Top of the Lake: A Non-Watered-Down Depiction of Rape Culture

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Elisabeth Moss as Robin

Water has a complicated history in feminist thought. Women have been sometimes positively, sometimes negatively equated with water, with fluidity, with that which is not solid or tangible or rational and thus has the ability to flow, submerge, purify, gush … but also drown, pollute or erode. TV miniseries Top of the Lake builds on these watery connotations, offering a feminist take-down of patriarchal rape culture that is anything but watered-down.

The mystery at the center of the series is the same one pervading our own reality: How can we stop rape culture in its tracks when the culprit—patriarchy and all its many ramifications—can’t be easily put on trial and locked up? Besides, even if we could lock patriarchy in a cell and throw away the key, the work of Angela Davis et al. suggests that incarceration is not the solution. So, too, with rape and sexual assault: Even if we incarcerated perpetrators on a massive scale, sexual assault would continue because it is so pervasive, so common. The problem is not individual perpetrators but the culture at large. Top of the Lake brilliantly gestures towards this reality—that rape cannot be washed away nor purged with the tidy resolution of a few cases. No, rape culture seeps into the lives and loves of those raped—for years, for decades, rippling out into generations, spreading through families, trickling down into every corner of existence.

At the heart of the series, directed by Academy Award-winning New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, is Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), a clear-eyed grrrrrl-power detective in a society of wild, gun-toting, drug-making, raping and pedophilic men. Or, as the LA Weekly puts it, “Moss plays a highly skilled idealist, fighting for her place in a world of men dedicated to their hegemony.” Her character is bound and determined to figure out what lies beneath the naturally beautiful but socially frigid and violent locale. More literally, she must solve the mystery of 12-year-old Tui’s rape and subsequent disappearance.

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Jacqueline Joe as Tui

In the first episode, Tui (Jacqueline Joe), walks out into the frigid lake, presumably either to kill herself or perhaps in the hope the water will cleanse her of her pregnancy and the rapes that caused it. The fact she does not drown can be read as symbolizing that neither she nor anyone else in the town can easily wash away her sexual assault nor the violent old-boys-club culture that perpetuates such assaults.

Given that Tui is pregnant—and we later learn that Robin’s gang rape at 15 also resulted in a pregnancy—the narrative also emphasizes the profound lack of choice women have in a rape culture. Not only are women unable to “choose” not to experience violence, but this lack of choice results in unplanned pregnancies over which they have little or no choice. Robin was forced to carry her rape-induced-pregnancy by her staunchly Catholic mother, while Tui’s father insisted, “She’s not having a baby. I wouldn’t do that to one of my bitches.”

The show emphasizes that choice is neither the way to think about rape (as when women are accused of ‘choosing’ to ‘dress slutty’ or drink ‘too much’) nor about pregnancy (as when rape victims are framed by conservative politicians as being able to choose whether their rape will result in pregnancy). It also staunchly refuses to romanticize carrying out pregnancy caused by rape and the subsequent lives of children created through rape. Robin could very well be speaking to one of the many pro-life gurus who talk of carrying out a pregnancy-induced by rape as cathartic when she says “fuck truth,” and explains that she won’t tell her daughter the truth of her parentage with “if I found out my father was one of four rapists and my mother their 15-year-old victim I would want to kill myself … I would want to blow my fucking brains out.”

In the show, the depiction of the way rape and sexual assault bleeds into every aspect of life is brilliantly framed in relation to the patriarchal world in which Robin and Tui reside. Robin, as a female detective, must labor under Al Parker (David Wenham)—a detective senior sergeant who was dismayed when he heard Robin, the new detective in town, was a woman—and a team of “old boys” law enforcers who don’t understand what it would be like for a 12-year-old to give birth in the bush, let alone recognize why they shouldn’t beat the young people they bring in for questioning. When Robin confronts the detective sergeant about his violence against Jamie, a friend of Tui’s, the sergeant indicates it is natural for males to relate in this way, acting as if dehumanizing Jamie, questioning his manhood and slapping him around the head is a normal and even necessary way for men to “communicate.”

