“Anatomy of a Scandal” is an intricately woven courtroom drama that has a very subtle way of portraying the prejudices, stereotypes, and vices of a patriarchal society. The series has been directed by S.J Clarkson, and it is able to bring forth a narrative that does not influence you to have a biased viewpoint, but it leaves everything up to your discretion. It once again brings the necessary conversation about consent to the table. So let’s look at the characters, try to assimilate their sensibilities, decipher their viewpoints, and what led to the creation of the same.
James Whitehouse was a member of Parliament and was in the news for all the wrong reasons. He was being accused of rape by his assistant, a researcher who used to work in his office. Her name was Olivia Lytton. Before understanding the accused, James Whitehouse, his sensibilities, and motivations, let’s first try to understand the nature of the crime. That would give us some context, about the general perception, societal prejudices, and ideologies of a generation that belonged to a different era.
There are certain actions that might be considered crimes theoretically, but for more than one reason, it becomes difficult to persecute the individual behind those actions. It becomes very important here to keep the emotions separate from the yardsticks used by the legal system in a civil society. It is essential to rely on those yardsticks. These standards, or criterion, based on which conclusions are drawn, are admissible evidence in a court of law. The procedure has been structured by intellectuals to provide justice and take an unbiased approach in the majority of cases. Yes, it goes without saying that every system in this world is not without a flaw. There is a lacuna in the legal system too. The gray area often works to the benefit of one party and to the disadvantage of the other. In many cases, it falls down to the word of the prosecutor against that of the defendant. A lot of times, it is the conviction with which you lead the cross-examination and present your arguments.
James Whitehouse’s case was no different. There was practically no evidence of whether he had committed the offense or not. It was his words against Miss Lytton’s, and what the jury could infer from the various facts and notions provided by the lawyers of both sides.
James Whitehouse was a privileged man. He had always got what he wanted. The problem with being privileged is that, firstly, you do not value what you have; you think you are entitled to it. Secondly, you are oblivious to the plight of others because you assume what you have is not a rarity and that everybody would have it. And thirdly, you are not in the habit of being refused what you ask for. For a majority of individuals who are cohabiting and complementing each other in the tightly knitted community of privileged people, these facets only apply to the materialistic aspects of the world. But for James, the privilege was so ingrained that he had the confidence that any female couldn’t say no to him. It never even once occurred to him that maybe he was forcing his way, and his counterpart wouldn’t want the same thing. He thought that he was too good a deal to say no to. He believed, in all his arrogance, that whoever he placed his finger on would say yes, ultimately. He just needed to lay his eyes on them, and they would be obliged to say yes. That was the arrogance of the man, who was one of the primary members of the infamous Oxford club, The Libertines. There was a code of honor for that group that was known for its debauchedness. They didn’t mind a spillage because they knew they had the power and resources to clean it up.
In my opinion, James Whitehouse never believed that he had committed a crime. He was always under the impression that the female was more than willing. He was unaware about that numb feeling that a female gets when she feels that she is being violated.
Now, this man was from a pre-me too era. He came from a time where phrases like “boys will be boys” were used as an excuse for what we would today term as molestation. It is very essential to draw a distinction between the pre and post-me too eras. The “me too” movement was probably the first time consent was being discussed so openly and on such a wide scale. Such conversations were often reserved for people hailing from developed countries. For the first time, even the underdeveloped nations, where the notion of consent is often mocked, were party to the discussion. Consent was a blurry area up until then.
And moreover, it was considered ludicrous to even talk about consent while being in a relationship. When James Whitehouse forcefully makes out with Holly Berry, he knows, deep down, that there was something that made her uncomfortable. But he makes himself believe that maybe he fell short of the romantic expectations of Holly Berry.
There was not even an iota of guilt inside James Whitehouse. I say that with a lot of certainty, looking at the way he reacted when the judgment was given in his favor. He was relieved as the headache was over and resumed with his life, never even once contemplating his actions. It was a victory for him, and it never occurred to him that the accusation might have had some merit. To point out here, he was never unaware that it was all not consensual. Yes, he presented a version of the narrative that suited him, but he does end up telling Sophie, his wife, that he got a strange feeling that night when he made out with Holly Berry. He felt that she wanted him to stop. There is a very thin line between persistence and coercion. If your sensibilities are in the right place, then a lot of times, the distinction can be implied from the gestures and behavior of the other party, even when the intent is not clearly spoken in words.
When we see dramas like “Anatomy of a Scandal” and witness characters like that of James Whitehouse, we realize how important it is to ingrain in the mindset of the current generation what exactly consent is. It is important to have a conversation about it. It is a very simple and clear concept that shouldn’t be complicated anymore, because it has the potential to scar a person for life.
