Netflix series Unbelievable is a watershed moment in how women are portrayed on screen.
There was no shortage of women sleuths on TV when I was growing up. For the most part they were incredibly glamorous and roamed in packs (Charlie’s Angels, Cat’s Eyes) or mixed pairs (Dempsey and Makepeace, Moonlighting).
Over time the shoulder pads and sexual tension gave way to bitch-bosses: ferociously intelligent women with little time for fashion, let alone fawning. Then, as women on-screen got smarter, they were given back-stories that underlined their vulnerability and made their cleverness bearable. They were alcoholics (Vera), emotionally suspect (Marcella) and even barely on the autistic spectrum (The Bridge).
It’s easy to assume Netflix series Unbelievable offers more of the same. When we first meet them, detectives Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) are po-faced workaholics with saintly husbands. They’re alpha women who exude the usual ‘raptor with a gun’ vibes. Then they team up to catch a serial rapist and, together, they are glorious.
Based on a true story, Unbelievable is about vulnerable teenager Marie, who is accused and charged with lying about being raped. It’s also about Rasmussen and Duvall’s obsessive hunt for the violent serial rapist a few years later. The two story tracks circle around each other in flashbacks and forwards.
Like the journalism that first shone a light on the gut-churning mistreatment of Marie Adler’s, the series honours the women affected by and involved in the investigation, and that’s worthy of recognition. The portrayal of the female leads in particular is what makes this woman-positive story telling.
Rasmussen and Duvall don’t mince their words. Their brains move faster than most, and those who lag behind are brusquely pulled into line. They don’t grin inanely, they just get on with a job they care deeply about. That chimes with – and fights back at – criticism aimed at Greta Thunberg, and every other woman told to ‘cheer up, love’ or crack a smile – but what really stands out is their kindness.
While it doesn’t make these particular cops unique, the degree of kindness they show is rare on-screen and increasingly unfamiliar IRL. The hard expressions and tough speeches are stowed as soon as the detectives come into contact with women who’ve been raped. They adopt counselling tones, careful to be patient-led rather than by the needs of the investigation. They don’t just do the job, they’re hawkishly protective, tender – and, yes, sisterly. Watching the series unfold, it’s hard not to desperately want the two story tracks to collide, because what Marie needs more than anything is someone to listen and lift her up.
Of course Unbelievable has a point to make: sometimes women who ask for help are ignored, criminalised or attacked all over again. The way the women detectives tend to the wounded is intentionally in sharp relief to a legal system that doesn’t always want to work for women at all.
Duvall and Rasmussen, however, do work for women – and that, like their kindness, seems rare and valuable. At one point, Rasmussen cites grim data about active male police officers who are domestic abusers, and demands: “where is the outrage?” It’s a question we don’t ask enough. Instead we learn to tolerate systems that don’t protect all of us, and turn on those who speak out.
Growing up I had plenty of female detectives to watch. Some were gorgeous and great fun to watch, some even taught me to fight back or stick up for myself. In Unbelievable, though, are women I want to be like, and want to be around more: strong enough to stand up for others, in all the right ways.