horrors of violence (bruised hands, blood-soaked mattresses). The rapes are described only by the women who endured them. No one asks intrusive questions. The story is theirs to tell.
Second, the focus expands. These shows are not about the crime – they’re about the aftermath. Coel wrote 191 drafts of I May Destroy You, forcing herself to finely interrogate Arabella’s reactions and feelings, as well as those of her other characters. I won’t spoil the finale, but Coel also imagined the kind of wrap-up viewers might want. (For research, she read Margaret Atwood’s story Stone Mattress, in which a woman kills her childhood assailant. Coel understands how that might satisfy people, “but it didn’t satisfy me,” she has said.)
Unbelievable, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark each devote a full episode to the survivors’ lives after their rapists are caught, examining if they’ve found strength or haven’t been able to find solace. They emphasize, as one survivor puts it, “how unsettling it is to live every minute of your life being afraid,” to never again even sleep with a window open. They want us to understand, as Wever’s character says in Unbelievable, “this is not something people get over. This is something they carry with them forever.”
Third, these female showrunners go beyond victim and criminal to take on the systems and structures that keep women unsafe and unheard. They depict how female (and some male) cops who take rape seriously are shushed and marginalized by their superiors. They offer clear analyses of how powerful men pull strings to erase their cronies’ crimes. Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, for example, walks us along the shadowy path from Epstein to Acosta to Donald Trump, to show us that amoral men don’t just stumble upon each other, they seek each other out. Vulnerable girls keep getting hurt, but property values stay high.
On a more intimate scale, but still insidious note, Arabella tells her support group (in a barn burner of a monologue) how “Bob,” the typical office harasser, gets away with it. “He does think you’re crazy,” she says. “He’s confident in this because he’s been exploring for himself what the boundaries and violations are. He found the line, and rather than crossing it, he’s been tiptoeing along it. He saw how in this grey area, where nothing was quite clear, that no one could be clear. They couldn’t pinpoint exactly what he did that we felt was so wrong.
“We have to start observing Bob,” she concludes. “Telling him we do see the detail. We see you, Bob.” That’s what these series are about.
Summer 2020 will be remembered for COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter but also as the summer Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested, and instead of condemning her as a heinous criminal who for years procured underage girls for Epstein, the President of the United States said, “I wish her well.”
It’s the summer that Virginia, after spending five years and US$3-million, became only the seventh state to clear its backlog of untested rape kits – 2,665 of them. Which means 43 states are still sitting on mountains of untested rape kits.
It’s the summer Nova Scotia decided not to hold a public inquiry into Canada’s deadliest mass shooting, which was squarely rooted in misogyny – until a public outcry forced the government to agree to one.
It’s the summer that a Republican U.S. congressman named Ted Yoho called his Democratic colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch,” and then The New York Times called her the outlier, belittling her brave and correct move to read Yoho’s remark into the congressional record as just another effort to “amplify her own political brand.” Thousands of women clap back, tweeting out the millions of times they’ve been called a bitch just for walking down the street – as if they had a right to, as if the world were theirs to walk safely in.
“I tried to be as normal as possible for 42 years,” says a rape survivor in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. “I thought rape was supposed to be a secret. Let’s start fresh. Let’s let everyone know everything.”