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

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.

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.”

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



Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.