By Linsi Kearns
In April 2022, the Netflix political drama, Anatomy of a Scandal, was released with mixed reviews. It centers around a sexual assault scandal concerning an important MP within the British elite. Despite shining a light on the very corrupt nature of politics, it also introduces us to the problematic issue of consent, and how often consent is assumed, expected, and a birthright for males. There are many different takes on this miniseries, however the portrayal of consent is what stood out most glaringly to me. *Spoilers ahead*
An Intro to the Series
Anatomy of a Scandal tells the story of James Whitehouse, a politician that has come from the typical highbrow background you would expect. His wife, Sophie Whitehouse, comes from a similar background and is largely seen as the central focus to this story.
Her privileged naiveness towards her husbands’ wrongdoings is aggravating if not saddening to see. She too has lived a life under the guise of freedom, but is unknowingly under the guise of the patriarchy. The repeated misogyny she experiences as his wife is never challenged, even by herself, until the final episode.
From the very first episode, when her seemingly perfect life comes crashing down and it is revealed that James has been having an affair with one of his researchers, Olivia, there was an instant expectation laid onto Sophie. She wasn’t allowed to be angry or grieve the loss of her stable relationship, and instead was expected to forgive and understand that ‘boys will be boys’.
By the second episode, James must deliver further bad news to Sophie; that he has now been accused of rape by Olivia. As an audience member in this moment, we feel sympathy towards Sophie, and confusion as to whether James would have done such a thing. It is only until the scenes where we see Olivia in court describing the rape that we understand what has happened. We are shown in graphic detail a scene in a lift with Olivia and James, where the two had embraced only for James to become aggressive, ripping her underwear, biting her breasts, and calling her a ‘prick-tease’ when she had repeatedly said ‘not here’ to having sex in the lift. Incidents like this unfortunately seem less shocking than they should.
This scene doesn’t hold the same violent depiction of rape that is often presented in media, and instead shows a scenario that is extremely realistic and all too common. James wholeheartedly believes that this situation was consensual, and in fact, believes that Olivia had enjoyed this situation. It is evident that he cannot process or accept that anything of the contrary had taken place.
What is particularly triggering in this episode is the defense lawyers’ arguments against Olivia. Arguments ranged from Olivia previously enjoying intercourse in similar situations, so therefore would have enjoyed this spontaneity; to the argument that Olivia often had scantily clad underwear, so it was easily ripped. These are the type of arguments that we often hear in society, that leads to doubt being implanted in people's mind, and is the reason why so many rapes go unreported.
According to the organisation RAINN, two out three cases of rape go unreported. Even more shocking is the low figures of 25 out of 1,000 cases that end up being incarcerated. Olivia goes on to lose this case and James is exonerated, gaining back his position as MP.
Later in the series
We find out that James has raped someone else in his past, someone that Sophie knows. The situation draws resemblances, with the term ‘prick-tease’ being used after she has made it clear that she does not want to have sex. It can be implied that there is probably a whole cohort of women that have shared this experience with James.
It’s from this event that Sophie is slowly opening her eyes to the true nature of her husband and the misogynistic society she lives in. Even down to the phrase that James uses towards his children, ‘We always end up on top, why? Because we’re Whitehouse’s’, implies the ingrained self-belief that this man has had since birth. When conversing with James’ mother, Sophie finds that she too shares similar beliefs and could be responsible for James’ attitude. She expects Sophie to naturally forgive and move on from the cheating, to believe James’ innocence without a doubt, and be angry at the accusations and the media. She praises James’ absolute self-confidence, and natural domineering nature, and comments on how her daughters did not have these qualities.
James explains the term ‘prick-tease’ and the negative, slut-shaming, misogynistic connotations that come with it. He is fully aware of what this word means, and so therefore he is aware of the consequences of what he is doing, and his attitude towards women. He genuinely believes that as a man, he has a right to a woman’s body, to the point that consent is not taken into consideration. He even goes so far as to believe that these women enjoyed these experiences, as this is what their natural role is.
This series leaves us with an uncomfortable urgency of the issue of consent. That young people need to be taught from a young age about these scenarios, to prevent individuals like James growing up believing he has the right to act like this, thinking that it is perfectly acceptable as no one has ever told him otherwise. The show, despite its criticisms, depicts the rapes that often go unreported, that are not believed and that are generally not talked about. It shows us that despite claiming to be a progressive country, we are still very much behind in terms of consent.