When Rape Is a Plot Twist

Is there an appropriate way to tie stories of sexual assault to unreliable narrators?

Andrew (Ioan Gruffudd) and Laura (Joanne Froggatt) in 'Liar'

Liar, a six-part miniseries whose finale airs on SundanceTV on Wednesday, is constructed around the premise that two people are telling different stories about a sexual encounter and one of them is lying. Laura (Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt) has no memory of what happened at the end of her date with Andrew (Ioan Gruffudd) and thinks she’s been raped. Andrew insists the sex was consensual, and that Laura’s furious public statements are ruining his reputation. Complicating matters further is that Andrew, a surgeon and single father, is a pillar of the community, while Laura is increasingly unstable, and—it emerges—has a history of making allegations against men that she later retracted.

I’ve watched Liar with increasing queasiness over the past few weeks, amid the rising tide of charges against Harvey Weinstein and similarly powerful men. On the one hand, the British-made show, which is written by the brothers Harry and Jack Williams, is sensitive in its portrayal of assault—it provides no explicit footage or images of the act itself. On the other, that’s because the show’s central mystery is what exactly happened in Laura’s flat that night. For most of the first three episodes, Liar obfuscates and confuses the question of whether Laura should be believed when she tells family members and the police that she was raped.

Against a backdrop of hundreds of women coming forward only now with accusations of assault dating back decades, there’s something unnerving about a series that uses the dynamics of “he said/she said” for plot twists. But Liar is only the latest work of entertainment to find dramatic tension in the apparent ambiguity of sexual assault. Una, a 2017 film directed by Benedict Andrews, based on the hit play Blackbird by David Harrower, stars Rooney Mara as a young woman who confronts the family friend (Ben Mendelsohn) who had a physical and emotional relationship with her when she was 13. As in the play, the film’s narrative traction comes from how the audience interprets their divergent stories about what happened, and that the story seems far from black and white.

Doubt, the 2004 play by John Patrick Shanley, also revolves around a mystery involving an alleged offense committed by a Catholic priest against a young boy. To complicate things further, and to give some sense of Harvey Weinstein’s tentacular presence in Hollywood, Doubt was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and distributed by Miramax—the company Weinstein and his brother founded. Liar also may have links to Weinstein: The actress Alice Evans, who’s married to Gruffudd, wondered—in an essay published last month in The Telegraph—whether the producer torpedoed both her and her husband’s careers after she refused what she called his “sinister advances.” Within this context, where does the entertainment industry’s excessive preoccupation with sexual assault as a storyline move beyond exploring real human experiences into pathology?

“There’s no doubt that rape is one of the small screen’s most frequently used dramatic devices,” Variety’s Maureen Ryan wrote in a stellar examination of the subject in 2016. “Whether writers think it adds ‘edge’ or connotes character depth—and both of those assumptions are fraught—rape is prevalent in prestige vehicles, procedurals, and genre shows alike.” Far too often, sexual assault is used to add depth or to humanize “difficult” female characters like Game of Thrones’s Cersei, The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings, or Scandal’s Mellie Grant. But to ignore the subject altogether is to paper over a subject whose visibility is becoming ever more crucial. The question is how to portray it in a way that doesn’t undermine the women who’ve experienced it.

Liar, in my mind, was a show that muddied the waters in its pursuit of extravagant twists. In the first episode, Laura, a newly single teacher, impulsively agreed to a date with Andrew, a single father whose son attended her school. He was a charming, attentive conversationalist; she had a few glasses of wine but was by no means drunk. When she woke up in the morning unable to remember how the night had ended, but traumatized by the sense that she’d been somehow violated, she called the police. The detectives and doctors who helped her were kind, understanding, and extremely professional. Froggatt’s performance as a woman completely jolted by the ordeal was intuitive and heartbreaking.

But then, to keep viewers engaged, the first episode ended with Laura posting a furious tirade about the assault on Andrew’s social-media page while the investigation was just beginning. It was the kind of twist that seemed intended only to break down her credibility for viewers, or worse, to lead us to blame Laura for acting inappropriately. In the U.K., where the show first aired, the rollercoaster-like action led to Liar being praised as “fiendishly gripping,” but it also necessitated the destruction of Laura’s reliability. In order for audiences to be kept in the dark a little longer, Laura had to suffer still more—she had to be subjected to the same scrutiny and doubt that women who report their assaults have long endured.

A sympathetic or even a meta reading of Liar might argue that the series was illuminating the ways in which we’ve been conditioned to disbelieve women because of their history, or their actions, or their emotional states. But in the third episode, when the show unexpectedly revealed to the audience who’d been lying all along, it departed the realm of nuanced psychodrama and became a much more conventional thriller. It also became apparent that the writers were more interested in narrative twists and turns than in probing the nature of rape culture. Laura’s experiences had simply been fodder for a generic cat-and-mouse drama. And the show’s manipulation of its audience’s sympathies with a series of destabilizing twists came to seem less provocative than opportunist.

That doesn’t mean that ambiguity can’t be wielded as a narrative tool with more precision and sharpness. What was most compelling about Una was that the film committed more thoughtfully to an act of audience destabilization. There was no doubt that Ray (Mendelsohn) had behaved egregiously toward Una, an impressionable teenager who fell hopelessly in love with him, and whose passion was terrifying, even in adulthood. Throughout the film, Andrews worked hard to let audiences see both characters’ points of view—Una’s blinding, white-hot fever of rage and frustration and abandonment, and Ray’s increasing panic in her presence. Neither, the film made clear, was a reliable interpreter of what happened, until a final, sickening reveal put a thumb on the scales.

Una, in that sense, does force the audience to confront their own, perturbing biases. It acknowledges the damage done to a young girl abused by an adult, but only after exposing why that damage may have made her seem less credible. The film’s flashbacks and nonlinear twists expose deeper societal fault lines. Part of that is the medium—a 90-minute film has no need to keep viewers on the hook for next week’s episode. But it also comes from a sensitivity to how frequently young, vulnerable woman are distrusted or written off as hysterical, and a willingness to excavate that dynamic to make a profound and disturbing point.

There is a way, Una reveals, to use sexual assault as a narrative device, but only if writers and directors are aware of the stakes. A recent analysis of submitted screenplays by Kate Hagen, director of community at the amateur screenwriter portal The Black List, delved deeply into how frequently rape is used as a plot element. She found that men were more likely to include sexual assault in screenplays than women, that only 29 percent of screenplays that did include sexual assault also passed the Bechdel test, and that a disturbing number of writers made sexual assault the only defining characteristic for a female character.

Both Una and Liar, in some ways, followed these trends. They were written and directed by men, they revolved almost entirely around the subject of assault, and they gave little sense of their subjects outside of that frame. But Mara’s Una was inscrutable for a deeper purpose—she commanded audiences to interrogate their own responses to her story. Liar made Laura untrustworthy simply to compel viewers to keep watching. Until women are represented in the upper echelons of the entertainment industry in equal proportion to men, there will almost certainly be more dramas that manipulate rape as a mere plot device, including all the “he said/she said” uncertainty it implies. But the ones that use the subject for deeper examination rather than cheap twists are the ones that—hopefully—point the way forward.