Rape. It is a difficult word to write or say, let alone discuss. Regardless the society or culture and despite attempts to prosecute rape at the highest levels – even internationally as a war crime – it is still highly stigmatized.
Victims of all ages and genders are often in positions of shame and fear as a result of the assault they suffer. Popular media tends to address rape and its fallout in terms of families or communities that are unsupportive or even condemnatory of victims. In this dichotomy, the impact of rape on the community highlights the reinforcement of shame and ostracism. And when the victim finds supportive communities – be they families, friends, social workers or law enforcement officers – the focus tends to be on providing immediate assurances to the victims with scant attention to the long-term impacts on the victim or the community.
The BBC series Shetland dealt with rape and its fallout in a very different way, however. As the name suggests, the series is set in the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland. It follows the main major crimes unit for the island, headed by Detective Inspector James Perez and including Detective Sergeant Alison MacIntosh (“Tosh”), Detective Constable Sandy Wilson, and Sergeant Billy McCabe. Perez is the highly skilled group leader who is often socially awkward but still quite caring and protective of his teenage daughter, his team, and those impacted by crime. Although raised in the Shetland Islands, he lived in metropolitan Glasgow for many years and experienced the seedy side of life as a police officer there. Sandy is a local officer who appears tough at first but is particularly caring for his community and his family. Billy is at once a blustery older officer with a warm side that is more often expressed in gestures and jokes. And Tosh is a younger officer who is a capable, fun-loving and beloved loved member of the team.
During Season 3, there is a running storyline of a murder investigation that involves a Glasgow mob boss and his henchmen. When the henchmen are unable to convince Perez to back off from his investigation, one of them follows Tosh while she is conducting investigations in Glasgow. Ultimately, an order is given for Tosh to be abducted and raped in order to send Perez a message.
When Tosh is found, she tells the Glasgow officers that she was abducted and left on the edge of the city. Only when Tosh and Perez are alone does she admit that she was raped. The show captures in painful detail the intimate nature of processing for sexual assault. All this time, Perez is behind a curtain talking to Tosh, acting as a father figure and source of comfort for her. Clearly this has an important impact for Tosh but it also has a heavy impact on Perez, who suffers with the knowledge of what has happened.
Tosh insists on returning to work immediately, explaining to Perez that at work she feels normal. However, she also insists that none of her colleagues know what happened to her other than that she was kidnapped. Perez is scrupulous in honouring this request but at the same time is careful to screen her from certain aspects of the ongoing investigation that might be traumatic, particularly when it appears that a rape from years before is at the center of the murder investigation.
Beyond these measures to protect Tosh, the rape takes a personal toll on Perez, who not only wrestles with a certain level with guilt but also with the underlying mentality of men that allows them to commit such acts. This pulls the cover off a level of fallout from rape on the community – how decent and moral men in the community come to terms with the fact that a heinous act was committed by a man. Indeed, as the season progresses this shock and shame at the abilities of other men seems to seep further into Perez’s life and sense of identity at a personal and professional level. Personally, Perez finds himself so disrupted by the sense that men are too often power-seekers in relationships that he nearly ends a budding relationship. Professionally, Perez begins to examine the way in which he – and to a larger extent the male-dominated police force – sees women as officers and also as victims, particularly when they are victims of rape and related crimes.
Perez voices his professional concerns to Sandy in the context of the failure to report the older rape. Sandy at first raises the standard questioning as to why the crime was not reported and is touched when Perez asks him whether the victim (in that instance a former sex worker) would have been taken seriously and handled with dignity. At first Sandy seems to want to protest against this – speaking, one senses, from how he would handle the issue – and then stops to ponder how others in a police department, especially in a tougher metropolitan area, would respond to such a victim. Ultimately, the victim in that case is threatened and comes to Shetland to talk to Perez and Sandy. When she says that she is willing to give a statement about what happened to her, Sandy is tasked with helping her and is deeply affected. Indeed, he starts out by explaining that they will do everything to protect the victim and to make sure that all the necessary reporting is completed no matter how long it takes.
At the very end of the season, Tosh informs Billy that she will be staying with several of her friends for a few weeks. Although not necessary, she then fumbles through explaining that the kidnapping was more than just a kidnapping. Billy’s face goes through stages, from shock to deep sadness to near tears. He struggles to find a response other than to look at her with sad affection and offer her a hug if she is comfortable. She responds that she is not comfortable with anyone touching her and then heads home, leaving Billy to sit down in his office with what seems like the weight of the world on his otherwise reserved shoulders. It is clear that this is a weight which will not soon be lifted and that he is suffering at the idea of the pain caused to such a dear part of his work family.
Shetland does a thorough job of examining the impact of rape on the female victim, particularly where the victim is someone who “should have known better,” in this case because she is a detective. It also portrays a strong victim in the sense that she is eager to return to the aspects of life which give her normalcy even if they are the reason that she was assaulted. Yet it is in the shows portrayal of rape on the community of men who love and respect the victim that it is most noteworthy and unique.