Violent masculinity is further eviscerated by Jane Campion’s feminist gaze via the incorporation of the hyper-masculine Matt Mitchum (Peter Mullan) and his brood of thuggish sons; via the bar locals who joke of “tight 12-year-old pussy” as they play darts; and via the insinuations that sexual assault is rife, given the news of another young victim found with traces of cocaine in her vagina as well as the various survivors of trauma that reside at GJ’s (Holly Hunter) woman-only encampment, ironically located on a plot of land named “Paradise.”

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Holly Hunter as GJ

Matt, who one of the women from the Paradise aptly calls an “alpha ass,” is angered over the fact that GJ bought what he considered “his property.” Serving as metaphor for patriarchs who feel their “rightful” control of land/power is threatened by women, Matt is the central male baddie of the show. He enacts violence against his own family, other men, the women of paradise and even himself. After he drives his truck through a gate, intentionally knocking off the woman he just recently slept with, he says in typical abuser fashion, “You see what you fucking made me do?” He then proceeds to drive his phallic truck-mobile into the female camp, shouting “you are unfuckable” to all the women.

Here, the dialogue touches on one of the damaging ways normative femininity is constructed: To be a good woman or a desirable woman, one must be considered “fuckable” by men, including a man no one in their her mind would ever want to fuck! The danger of being outside of the male/female desire matrix poses is housed vividly in GJ’s character. Upon seeing her the first time, Matt asks, “Who is that fucking weirdo that’s running the show? Is it a man or woman?” What the show hints at is this “weirdo” has successfully resisted the patriarchal paradigm and is trying to help others do the same—something very dangerous to Matt’s vision of the world.

Robin poses a similar threat to patriarchy, and the men at the local watering hole treat her accordingly. “Are you a feminist?” one asks Robin. “Are you a lesbian?” asks another. “You’d be better off being a lesbian … nobody likes a feminist except a lesbian,” says another. Here, as with its exploration of “unfuckcable-ness,” the show circulates around the narrow gender confines that frame females as one of two things—fuckable (and thus “good”) or unfuckable (and thus bad/feminist/lesbian). However, as the narrative reveals, being fuckable, which is one entree into “good femininity,” also carries the threat of rape and sexual assault. Basically, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But the really amazing thing about the show? It not only documents how patriarchal violence soaks through to every nook and cranny of life, it also offers some suggestions for resistance, some signs of hope, some possible solutions. As the episodes progress, Robin’s gang rape at the age of 15 seeps into every aspect of  the narrative. The miniseries literally oozes with gritty, harrowing details about rape and sexual assault. This makes it incredibly difficult to watch, particularly for rape survivors. For those of you like myself who have experienced rape or sexual assault, you’ll likely agree that it is not something one easily forgets—that no matter how cured you feel, certain things trigger memories and reopen wounds you thought healed or at least well-bandaged. The show details this painful truth with scalpel-like precision. And though difficult at times to watch, the feminist vision that lies beneath Top of the Lake ultimately offers catharsis.

Robin and Tui, vastly different in age, background and experience, are similar in their Xena-like skills and bad-ass antics. Robin throws a dart in the shoulder of one of the sexist jerks at the bar and later breaks a bottle and stabs it into her former rapist as he tries to pick her up with lines like “you’re classy,” not realizing who she is. Tui pulls a gun on her father Matt and then escapes to the bush, surviving against the odds. Similarly, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), Robin’s sweetheart from her teenage years, attacks one of Robin’s rapists and tells him to leave town, saying, “You raped my friend … she was 15.”  Johnno, as well as Jamie (the boy who helps Tui by bringing her supplies in the bush), can be read of signs of hope that positive masculinity can exist under patriarchy, and that one of the solutions to patriarchal male violence is for men like Johnno and Jamie to refuse to be “alpha asses.” Here, the narrative also emphasizes how rape culture harms men. Johnno, for example, suffers massive guilt about the events of the evening Robin was raped , as revealed when he tells her, “I should have helped you but I didn’t … I was a coward.” Robin’s answer—“There was nothing you could have done, it was four against one … you were a kid”—again emphasizes a key theme of the show: Rape is not an individual crime with individual solutions; it is a group offense, a societal crime.

