Top of the Lake and the depiction of rape in fiction

Trigger warning: references to rape, gang-rape and child sexual abuse

Spoiler warning: for Top of the Lake and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rape and sexual abuse are very common themes in contemporary novels, TV programmes, films and plays – which is much better than when the subject was so taboo that it was never discussed at all. Since one woman in three suffers rape or abuse in her life, rape is clearly a far too common problem that affects us all (statistics for male rape victims, for whom speaking out about their experiences is even more taboo than for women, are less consistent – I’ve found ones varying from one in thirty-three to one in five). The purpose of fiction is to reflect and explore the whole variety of  the human experience – if rape is part of that, it has to be part of fiction, and if such narratives are disturbing to watch, so is life is sometimes disturbing to live.

However, rape’s very seriousness as a brutal human rights violation with serious long-term effects on the victim’s physical and psychological health can appeal to the scavenger instinct in writers, where hunger for a good story to tell sometimes drives them to seize onto their subject and write it in a way that aims at entertainment rather than sensitivity. Of course these crimes are always presented as bad things, but when they dwell explicitly, almost titillatingly, on the details of the attack and gloss over the psychological aftermath for the victim, they can do more harm than good. As I said in my last post, one of the things I liked about TV drama Top of the Lake was that despite dealing with the horrifying subject matter of a pregnant twelve-year-old, it handled the theme of sexual abuse in a sensitive manner, focusing more on the difficult process of psychological recovery for victims than on lurid and explicit depictions of the rape itself. This certainly compares favourably with, say, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which seems to have been written to include as many gruesome and far-fetched scenes of sexual abuse as possible, including a woman being raped with a live parakeet; or the many routine TV procedurals where the focus is on detectives racing to investigate a series of rapes or sexually motivated murders, like obstacles in a computer game, rather than on the victims.

I was therefore surprised to see sociologist Tiffany Jenkins cite Top of the Lake on a list of TV dramas and plays where “Women and men… are degraded” by the depiction of rape. I haven’t seen the other works she describes, so I can’t critique her interpretation of them. But the criticism she applies point blank to all these works – that they depict rape in distressing detail without any meaningful purpose, and that they depict all relationships as inherently abusive – simply don’t apply to Top of the Lake. As I’ve previously argued, its depiction of rape is unexplicit and mainly focused on the consequences for the victim, and far from depicting all relationships negatively, its heroine Detective Robin Morgan’s relationship with the missing girl’s half-brother Johnno grows into an incredibly tender romance – despite their struggles to deal with the memory of their first date when they were teenagers, which ended with Robin being gang-raped (not by Johnno).

Jenkins goes on to pour scorn on the whole idea of ‘breaking the silence’ and ‘raising awareness’ – surely two sides of the same coin. In a society where, as Operation Yewtree shows, many sexual abuse survivors have lived for decades without speaking up about what they suffered at the hands of powerful men because they knew that they wouldn’t be believed, and where a thirteen-year-old victim can be described as ‘predatory’ by the prosecutor in a child sexual abuse case (http://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/aug/07/barrister-victim-predatory-criticised-dpp), it seems perverse to argue that there is “too much rape on stage and TV”. If victims can be so effectively silenced, or wrongly labelled by others, and so denied justice, then rape victims’ voices aren’t being heard enough in our culture. Seeing sensitive and realistic representations of these experiences can play a therapeutic role for survivors, by helping them address their own experiences – for example, author Lucy Coats only felt empowered to write about being abused by two older boys as a child after reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak, which addresses the theme of rape (http://scribblecitycentral.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/cant-you-hear-me-then-ill-speak-louder.html). As long as writers remember what a painful subject they’re dealing with, remember that some of their readers or viewers will be rape survivors and respect their emotions, then rape in TV and other fictional forms is a valid and important subject matter.

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