Television

Jess Hill’s documentary See What You Made Me Do, based on her best-selling book, is a tough but illuminating look at a scourge of Australian society. By Celeste Liddle.

See What You Made Me Do

Journalist and author Jess Hill.
Credit: Courtesy SBS

Content warning: This review contains discussion and descriptions of violence and sexual violence.

 

All revolutions seem impossible, until they are inevitable – Jess Hill, episode 3, See What You Made Me Do

A much-quoted statistic is that one woman a week is murdered in Australia by a current or former partner. Yet so often the deaths we see gaining media coverage are those perceived as so heinous and “unexpected” that they cannot be ignored. The death of Hannah Clarke and her three children in February 2020, after they’d been doused with petrol in a car that was set alight in the middle of a suburban street by Clarke’s estranged husband, for example, was so shocking that it led to mass outpourings of public grief. Even now, it is still discussed in society and in the media.

But for every case that attracts public horror, there are many other women who die unnoticed. And for each woman that dies as a result of domestic abuse, there are about three million other Australians who are living as victims of it. This is one of the first statistics that the SBS documentary series See What You Made Me Do quotes as it unpacks the many facets and realities of domestic abuse.

This series is presented by investigative journalist Jess Hill, inspired by her award-winning book of the same name. The episodes make for bleak viewing. As someone who has written often on domestic and family violence, particularly focusing on Aboriginal women victims, and who herself has experienced it, I still found my skin crawling.

Yet it’s a timely reminder. Survivor Grace Tame is currently making waves as Australian of the Year with her Let Her Speak campaign, while multiple sexual assault scandals, including the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins in a parliamentary office, continue to rock the nation.

This tide of awareness about the abuse women suffer isn’t dissimilar to the consciousness raised during the Me Too movement. Yet Hill’s criticism of the movement rings equally true right now: while these moments raise awareness and change dialogues, they don’t reach into the homes where women are most at risk. As Hill puts it, the family is “the most violent social group in our society”.

A key point Hill returns to several times throughout the series is that the major problem in tackling domestic abuse is that it’s largely imagined as a series of physically violent acts.

The system of entrapment she refers to as “coercive control” is ignored. Many red flag behaviours within a relationship are considered normal or even as evidence of love and commitment. Physical violence may not even play a part in a woman’s experiences of domestic abuse. Casting a light on coercive control, and examining how people both here and overseas are seeking to educate society on these behaviours to try to save the lives of women, is the driving force of the series.

We are introduced to the concept of coercive control early in the first episode through the story of victim-survivor Jessica – a strong and independent woman whose former partner set about controlling her and breaking down her confidence. The web of abuse in which she became entangled is chilling, yet Jessica’s story is wholly recognisable to anyone who has been in a similar situation, particularly when she says that the abuse she endured could be mistaken for somebody “having an intense interest in you”. Indeed, through fictions such as Hollywood movies, women are taught that masculine intensity is often highly desirable.

This normalisation of controlling behaviours becomes evident when politician turned activist Phil Cleary makes plain that the problem is men’s misogyny, or when we’re told that men are using simple $9 devices they get online to track their former partners, or when Hill highlights the severe lack of men’s behavioural change programs.

The series makes these realities impossible to ignore. Hill contrasts this with the fact that women are continually told to police their own actions to avoid violence – whether we’re told to not walk home alone in the dark or when we hear the continual refrain of “why didn’t she leave?” Men’s violence is viewed as an inevitability for which women are made responsible.

When it comes to abuse and violence experienced by women, the abuser is only part of the story. The second episode explores how the state also plays a role. Women who are further marginalised by race particularly encounter this problem. Aboriginal women experience violence at a rate 34 times higher than other women in Australia, but often end up being criminalised when we seek police assistance.

The gross negligence exercised by police in the case of Tamica Mullaley and the subsequent murder of her son Charlie, as Hill highlights, confirms many Aboriginal women’s worst fears. There is no safety for us because we can be broken and bleeding, begging for help, and still be arrested. We’ve seen similar cases repeatedly, as Aboriginal women continue to be the fastest-growing prison population. We know there’s no justice.

As the series shows, other racially marginalised women are too frightened to go to the police for fear of discrimination or deportation. Language and cultural barriers also play a part – there is a severe shortage of appropriate services. That these women wear the “shame” of abuse and failed marriages also has devastating impacts. While these problems are amplified among marginalised women, the fact that only 20 per cent of victims overall call the police demonstrates a severe mistrust in the system.

Even so, the series offers a lot of hope. It was powerful, for example, to see abusive men owning their actions and working towards having healthier relationships with women with the help of support services. Innovative approaches in other countries that create real change – not just in reporting rates but also in broader social understandings – give clues to what might work in Australia. Given institutional racial discrimination, I’m not sold on increased policing measures as a solution, but I do see potential in changing the dialogue, ensuring support services are adequately funded and raising the status of women through broad social education.

See What You Made Me Do challenges the viewer to examine their own perceptions and work towards a better society. As Hill says, it requires a “revolution” of sorts: people must make possible something that now seems impossible – an end to the social normalisation of male control and violence. 

See What You Made Me Do premiered on May 5 on SBS, NITV and SBS On Demand.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "From impossible to inevitable".

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Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne. She is a union organiser, social commentator, freelance writer and activist.