CultureCinema Shetland: A Rare Feminist Depiction Of Sexual Assault On TV

Shetland: A Rare Feminist Depiction Of Sexual Assault On TV

Scottish TV show Shetland shows that recovery from sexual assault is immensely agonising, but it is not insurmountable.

Trigger warning: contains descriptions of sexual assault 

Spoiler alert!

I recently entered the world of Scandinavian and Scottish crime drama TV shows. While the ones I have watched so far such as ‘Deadwind’, ‘Hinterland’ and ‘Shetland’, stand head and shoulders above the average US crime thriller, ‘Shetland’ in particular left a lasting impression on me with its very feminist treatment of the issue of sexual assault.

A particular episode features the sexual assault of a woman who is a police officer investigating the murder of a man under witness protection. The attack on her is meant to be a warning to the investigators to steer clear off the actual perpetrators of the murder. One of the first things which appeal to you about the show is that the protagonist is not a moody, sullen police officer with a dark past, but a sensitive, layered but simple man who tries to do the right thing, while also sharing a very healthy relationship with his teenage stepdaughter. He has lost his wife but does not wallow in grief while lashing out at everyone around. 

The cases that form the plot of the show are set in a small-town setting where everyone knows each other. The perpetrators are people who are not warped serial killers but humans who succumbed to greed and other bad instincts, or made fatal mistakes. They often are victims of their circumstances too. This is the setting where in Season 3, episode 5, our story unfolds.  

To begin with, there is none of the graphic and traumatising depictions of the assault or the equally triggering visuals of the rapists violently restraining the victim. The scene directly starts with the medical test on the survivor, but does not linger on it for too long. Her superior officer (a man) keeps her company during the procedure and provides her quiet support. What follows is a highly sensitive telling of the survivor’s journey towards coping with the trauma. 

Never once does the protagonist (the superior officer) make the assault about himself. He is shaken by it, as is understandable when something like that happens to someone close to you. The show does dwell on it at length. But the narrative belongs strictly to the survivor and there is no compromise there. Once the survivor’s colleagues (all men) find out about the incident, none of them begin to fuss over her or treat her as a helpless victim. They give her the space she needs without behaving like they need to tread on eggshells around her.  

As she continues with the investigation of her will, there come points when she is triggered and overwhelmed. But it is not brushed aside and instead handled with great delicacy. The show shows her trying to cope with the horrific aftermath of the assault. The self-doubt that patriarchal societies ingrain in us, that she should have seen it coming, especially being a police officer herself. True to the process of recovery and coping, it has its highs and lows. She is shown going to therapy where she opens up about her struggles in going about her daily life and trying to maintain a facade of normalcy not only for herself but also to not alarm her loved ones, and how taxing it all is. 

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What struck me even more was the fact that despite being a police officer and eventually finding out the identity of her attacker, she decides not to pursue the case. One may argue that given her profession, it is unbecoming of her to not seek legal justice for herself. That her speaking up would encourage other survivors to come forward. But as Sohaila Abdulali says in ‘What we talk about when we talk about Rape‘, ‘it is never a victim’s obligation to speak up, or report, or do anything but survive. Her first responsibility is getting through it.’

The process of seeking legal redress is an arduous one with protracted trials, numerous court appearances, reliving her trauma over and over again, along with being doubted, having aspersions cast about her character, in the name of cross-examination and so on. The courts and the police are not exactly known for their sensitivity towards women and survivors of sexual assault. She would have to take on the entire might of the criminal justice system which is set up to cater to patriarchy and steeped in misogyny. No one questions her decision. 

Even as a police officer exercises her choice to not take legal action against her attacker, another woman who had been sexually assaulted almost two decades ago by the son of a powerful prosecutor who then helped cover it up, decides that she will take her attacker to court. At the time of the attack, she had a history of selling sex, was a drug user, and was convinced by the attacker’s friends that the cops would argue that her injuries came from a violent client and had to get her charges dropped. When asked why she went to the police if she thought that they would not help her, she says, “It’s not like I had a lot of choices back then….who I said ‘no’ to…but I said ‘no’ to him. And he broke my bones and he hurt me.” Hers is a tragically true story of so many survivors. She is aware of what it means for her, especially since she was working as a sex worker at the time of the assault. The relentless character-shaming, victim-blaming, the ‘she was asking for it’. But she stands her ground, and the protagonists vow to support her fight. 

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It ends not on an overly positive note nor an utterly negative one. It is a human ending- that recovery from sexual assault is immensely agonising, but it is not insurmountable. Above all, the survivor has control over her narrative. No one but she has the right to decide that. 

Shruti Mitra is a 22 year old, 2nd year MA student of Social Work in Women-centred Practice in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is an angry, radical, intersectional feminist striving to smash the patriarchies. Follow her on Instagram.

Featured Image Source: a still from the show

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