'Happy Valley' Treats Rape the Way Most TV Shows Are Too Afraid Of


You might not have heard of Happy Valley yet, but if there's any justice for this BBC-produced miniseries, now available on Netflix, we'll all be talking about it soon. It's another dark, woman-focused small-town crime drama, in the vein of The Killing or Top of the Lake, but Happy Valley takes what could be a rote formula and opens up a long overdue conversation. It puts the culture of rape directly in the spotlight by capturing how men take advantage of women, and by throwing the viewer into the role of the victim as he or she personally experiences the terror of the malevolent male gaze. 

While other crime dramas have readily used rape as a device, Happy Valley is a show about how men take advantage of women, and how sexual assault is more pervasive than many care to admit. Rape and the threat of rape ground the show top to bottom. It's committed to including all viewers in the terror brought on by a malevolent male gaze.

Image Credit: BBC

Police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) deals with petty drug crimes in her small Yorkshire town, as well as raising her young grandson, Ryan. The boy's mother, Cawood's daughter Becky, committed suicide just after Ryan's birth. Cawood's grandson is the product of rape; her daughter's sexual assault has ramifications, ripples and unjust consequences, which other shows tend to ignore in favor of the horror of the initial assault. Happy Valley boldly chooses not to shy away from the real-world fallout of such a trauma on an entire family.

Additional plot threads don't permit the audience to ignore the reality of sexual violence, including the reappearance of Becky's rapist as a central figure in the series. Setting this series in a small town underscores the fact that these crimes can happen anywhere, to anyone. Both the horrors of rape and the systems that drive the narcotics trade which Cawood tracks, seethe just under the surface of respectable society. Not even the female police officers themselves are free from the specter of rape. When Cawood bemoans her helplessness fighting drug crime, she's also describing the helplessness against sexual violence.

Image Credit: BBC

Male viewers may not come into the show understanding why or how threats to their sexual safety undermine women's lives on a daily basis. But Happy Valley's spectacular first season gives everyone an important education about this pervasive culture of fear and blame. Like no other show running now, Happy Valley paints a realistic picture of fear, pain and trauma, while underscoring the critical importance of empathy.