In addition to cathartic images of healing and personal justice, the show also takes pains to represent not only the horrors of violent sexuality but the pleasures of consensual sex and lust, not to mention masturbation. In a rare moment of levity, one of the women from the Paradise camp asks another, “Have you ever tried masturbating … it’s really relaxing … and it’s not fattening.” Lust is presented frankly and—rare  indeed—so, too, is a male giving a female oral sex. Robin’s and Johnno’s sexual relationship is graphic and raw. This unsentimental, positive portrayal of sex as curative is nodded to as yet another danger to the patriarchal status quo. When Robin and Johnno fuck naked in the woods, two of Matt’s lackies photograph them. This leads to an altercation that results in Johnno’s thigh being badly cut. Symbolically, he is fucked by their knife, torn open by a society that insists sex not be among equals but be about violence and power.

Symbols such as these saturate the narrative, leading some reviewers to cast this as “Campion at her most maddeningly myth-mad” and others to scoff at the “amusing preponderance of stag heads and deer antlers on the walls.” What these reviewers seem largely to miss is that being “maddeningly myth-mad” has been necessary for female survival in a society that treats women as mere objects to be balled to the wall. The series may be “myth-mad” but it is brilliantly so, offering a non-watered-down depiction of rape culture that is hard medicine to swallow, but necessary medicine indeed.

Screenshots from Top of the Lake

Comments

  1. ‘Rape culture’ doesn’t harm men because there is no symmetry between males routinely subjecting women and girls to sadistic male sexual violence and males subjecting other males to sexual violence. Johnno was not an adult male when he witnessed adult males group raping the female lead. Johnno was a teen boy and hence was not accorded adult male power which mens’ Male Supremacist System accords adult males. When boys become adult males they are accorded male power and pseudo male sex right to female bodies, whereas girls when they become female adults continue to be viewed by males collectively as ‘males’ dehumanised sexual service stations.’ Ergo – rape culture does not harm men to the same degree or extent ‘rape culture’ (male pseudo sex right to females) harms women and girls because their sex is female.

    Certainly a minority of adult males refuse to conform to male supremacist lies of what it means to be a male but reality is most males do conform by not shaming other males who do commit male sexual violence against women and girls.

    Phallocentricism is central to the narrative of this film because another myth is promoted which is despite fact female lead was group raped by a number of males, she is portrayed as dutifully fulfilling her role of being sexually penetrated by the male sex organ! In other words ‘rape’ didn’t cause her to
    become ‘frigid’ according to male supremacist definitions of supposedly appropriate feminine responses to male sexual demands/expectations. Instead she dutifully and in fact eagerly wants to be sexually penetrated by the penis. Ergo she hasn’t been made ‘frigid’ by having been subjected to males group raping her – she is able to enact the feminine sexual role of sexually responding the penis and even enjoy it. Because penis in vagina is ‘real heterosex’ since it puts mens’ sexual first and womens’ bodies exist to sexually service the penis! The term ‘oral sex’ implies this is a secondary sexual act because penis in vagina is the definitive sexual act according to male supremacist system.

    Regarding the scenes showing a male giving oral sex to a female, that is an opportunity for the camera to focus on the female body and give the male viewers sexual pleasure by viewing close ups of the naked female body splayed whilst the male enacts his power by ‘doing oral sex on her!’

    If the male lead was shown totally naked and he was being slowly massaged by the female lead, this would radically disrupt the male-centric notion that male sexuality is always sexually dominant and in charge whereas female sexuality is always just responsive and exists to accord the male sexual pleasure. It would also disrupt the myth that ‘real sex’ only happens when the penis is penetrating the female body.

    This film isn’t remotely feminist rather it glorifies in sensationalising male sexual violence against women. Male sexual violence against women can be portrayed sensitively without resorting to graphic sadistic images, but that would not give the male audience what they want which is the glorification of sadistic male sexual violence against women. These scenes reinforce mens’ belief that male sexual violence against women isn’t male sexual violence but merely ‘natural and normal male sexual expression because women want to be sexually dominated and sexually degraded by men.’

