One of the newest offerings on NETFLIX, Unbelievable, is anything but. Based on the true story of a serial rapist who operated in Washington State and Colorado between 2008 and 2011, first told by ProPublica and The Marshall Project, the eight-part series uses a fictional version of events (very closely matching what really happened) to explore the way in which rape victims are treated by the criminal system.

I initially resisted watching the series for several reasons. I wasn’t sure there was much I would learn, given the work that I do every day. I also have become deeply tired of the commodification of sexual violence and worried that, however well-intentioned, Unbelievable might do the same thing. Then, of course, there is the matter of having to watch women being raped, even if the telling of the story has value.

However, I eventually gave in to the persuasion of a number of friends who assured me it was worth watching. While I remained unconvinced through the first couple of episodes, by the end of the series, I was glad I had watched it.

Stranger danger

My initial unhappiness was based on the plot: the hunt for a serial rapist. Of course, the central facts had to remain true to the story on which the series was based. However, I thought to myself, since stranger rape is far less common than rape by someone known to the victim, and serial rape a rare form of stranger rape, was this the story to tell? If one of the producers’ goals was to inform the public of the problems with police sexual assault investigations, would it not have been better to develop a series that examined how police treat victims when they are sexually assaulted by someone they know?

In my experience supporting survivors of sexual assault, those survivors are treated with particular suspicion and disbelief; much more so than survivors of stranger assaults. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we still live in a society that believes that the woman has at least some responsibility when a man she knows sexually assaults her.

Why not tell this story rather than the more easily sensationalized story of a serial rapist?

Avoiding sensationalism

As I continued to watch Unbelievable, I became increasingly engrossed in it and set aside this initial concern. Perhaps we do need a similar series about how survivors of sexual assault by men they know are treated but, I decided, that did not need to affect how I felt about this series.

There is a lot to say about it that is positive.

First, the series does not sensationalize sexual violence in any way.

Second, there are no long, explicit scenes of women being raped. As one reviewer noted:

“The series does not gloss over the violence of the attacks, but it doesn’t dwell on it either. Instead of re-enacting the rapes in full or leering at grisly crime photos, Unbelievable shows us flashes of what happened to Marie, Amber and the other women, a reflection of the way those suffering from PTSD recall snapshots of traumatic memories.”

We hear the most about the rapes from the women’s own voices, as they recount to the police and others what has been done to them.

Characters that feel real

Third in the plus column for this series is the way in which the main characters are portrayed. The women who survived being raped are not all Hollywood-style beauties. They are young, old and in between; slim and not; likeable and not. They, like real survivors of rape, often act in ways that make them less sympathetic to the viewer.

The two police officers – women – who doggedly pursue the case, despite less than enthusiastic support from their superiors at times, also offer some feminist role modelling. They are presented as competent and professional. They make mistakes. They argue, with one another and with others. The notion of women in leadership roles in the still very male world of policing comes across in an understated, matter-of-fact way and not as something extraordinary.

We see one juggling her responsibilities at work with those as a parent of a young child. Both have supportive male partners, who themselves have demanding jobs but nonetheless manage to put meals on the table and handle child care and other household responsibilities. These relationships are presented as though this is just what heterosexual partnerships can look like rather than leaving the viewer thinking: “Wow! What a great guy – he put the kid to bed all by himself.”

The survivors

This series is, at the end of the day, all about the survivors.

The rapist, in the television show as in real life, is eventually caught and charged with 30+ counts of rape. He pleads guilty and is sentenced to more than 300 years in prison. Some of the survivors ask to speak at the sentencing hearing, and it was this that I found the most powerful.

One says:

“I am scared all of the time, every minute of every day . . . You think it’s just one night, compared to all of the other minutes of my life, how could this one short incident make a difference? It does.”

Another asks of the rapist:

“Why did you pick me? What was I doing that made you want to come for me? I’m so scared of doing it again. . . . They say that routine can make you vulnerable, so anything routine I just stopped doing. It’s made my world very small. . . . If I just knew what it was, what I did, if I knew what that one thing was and I stopped doing it and then maybe I could get my life back again.”

As Hannah J. Davies writes in her review in The Guardian:

Unbelievable . . . is about who gets to have their story heard, who is allowed to be believed. It’s about the power dynamics that underpin the criminal justice system and society at large. “Am I in trouble?”, Adler [the first victim, who is not believed by the police] asks the police who take her first statements. The answer for her, and so many others like her, is a resounding yes.”

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