Why does TV keep getting rape so wrong?

Liar, the new ITV show written by two men (brothers, in fact), is the first British primetime TV drama to tackle the issue of rape head on. Rape is the show’s sole subject. The drama stems from a battle between two claims: a woman’s claim of rape, and the man’s claim of innocence. With no evidence to speak of, it’s her word and against his. It is a brave endeavour, (although god knows it shouldn’t be seen as such), and we are watching it closely. So much could go wrong. Will Liar join the miserable heap of films, TV shows and columns that have stabbed rape victims in the back? That have stifled the victim’s voice and chosen sensation over accuracy? That have chosen sexualisation over horror? Will it confirm what we already know, that the media is unable to accurately portray society’s most misunderstood crime?

Almost every TV show and film from the last year featuring a rape scene has caused controversy. Apple Tree Yard suggested rape victims are better off not reporting rape. Game Of Thrones may as well have its own “GOT rape fantasy” section on Pornhub. Poldark thought rape was romantic, and don’t get me started on Elle, the film that suggested a rape victim could eventually find rape a turn on, if raped regularly enough. Yet, this summer, many thought Broadchurch season three had changed things.

Broadchurch, the detective drama starring Olivia Coleman and David Tennant, was applauded for representing a real rape victim, rather than a hyper-sexualized one intended to arouse the viewer. Trish Winterman, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh, is a middle aged woman. She isn’t young, blonde and beautiful. She is the norm. But although Broadchurch did well in debunking the hackneyed myth of the Barbie doll rape victim, and I applaud it for that, it couldn’t help but resort to cliché with the perpetrator. The grand finale was mind-bending. No one saw it coming. Leo Humphries, a young, handsome footballer, groomed 16-year-old Michael Lucas into raping Trish while he filmed it on his camera and Michael sobbed.

It was gratuitously perverse. And while I’m not saying this evil doesn’t happen in real life, it is very, very rare, and it completely plays into the misconception that rapists are all psychopaths. The cliché “psycho-rapist” is a quasi-fictional figure fuelled by sensationalist news headlines and crime series just like Broadchurch. He exists, yes, but as the hideous exception. Like most criminals, he is not your average member of society. And yet, unlike most crimes, rape is sown into the very fabric of our society. Rape is a culture. It is mundane. And so Broadchurchonly bothered to go half way. It only tackled part of the problem.

Liar only goes half way too. Laura, played by Joanne Frogatt, is a teacher who has just split from her partner. She goes on a date with her sister’s colleague: Andrew, a winsome, friendly and reputable surgeon. They go for dinner, and then, because Andrew’s phone has died and he needs to call a taxi, Laura invites him back to hers to charge it. Then Laura suggests opening a bottle of wine, and that’s where the date stops – for the viewer. The next scene is the morning after. Laura wakes up with memory loss and a horrible feeling that she has been drugged and raped. She calls the police and goes to the hospital. No drugs are found in her system and no signs of struggle are found on her body or in her flat. To the police, Andrew seems clean. So it’s her word against his. Is Andrew lying, or is Laura?


The first two and a half episodes manipulated the viewer into distrusting Laura. She was presented as vindictive. She published a vitriolic Facebook post calling Andrew a rapist on his profile, causing irrevocable damage to his career. Her sister and the police voiced their concern, saying it would negatively impact her case in court. She was made to look crazy. She broke into Andrew’s house to search for the drugs she’s certain he put in her wine. She asked her police cop ex-partner to search his house. She was made to look a fool. The “drugs” she discovered was a vial of insulin. She was made to look unstable. Her sister repeatedly mentioned Laura’s “history”, alluding to mental health problems which might affect her credibility. In the second episode, a mysterious man from Laura’s past called Andrew to say that “she’s done this before…” Plus, the directors worked hard to present Laura as inherently dislikable. There’s something about her: the scraped back hair, the permanent scowl, her tone of voice. Andrew on the other hand: open, honest, charming and affable, with a beguiling Welsh accent in his holster. The contrast is stark and it is deliberate.

The show set Laura up as the liar, but of course it couldn’t end that way. It’s not worth making a series about a woman “crying rape”. ITV would not be so stupid. But to make the revelation that Laura has not been lying as shocking and sensational as possible, this setup was necessary. And at the end of it all, ITV will not be penalised. The right victim will have been chosen. It will have done the “right” thing. When Andrew was exposed at the end of the third episode, Twitter exploded in frenzied excitement and shock.