Women’s Aid & The Archers: The Drama of Domestic Abuse
Wednesday 6th April 2016
When Women’s Aid began working with The Archers on the depiction of coercive control – the gradual erosion of Helen’s freedom, self-esteem and relationships by her controlling, abusive husband Rob – we hoped it would help increase public understanding of this sinister crime that is at the heart of domestic abuse.
It has certainly done so. The coexistence of Helen’s story with plots about farming, village gossip, and crises in other families has starkly highlighted how abusive relationships exist amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It shows how domestic abuse becomes a shameful secret, hidden by fear and manipulation.
Since Helen’s stabbing of Rob, a desperate act in a moment of serious danger, The Archers has been praised – but also criticised. It’s very rare for men to be seriously assaulted by their female partner, so why portray it? Wouldn’t it be better to show Helen desperately seeking help from specialist domestic abuse services that have been too devastated by funding cuts to help her? After all, it’s perhaps more important than ever to make it clear that domestic abuse is a gendered crime. And it’s urgent to make the case for funding.
But I’m not sure that making the case is the role of a drama serial, any more than it is Women’s Aid’s job to devise a plot or write the script – and indeed we have no more idea of what’s going to happen than any other listener. It’s our job to make sure women in a similar situation know there is help out there and that, despite funding cuts, they can get support. The incredible awareness-raising that The Archers has done is the most important thing of all.
A huge number of people are now identifying with a survivor of coercive control – a woman who may now be facing a wall of disbelief and blame on all sides. She may even lose her children. Male violence is the root of the problem, that’s for sure – but any retaliation by a woman is punished with crushing severity, that is reality. And it does happen.
I hope the empathy with Helen will make this injustice felt, will hold up a mirror to the victim-blaming and failure to understand domestic abuse that runs so deep through our society and all its institutions. We’re already starting to hear this creeping in from last night’s episode. The police pushing Kirsty to state that she would not describe Rob as violent shows that they do not understand coercive control at all. This lack of understanding is sadly all too common.
Rob’s chilling words, which we now know were not his last, that threatened that Helen and her children would never be free of him, may well prove to be true. The Archers has given us a full window into the real experiences of women who are so often viewed through a single incident – like viewing a whole house through its keyhole. Control, once captured by a perpetrator, is so hard to regain. Professionals, family and friends, all unwittingly conspire to keep the survivor’s independence, and the means to her recovery, out of reach. That’s why empowerment isn’t an empty word; it’s the only way forward for survivors.
So, I hope that Helen is believed. I hope the agencies that deal with her understand domestic abuse (though last night does not bode well). And of course, I hope Helen finds a specialist domestic abuse service – because that’s where empowerment is to be found, despite funding cuts. Don’t worry, we will take every opportunity to make that case.