Contains SPOILERS for the BBC show ‘Broken’
I’m going to cut all of this, because seriously, this show has so many triggers in like, four hours (so far), that like, it’s hit the red exit button for everyone I know. Everyone. And in my view, some of it was entirely unnecessary or unnecessarily explicit. But! So under the jump there will be the TW, because apparently some people got past the first five minutes without putting all the pieces together and I do know at least one person who hasn’t even watched those.
TW: institutional sexual abuse, suicide, death of a parent, grief
I feel like I’m the only person who doesn’t fawn over how good this show is. Seriously. I already quit my fandom over it, before it even aired, because its very existence was making the environment toxic for me. (Apparently, chasubles and habits are interchangeable, and because everyone knew what they meant anyway, pointing out that they’re really not was being mean. I… just left, instead of trying to make people understand. There was also a string of ‘I want to defrock Sean Bean!’ which I just also did not bother unpacking or explaining at the time but made me… rather upset. Defrock is a very specific (though slang) term for laicising or excommunicating a priest, so saying that word in the context of wanting to have sex with a priest… yeah. Especially when if found out, that would be a very real risk. But I digress, for now. But not really, because the show went there.)
But here is what I want to point out.
On Broken, we have a male victim of sexual assault.
He gets to have a career, a place to live, a 24/7 support system, to confront his attacker.
His attacker is the only one who ever tries to pin it back on him, with the standard ‘but you enjoyed it’ schtick. Of course, his attacker is a priest, so he also gets to go ‘well, I set a good example for you, didn’t I?’ (Never mind how it’s a very real thing that some victims do go on to become perpetrators, and he admits that he did so.)
He gets to have flashbacks in public and he gets sympathetic looks from people, but is never confronted about his ability to do his job.
So not only do we have a male victim of sexual assault, he gets to go on and live his life without anyone ever telling him he can’t.
Part of that is that it was covered up, or the extent wasn’t known, or circumstances otherwise were that he didn’t get to come forward at the time, if he wanted to or could. But instead of the years of wanting to face his attacker, wondering whether anyone would take responsibility or say sorry, he can use his position as an employee of the very same employer to find his attacker and confront him.
Part of that is that society still believes men can’t be victims, or could only have been victims if they were homosexual (which he was forced to believe he was, for a time). Part of it is that men can’t ask for help.
Part of that is that he’s otherwise fully functional. But, unlike not-men, his history doesn’t automatically exclude him from things, or put him in the position of being blamed further. His attacker is the only one who tells him he asked for it, that he enjoyed it so it wasn’t wrong. He was allowed to go through seminary and get placed in a parish, because his history didn’t come with a bunch of stereotypes and misconceptions about rape victims. He was still admitted into that very same community in which his attacker resides.
And part of that, is that after building it up for three entire weeks, it gets completely dropped this week in favour of the story-of-the-week. (Originally, you see, the priest was meant to be in one episode, but when Sean Bean signed on, they rewrote the series around him. This does show.) He gets flashbacks. We find out that he acted out while he was dealing with his trauma (we only find this out, may I add, because it serves the story of someone else). He confronts his attacker.
Does anyone just confront their attacker, go screaming at them in the middle of the street in the middle of the day, and then just go back to their normal lives without any kind of fallout? No. You can go back to your routine, using it as a defense or a lifeline, sure, but you, inside, you don’t just go back to how things were.
But he does.
So at the same time as they’re putting forward as a victim someone whom societal expectations generally say can’t have been a victim (a male adult), they take away the things that would allow us to really identify with him or see the effects that it still has on him. It pulls the focus away from the same story they’re trying to tell. By putting these huge things out there, hanging them on him, and then sending us off to follow someone else around, they’re saying to him, to people like him, that ‘your trauma doesn’t matter’.
Sure, we all shove things down just to get on with things because sometimes we can’t cope otherwise, and we have to work and eat, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, that we’re not constantly thinking about it, that’s it’s not just under our skin waiting to come out, that any single sound or touch or smell can bring it back, especially after something so raw as a confrontation. But to just shove it down and not show how it’s just there, waiting for the worst time, is to erase that.
Today’s story was about a woman who confessed her intention to kill herself, and the priest’s dilemma over whether to try to prevent it. Until this point, he had flashbacks while celebrating Mass, eliciting the aforementioned sympathetic looks (from the subject of a previous story – a mother whose son was killed). The first time we see him celebrate the Eucharist without flashbacks is after he made a decision about what to do about the woman. We saw him agonise over that.
We didn’t see him wonder if he was thinking rationally because he’d just gone through a potentially retraumatising experience. We had evidence that the confrontation didn’t change anything, because he had a bad dream and we saw a flashback during a previous Mass (one only tangentially involving his attacker and then, conveniently, again, directly relevant to this woman’s story instead of his own). We didn’t see any paralysing doubt that he’s projecting, or see his confidant concerned for him or offer any support other than for the story of the week.
So on the one hand, we have something that should be positive – a portrayal of a victim who’s generally not really seen, or is scorned by society for the very reason of being a victim, and yet who is managing to live and function in society. We have an attacker who was protected by society, and who hasn’t had any consequences and believes he’s done nothing wrong.
On the other hand, we constantly see that victimhood erased, twisted to fit someone else’s narrative, or ignored. It’s not that society in the show is ignoring it, it’s that the show itself is, by taking away any room for him to have his own story in favour of others. It’s done by making his flashbacks parables for the story of the week. It’s done by giving him a moment and then taking away the fallout to give time to something else, something which could have been told in less time. (For real; we didn’t need like, five minutes of a woman hugging and patting and arranging her dead mother to get the point. We didn’t need to see someone at the supermarket and putting the shopping away to get that she stocked the pantry.)
But for the show to be good, it would have to point this out, as a comment on how victims’ experiences are erased/ignored/misunderstood, or male victims’ in particular. It doesn’t, because it’s the one doing it. For the show to be good, it would have to allow all the characters time to express the emotional fallout from the plot, instead of just the characters in the story of the week (who, btw, are predominantly women). For the show to be good, it would have to allow Fr Michael to be a person all the time, and not just when he’s alone.
(And also, it’s really weird to be like ‘oh! TV! I’mma eat while watching TV! and then see Mass up on the screen. I feel really bad. And yet, every week, I go ‘I’mma treat myself! I’mma eat while watching TV!’ and then Mass, and I feel bad, because it’s like ‘I’m eating during Mass!’. We’re meant to fast before attending, to cleanse in preparation for receiving the Eucharist. Not that an hour is like, a detox or anything, but it’s an emotional and spiritual thing that reminds us how important the Eucharist is. And there I am, stress-munching chocolate chip cookies during the Canon.)