The biggest question, when we talk about the character of Sophie Whitehouse in “Anatomy of a Scandal,” is why was she instantly ready to come out in support of her husband, James Whitehouse? Why did it take her a substantial amount of time to realize that, firstly, her husband was capable of doing something like that, and secondly, even if it was consensual, it wasn’t something that she could live with? To answer these questions and understand the sensibilities of the character, we need to go back in time when she was studying at Oxford.
Sophie Whitehouse was not exactly an ambitious person. Back in the day, she took notes from Holly Berry and somehow managed to pass her examinations. She was happy being James’ girlfriend, and there was nothing wrong with it. But what it does is it absolves the identity of the person and takes away the privilege of being seen independently. A huge part of Sophie’s life was just about James, and if you remove that facet, Sophie herself didn’t know what to do or in which direction to go. Sophie never harnessed her own potential and was very comfortable playing the role of second fiddle. Her life was about James and his aspirations and desires. She was happy to cater to them selflessly. When allegations against James come to light, not even once does Sophie think about leaving him. Yes, she is disheartened that he indulged in an infidel relationship, but she was sure that it was all consensual.
But as the trial progresses, she realizes that it is going to be difficult for her to share the same space as her husband. She is actually sold a very patriarchal narrative, i.e., boys will be boys, by a very senior M.P. She hesitates but never launches a rebellion. She goes to her in-laws, and they too tell her how wretched the pretentious victim is, but not once is James seen as an accused. She tries to bring forward the prosecutor’s argument, where she raises the question of what if James actually did something like that? Her rebuttal is brutally admonished. Sophie, throughout the season, gives us hints that she can actually see glimpses of the unbiased picture, but never has the courage or the confidence to put her narrative in front of everybody. She is made to believe that her marriage is way superior aa compared to these minuscule barriers.
As soon as the trial starts, she hears things and details that no married woman would ever like to hear in her lifetime. She tried closing her eyes in the hope that the world would not see her, but little did she know that unless and until she cured the ailment, it was not going to vanish overnight. She realizes that Kate Woodcroft, a.k.a. Holly Berry would never be able to prove that James Whitehouse abused her. Sophie wanted to balance the scales. She knew certain details from the past that had the potential to incriminate her husband. She provides Kate Woodcroft with them and also tells her something about herself. Sophie tells Kate that often people misunderstand her and take her for somebody who she is not. From being extremely biased towards her husband, she transforms into his nemesis, one that will eventually become the reason for his downfall. A character who we took as being one-dimensional in nature, in the end, proved that things were not as we perceived them to be. Sophie was brought up in a certain way and belonged to a generation where a lot of things that we might question today were taken for granted, and the role of women was quite different from what we see today. Sophie reaches a catharsis of sorts in the last moments of the “Anatomy of a Scandal,” and gives Kate Woodcroft hope that she will get her retribution.
Kate Woodcroft, A.K.A Holly Berry
Holly, after that night when she was abused by James Whitehouse, had decided to leave the college, and had enrolled in a college in Liverpool to complete her graduation. It was a harrowing event that scarred Holly for life. She changed her identity, becoming Kate Woodcroft, but still never reported the event. She had a similar case to Olivia Lytton’s. She had consented to a part of the act and, after a point of time, expressed her unwillingness to proceed with it. There is an unfair presumption in our society that if a person gives their consent, in the beginning, they are not in a position to say no at any point of time after that. Holly was not only fighting a person who had molested her. She was fighting deeply rooted stigmas and taboos. She felt that it was more convenient for her to change her identity rather than prove her point and tell the world what happened that night. It is an irony that the victim stayed in fear forever while the accused roamed without any sort of guilt or apprehension.
Holly cannot stand the sight of James Whitehouse. She is a fierce legal counsel but shivers when she has to cross-examine James. Even a woman who was known for her strong demeanor wasn’t able to stand in front of the omnipresent patriarchy. She had battled stereotypes her whole life. And now it felt like the system was against her too. Holly often feels alone in this battle. She has nobody with whom she could share her feelings. She starts to lose herself. She forgets who she was and why she was considered one of the best prosecutors in the country. Her vigor was fizzling out as the trial proceeded. Till the end of “Anatomy of a Scandal,” she wants just to escape the horror of facing the trauma that had haunted her for her whole life, and get done with the trial. She is not even concerned with the outcome as she knows that nothing will change. She tried to go against the system and ingrained beliefs, but somehow found herself to be like a minuscule particle standing in front of a gigantic mass, made up of prepositions and bigotry. But when all hope seems to be lost, Sophie’s transformation becomes the light at the end of the tunnel, and gives Holly the strength to get ready for the battle once again.