Content Warning: Rape
This article contains spoilers.
There are many things wrong with BBC Three’s Clique. Stilted dialogue, questionable acting and the presence of cars on Middle Meadow Walk are just some of its issues, but they are all overshadowed by its worrying portrayal of sexual assault.
The dramatic climax to last week’s episode put an end to viewers’ speculation and revealed that the eponymous clique is actually a front for sex work. The way this was done, however, was particularly sickening.
The episode ended with one of the clique’s main characters, Faye, revealing what being ‘top girl’ at the clique really meant. It then proceeded to show a short clip of her being brutally gang raped at the hands of her employers.
The episode was prefaced with a content warning, but even this was not enough to prepare viewers for exactly how visceral the scene was. Viewed through a CCTV camera, the incident was inflected with a layer of voyeurism that minimised Faye’s distress and focused on the sex act. The removed objectivity of this third person angle served only to exacerbate what was already a tasteless portrayal.
It must be remembered that it is not the representation of rape itself that is offensive, but rather the way it is presented. As an all too prevalent feature in our society, sexual violence is always going to be a contentious issue that requires representation in the media.
Furthermore, failing to represent violence against women makes us complicit in denying its existence. When done well, fictional scenes of sexual violence can encourage us to think critically about how it is perceived and its real-life impact. It can also create awareness and give a voice to survivors of sexual assault.
Clique however, failed to do this. The show had functioned well by relying on inference up to this point and the same could have been applied to Faye’s rape, but the show opted for gratuitous violence. The depiction did nothing to advance the storyline; it simply aestheticised Faye’s ordeal and, as a result, the ordeal of actual rape survivors.
Rather than approach the issue with tact, Clique fed on the worrying fixation we as a society seem to have with bruised female flesh on screen. The fact it took place in an up-market hotel room, with Faye in an expensive looking dress, only served to highlight the stylisation of the entire affair.
Accurate and sensitive representations of sexual violence are necessary because narratives about sexual abuse – especially on a mainstream television service like the BBC – have a huge impact on the way society views these issues.
Too often rape scenes erase a victim’s personhood, dehumanising them with lingering shots of their violated bodies or focusing on their attackers. Shows like Game of Thrones, The Fall and even Downton Abbey have all been accused of glamourising sexual abuse or using it as a plot device.
If the way we portray violence against women is indicative of how we think of it, it is clear we have a major problem. Sexual assault is not titillating or glamorous, it is a real epidemic with real consequences for women. It is time that broadcasters understood this and used their platforms responsibly.
Image: BBC/Balloon/Phil Fisk