    Johnno wasn’t penetrated symbolically by one of the male misogynist’s knife because if he was we know where the knife would have been inserted and it wouldn’t have been Johnno’s thigh but his anus!

    Our male supremacist system maintains that ‘real heterosex’ is about male sexual domination and the eroticisation of male sexual violence committed against a female, so in reality it is about male sexual power and male sexual violence against women combined – not ‘violence and power!’ This is why men find it so difficult to recognise what is and is not ‘real male sexual violence against women’ because the line is so fine it is commonly too hard to distinguish between the two, according to male centric beliefs of what supposedly encompasses ‘real male sexual expression.’ Evidence abounds within this film, that men commonly believe male pseudo sex right to female bodies is sacrosanct and this is the only reason why women exist – to be mens’ dehumanised sexual service stations.

    ‘Robin throws a dart in the shoulder of one of the sexist jerks at the bar.’ Wrong – ‘the man was not a ‘sexist jerk’ he is a misogynist so the sentence should read ‘Robin throws a dart in the shoulder of one of the male misogynists at the bar.’ ‘Sexist’ is a weak term whereas ‘misogynist’ means women-hater.

    I note the reviewer is a survivor of male sexual violence and I see no reason whatsoever apart from glorifiying and titillating male audiences by having graphic scenes depicting male sexual violence against women and girls. Re-traumatising female survivors of male sexual violence is self-defeating and as I said above, real feminists have demostrated it is possible to depict/write about real male sexual violence against women without sensationalising/being too graphic. Given scenes of male sexual violence are commonplace within mainstream films; audiences swiftly become desensitised to such scenes and the message becomes lost. Campion failed miserably because she has merely reinforced the lie that ‘male sexual violence against women and girls is ‘sexually erotic’ and entertaining!

    • Cascadian says:

      I don’t agree with Hecuba’s interpretation at all. The depiction of sexual violence didn’t seem intended to pander to what most men find titillating.

    • Jon Domino says:

      I really enjoyed this article and the show. Top Of The Lake was refreshing to me, in large part, because of its strong yet largely-nuanced feminist POV, and the writer of this article provided some interesting insights that added to my appreciation of the show.

      Hecuba, however, is way off the mark. There’s too much contradiction/logical fallacy in her comment to even address it point-by-point. It sounds like she is very simply anti-male.

      Hecuba would rather Top of The Lake not depict rape or sexual assault. Her first reason is because the depiction could possibly, conceivably be entertaining/titillating to some hypothetical sick person. I’m sure these sick people do exist, but what kind of worldview does Hecuba possess where she believes this represents a significant portion of the viewership? Secondly, Hecuba is against the sexual assault depiction because it could act as a trigger for survivors of sexual assault.

      Hecuba’s first argument is laughably ridiculous – anyone who finds the scenes of sexual assault arousing is obviously sick in the head to begin with – and her second argument, while well-intentioned, is the same thinking that enables rape – “if we sweep it under the rug, it won’t exist.”

      As a male feminist, this show – and the sexual assault scenes in particular – made a strong impression on me. It was refreshing to watch a show that delved into these issues, and wasn’t afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable, in service of representing a societal truth.

      Let’s also keep in mind, as the author of this article did, that many victims of rape and sexual assault are male. In the United States, we practically have institutionalized rape in our prisons. It’s still societally acceptable to joke about this, especially if the perpetrator has been convicted of some heinous crime and therefore “deserves it.”

      This is part of what was so brilliant about the “punishment” Robin’s rapists were dealt, as described to her by the Detective SGT. Her rapists didn’t serve lengthy prison sentences for their crimes, as they should have. The partiarchy dealt with their sexual assault of a fifteen-year-old by roughing them up and, essentially, sexually assaulting them… and then letting them go free. The worst of both worlds, for anyone who cares about justice.

      Anyway, Top of The Lake is a harrowing, yet lovely show, with a feminist viewpoint that is strong and unflinching. Highly recommended. Thanks for the excellent article and analysis, Natalie.

