Siúan Póirtéir discusses how perpetrators are portrayed in the mini-series Liar and Big Little Lies

I have always been a big believer in the potential influence of the arts in society. However, until recently, I would probably not have regarded mainstream television as an art form. But TV these days has become a whole new experience. In the Netflix era, not only are there serious financial resources being poured into TV shows like never before, but the creative investment in the actual content of many new shows means that a lot of them are engaging with social issues at a level many would not have believed possible not so long ago.

Two such programmes which stood out to me last year were ITV’s Liar and HBO’s Big Little Lies. Liar, starring Ioan Gruffudd as Andrew Earlham and Joanne Froggatt as Laura Nielson follows two sides of a rape investigation, waiting several episodes before revealing which of the two is lying about what happened the night of the alleged rape. Big Little Lies feels like a new twist on a murder mystery and explores lives and relationships of a varied cast, but the domestic violence occurring within the marriage of Celeste and Perry – played by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård – was for me the most powerful element of the show.

What really struck me about both these shows is the depth in which they explore the complex characters of both perpetrators. On the one hand, they manage to convey how they are outwardly perceived, due to their general likeability, social/professional status and their reputations as good fathers, and the assumptions everyone (including the viewers themselves) is making on that basis. However, on the other hand, they also reveal the ultimately duplicitous nature of these men as perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence.

Not only do we gain insight into the dark nature of the perpetrators’ characters in these shows; we also look into the psychological impact of their almost ‘Jekyll and Hyde’-like performances upon the women they assault. The survivors internalise feelings of self-blame that stem from the perpetrator’s convincing rhetoric: Celeste believes herself to be at least equally responsible for the violence in her marriage and Laura admits to second-guessing herself due to how compelling Andrew is when he tries to persuade her nothing non-consensual happened. Interestingly, these shows further demonstrate how the perpetrators use that same rhetoric not only to fool society but also to fool themselves. They excuse the abuse/damage they’ve done by deluding themselves as to what happened or why they did it and reduce their culpability as a result.

Admittedly, the shows focus on the stories of women who are relatively well-off within society and do not really explore how intersecting inequalities impact upon many survivors. However, what the focus on these particular women does highlight is that despite certain privileges which these women carry, they are not immune to the disproportionate physical and sexual violence faced by women in this world. What both television shows demonstrate in fact, is that even for the most privileged women to challenge these behaviours is an uphill struggle. As the recent controversies in Hollywood have reflected – we are only now beginning to shine a light on the issue of gender-based violence in the upper echelons of society. How long will it be before we address how these issues are impacting on the lives of the already vulnerable and marginalised in our society, who are faced with certain barriers that make it more difficult for them to come forward, whether that is to seek help, support, or justice?

One of the big hurdles for survivors going through the criminal justice system is the lack of understanding amongst many jury members for the experiences of the victims and their responses to trauma. Talking to an acquaintance of mine about Liar, it was clear that our perception of the characters differed greatly in the early episodes of the show. But therein lays the potential influence of these programmes. It is no wonder to me, someone who has long been involved with feminist organisations, that Andrew Earlham turns out to be a rapist. However, for my acquaintance, who, following the show had suspected Laura Nielson up until the point where we begin to glimpse the perpetrator behind Andrew’s cool public facade, the development of the plot produced in him a realisation which surely encourages the average viewer to revaluate similar situations they may have taken for granted in a real life setting, whether in their own lives, or in what they are exposed through news and social media sources.

Many people will go their whole lives without reading any feminist material published by an academic journal or an activist zine; it is far more likely that they will catch the latest 6 part mini-series airing on Netflix, ITV or HBO after they come home from work.  While change may not happen overnight, the populations now being reached and made aware of the reality of gender-based violence has begun to increase exponentially. My hope is that this will transfer in to a culture where the default is no longer one of victim-blaming and the invisibilisation of the perpetrator and instead one where that average person, whether they are sitting on a jury or sitting with a loved one who has summoned the courage to disclose abuse, will have become innately more sensitive and understanding of the dynamics of such violence and abuse rather than hastily dismiss victims/survivors due to misconceptions around these dynamics which have facilitated the impunity of many a perpetrator in the past.

Of course feminist engagement with the arts has been around  as long as any other form of activism, but I believe there is at this moment, during what many are calling the ‘Golden age of TV’, a new level of sophistication entering into the exploration of gendered issues such as sexual and domestic on the small screen as never before.