“Unbelievable” Treats the Issue of Sexual Assault With Refreshing Humanity

The first episode of Netflix’s original series “Unbelievable” begins with teenager Marie Adler (played by Kaitlyn Dever) reporting her rape to a male police officer as she sits huddled in her bedroom just moments after her assault. Her overbearing foster mother (just one of the many she’s had) pushes her for more information. Another detective, also male, comes into her home and asks her to retell her story. Then she’s whisked away to the hospital, where she’s poked and prodded and photographed by a nurse trying to collect DNA evidence. Then she must then “officially” report her rape to the same detective at the police station. And then she must fill out a written rape report. 


Marie Adler is both a victim of sexual assault and the law enforcement system that doesn’t believe her story. ( photo source)

Within just the first twenty minutes, Marie is made to relive her assault over and over again to various strangers in increasingly humiliating and traumatizing ways. She appears shrunken before the authorities, who are depicted through a warped lens that gives the audience a sense of her alienation. None of the people Marie comes into contact with within the first few hours of her assault has any regard for her mental or physical state; no accommodations are made to ensure that she feels comfortable. Seeing this depiction of a rape report handled so carelessly — to the point where the victim herself begins to doubt the assault actually happened — it is no wonder that nearly 75% of sexual assaults go unreported.

The second episode, then, offers a better, more humane way. In Colorado, Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) is called to the scene where a rape has just taken place. She does everything to ensure the victim feels safe, from inviting her into the privacy of her police truck to talk to simply saying the words, “I’m here for you.” These seemingly small gestures show that caring for an assault victim is not some complicated code to crack; it just comes down to basic humanity. 

Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen show the rape victims in their cases more humanity than other police officers depicted in the series. (photo source)

The genius of “Unbelievable” lies in this subtle and sensitive way with which it handles its subject matter. By contrasting the two victims’ experiences in reporting their rapes, the audience is shown that there’s obviously a right and a wrong method of addressing the matter. Still, what may seem blatantly obvious to one person another person may be oblivious to, and that idea is central to the show’s message. It’s about how we fail each other — friends, family, simply other members of the human race — every day, in small but powerful ways, and how those small failures pile up to the point where we can destroy each other and ourselves. “Unbelievable” is about the little things, the parts that may seem insignificant but aren’t, and about living each day with just a little more humanity, empathy, and care. Detective Duvall and her partner on the case, Detective Grace Rasmussen (portrayed by Toni Collette), work just a little harder and pay just a little more attention than their peers do to the details, and that is why they can say they did not fail Marie or any of the other victims.


Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen uncover the identity of a serial rapist by paying just a little more attention to the details. (photo source)

The release of this series comes at a crucial time as reports of rape have gone undercounted in several major cities over the past few years because of disputes over what constitutes “rape.” “Unbelievable” makes clear that we have a serious societal misunderstanding about rape, and that those who are in charge of addressing the problem — namely, law enforcement — are severely unequipped to handle it. The process of reporting a rape is often unnecessarily humiliating and even more traumatizing for the victim, and after all the trouble, the report may not even be taken seriously.

When you consider how many women may have been denied justice because of failings like these, Marie’s story of justice becomes all the more unbelievable. But, if more people act in the ways of Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen and show just a little more attention and care to victims’ stories, there is hope we can give victims the justice they deserve. 

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