  2. Thanks for analysis of what this show is really about. Was so put off by character of the men in first episode that I deleted recording, deciding it would be difficult to watch. May give it a second look after your comments.

  3. Bridget says:

    Thanks for the article, Natalie!

    I’m watching the series for the second time.

    I’m interested in Johnno, since he appears to be a male apologist for the sexual violence/the acceptance of sexual violence that patriarchy requires. This particular subject–males as victims of patriarchy–seems to be at issue with readership as well as in the series. Can males be trusted to do feminist work? Although GJ claims that “anyone is welcome” at Paradise, the series’s answer to this question is ambivalent. On one hand there’s Johnno, a fugitive who lives in the woods at the outskirts of town. He’s male, but does not align with patriarchy sanctioned by law or society, as seen in his lack of regard for legal and societal laws (he doesn’t even wear shoes, much less boots). Then there’s Matt and Al, at the other extreme of codified patriarchy. The series offers reasons why we should at least be hopeful that men can do feminist work, even if we don’t give them our full trust, but it also presents cautionary tales.

    The oral sex scene in third episode is an apology for male sexual violence. In order for the act to happen, Johnno enters the women’s bathroom, a female space, then proceeds to pleasure Robin. Both the space and the act are highly symbolic. It should be noted that Robin is fully clothed and does not look into the camera during the scene. Indeed, throughout the series, we see more of Johnno’s tattooed body than Robin’s body. I agree that the scene is a rare moment of blatant female fantasy in television. Early on in the series, this is Johnno’s attempt to counterbalance the pain, both his and Robin’s, of sexual assault, with pleasure–female pleasure in a female space. However, as Natalie aptly points out, this is a much too symptomatic approach to cure the evils of patriarchy, a societal issue.

    Interestingly, in fitting with the murder mystery genre, this scene can also be read as a double text. First time viewers may find Johnno’s actions in the bathroom threatening or confusing, since Robin is also confused but excited by his actions. Should we trust Johnno? He is, after all, male; he could still be the guy who raped Tui, at this point in the series. The sexual act does not rule him out as a candidate for our mistrust. In a second viewing with viewers who read him as trustworthy, Johnno is an apologist, undeserving of Robin’s trust–since he was incapable to speaking out against sexual violence/patriarchy in the past.

    That’s all I have time for. Enjoyed the article. Loved the series.

    • Jon Domino says:

      Hi Bridget, very thought-provoking comments! I think that Johnno’s guilt at not saving Robin, and his later attempts to atone for it, are of a piece with the show’s message that we are all complicit in this patriarchy, because it is self-perpetuating.

      In a sense, even the people seeking to perpetuate the patriarchy are unwitting victims of an outdated social structure from generations past – a societal order which they believe is beneficial to them, but which, in fact, is damaging to everyone.

      What hope of enlightenment would Johnno, a fifteen-year-old boy in rural New Zealand have, when he was raised in that type of environment? It’s a miracle to me that Johnno turned out as well as he did.

      That said, I was suspicious of him during the first viewing – everyone’s a suspect on this type of show!

  4. I’m a 72 yr old married heterosexual man. I finished the series. within the past hour. I read this blog because it is linked to “Top of the Lake’s” Wikipedia entry. It was my luck to know with some pioneer feminists in the Sixties. I so appreciate Natalie’s clarity and depth a contribution to my understanding and hope to share it with others. However, although I was aware of some of the issues Natalie clarifies, my response to Robin and Johnno is secondary to gender issues. Instead, the integrity of these characters in searching for truth and facing difficult truths about themselves inspires me to embody these qualities in my own life, far beyond my relationship to gender issues. As Natalie shows that the series IS about rape culture, I believe that my response shows that any theme, pursued with with integrity and depth, can have universal implications beyond it’s particulars. This is why “Top of the Lake” is a true work of art (not to mention the cinematography).

  5. I could not watch past the fourth episode. My anxiety was through the roof, the show was so wrapped up in rape culture, which is important to discuss, but it’s something that a lot of us experience everyday. And sometimes is extremely hard to cope with. I felt threatened while watching it, and couldn’t get hold of my anxiety. I have no intention of finishing the show.

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