Not long ago a male journalist of my acquaintance tweeted out a link to an article about a woman jailed for 10 years after being found guilty of fabricating multiple accusations of rape and sexual assault. Whereas others in my timeline raised the point that this woman’s behaviour might be indicative of a mental health issue that would require counselling, this man’s tweet — and the replies underneath from his (predominantly male) followers — was outraged and full of vitriol. I get it; this woman ruined lives and reputations, and made the process of reporting real crimes harder for true survivors. What she did was wrong. Still, the “Watch out, boys! This could happen to any of us!” tone rankled.
It occurred to me that, despite presenting himself as a sort of “woke bae”, this man never tweeted about, or expressed an equivalent level of disgust for, articles reporting on actual rape convictions. And maybe that wouldn’t have been so glaringly obvious to me had I not recently been on the receiving end of his lecherous pawing and unwelcome kiss during a meeting he proposed to “talk about writing”. When I scooted away and reminded him that he was married, he turned coldly defiant.
“You kissed me back,” he accused.
Here’s the thing: Rather than pouring my drink on him and storming out, I stopped to think. I could feel my brow furrow as I considered his implication and stewed in self-doubt. I knew I hadn’t kissed him back, but had I led him on? By not wanting to make a dramatic scene in a pub full of people, had I somehow exerted the slightest pressure on his lips? Was I in the wrong? I felt strangely guilty. (I have since come to my senses.)
None of this makes this guy a rapist or a rape apologist, just a bad husband who isn’t as woke or attuned to the concept of consent as he’d like to think. Anyway: Fuck that guy. I only mention him now because it’s impossible not to think about that sick sense of shame and self-doubt as I watch Liar, the new ITV drama that presents rape allegations in a he-said-she-said thriller format.
The first episode wasted little time in setting up the action. Newly single schoolteacher Laura (Joanne Froggatt) wakes up the morning after her first date with handsome doctor Andrew (Ioan Gruffudd) to find her underwear on the bedroom floor and a text thanking her for an “amazing night”. Her memory is spotty, and she's not quite sure what happened, but she believes she was raped.
And so begins a frustrating, yet compelling, push-pull tale of consent, and doubt, and falsehoods. A rape kit and drug test fail to back up Laura's version of events, and she's repeatedly asked about her alcohol intake on the night. Andrew, who insists that Laura never told him to stop, doesn't face the same scrutiny; his son and colleagues don't challenge him, and he's not asked if his own drinking might have impaired his judgment. The detectives investigating Laura's claim seem sympathetic, but the lack of evidence renders them essentially useless.
But the programme's called Liar, not Nobody Listened to Her or Law & Order: Special British Victims Unit. Is this a story about a woman who is raped, or a story about a woman who makes a false claim of rape? With no legal recourse, Laura resorts to the sort of rash, self-sabotaging behaviour you might expect from a dim-witted camp counsellor in a horror flick — or, I don't know, a desperate, vulnerable woman who is suffering from emotional trauma following a serious sexual assault. Is she acting erratically because she's telling the truth and has nothing to lose, or because she's made it all up? We don't know, but it's hard to deny that her actions make Andrew look just a smidge more reliable — though his closet may come with its own share of skeletons.
When I visited the Liar set this spring, Froggatt and Gruffudd were cagey about what actually occurred between their characters. Froggatt, who won a Golden Globe following Anna Bates' rape storyline in Downton Abbey, was careful to describe the show as a "psychological thriller" rather than a "character study about somebody going through a certain traumatic event".
Laura's confrontational behaviour — she admits she's worried about looking like a "hysterical mad woman" — has come under fire with many viewers who object to how it portrays survivors of sexual assault.
"I reeeeeally hope they don't reinforce the opinion that every rape victim is a liar and crazy in this show," tweeted one viewer.
"V worried and angered by some tweets
#Liar @ITV has generated re doubting date rape survivors," reads another tweet. "BELIEVE WOMEN."
Sure enough, a cursory search of #Liar turns up countless tweets doubting Laura's claims. Many see the show as a warning of the devastation a woman's false rape allegation can cause, though reports from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) suggest that it is a rare occurrence.
"I kinda hope she's lying just to show how much it can ruin a man's life to lie about rape," a female viewer tweeted, adding that the show is "dead good but soooo infuriating. I just want to punch her [Laura]."
"So she can't remember what happened but then accused someone of rape? Right, okay," added a male tweeter.
In our interview, Froggatt admitted that her character can be difficult to understand at times.
"I think Laura has been one of the most challenging characters I have played," she said. "I do like Laura. But I don't agree with all of the decisions she makes. And that was quite interesting for me to get my head around. I found that quite challenging. I sort of had to talk to the director a lot, thinking, Oh why, why is she doing this? Oh god, I don't want her to do this. This is not going to help. This is not going to help her life in any way."
But a woman can be problematic and imperfect and still be raped or sexually assaulted, just as a man can be a suave, likeable doctor and still be a rapist. The latest episode has Andrew referring to Laura as "the boy who cried wolf". But isn't the point of that fable a reminder that people aren't inclined to believe those who have been dishonest in the past, even when they are telling the truth? The shepherd boy's flock was, eventually, eaten. A lack of credibility doesn't make you immune to attack.
There are plenty of conspiracy theories speculating on the show's outcome. He's lying. She's lying. They're both lying. Maybe she was raped, but by someone else. Maybe the series will end without a clear resolution, leaving us all sobbing like Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius at the end of Doubt.
For now, all we really have to go on — besides our own biases — are the brief flashbacks that let viewers piece together how the night played out. It's unclear whose perspective we're getting as new details are fleshed out, however. Is this how Laura experienced the evening, or Andrew? Or is this the actual, unvarnished truth?
I've yet to see the full series, so I don't know how it ends, or who is guilty. It sounds ghoulish to wish that a woman, even a fictional one, was indeed raped, but I'll be disappointed if the finale gives ammunition to the "women who make rape claims can't be trusted" camp. Is Andrew a sinister serial predator, or just a white cisgender male who took advantage of his privilege and crossed the line of consent? I don't know. I just hope that, in the midst of the thrills and gripping plot twists, the opportunity to make an important statement about the slut-shaming, self-doubt and suspicion surrounding reports of rape isn't missed.
Liar airs Mondays on ITV, and will premiere in the U.S. on SundanceTV tomorrow night.