The Uncomfortably Honest Abuse Narrative of Feel Good
Okay, so Feel Good is the best show I’ve watched this year.
I spent the last two days bingeing Mae Martin’s dramedy two-season wonder, and, after having a long lie down and an emergency call with my therapist, I am ready to talk about why I love it so much. Following a fictionalized version of Martin as she navigates a new relationship with the closeted George (Charlotte Ritchie), as well as her existing addiction and mental health problems, it is a show that delivers, as my partner has nicknamed it, the BoJack Experience: a show you watch in one sitting that clobbers you about the head with emotion and leaves you gnashing at the bit for more.
Straightforwardly, I love this show, and want as many people to watch it as possible. Taking on sexuality, gender dysphoria, sexual assault, PTSD, substance abuse, and finding a way to actually make most of that pretty fucking funny as well – it’s the kind of show that’s already building a very swift cult following because it finds a way to speak about fucking horrible stuff in a way that doesn’t feel quite so fucking horrible, and that’s a damn skill.
But there is one aspect of it that I would like to talk about specifically (and this will contain spoilers for the final season and last episode, so please do click away if you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet), because I think it reflects something so interesting and so rarely talked-about when it comes to sexual trauma. One of the last scenes of the show sees Mae confront Scott (John Ross Bowie), the adult man who took her in as a teenager after she was kicked out of her parents’ home due to her misbehaviour, and started a sexual relationship with her when she was underage.
It’s a familiar story, isn’t it? I can’t count on both hands the number of adult men I knew dating – “dating” – girls in their teens, seeking out high schoolers for relationships (“relationships”). I remember being a young teenager and wishing that I could be cool enough or mature enough or hot enough to attract one myself. It wasn’t even a matter of people looking the other way; everyone could see it, but nobody wanted to call it what it was. It was a lesson learned by women the hard way, passed down and then rebelled against by the kids we were trying to protect. I think that’s one of the reasons this hit so hard for me, the way Feel Good handles this plot – not as something unspoken that happened behind closed doors, but something out in the world, something politely ignored because the thought of confronting it was too difficult and too horrible and too frightening to take on, even for those who had done nothing wrong.
Much of the second season of Feel Good deals with Mae coming to terms with exactly how that relationship has affected her; the climax of the series arguably comes when she confronts Scott about their involvement when she was a teenager, and it’s probably one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in the last decade or so. Because so many shows would go down the cathartic route of having Mae tell him off, cow him, call him an abuser (rightly so), and move on, triumphant and vindicated and healed from it all; there’s something to be said for the kind of stories that climax like that, with a big statement of relief, a moment for the show to unequivocally get behind the victim and decry the abuser and the people like him.
But Feel Good takes a much more difficult – and I would argue much more truthful – approach to the encounter. For all that Mae is able to recognise that Scott abused her, exploited her, and hurt her, she still loves him. Their relationship was far more than the abuse that he enacted on her; in fact, the scene finishes with the two of them affirming their love for one another before Mae asks him never to contact her again. It’s complex and messy, more painful in some ways than just having her tell him that he’s scum and leaving; despite what he did to her, the emotional investment they share for one another is still there. It still matters. He cared for her despite his abuse, and that is the hardest part for Mae to reconcile. The bad does not outweigh the good – the two just get tangled up in one another until they’re so inextricable that the only survivable option is to try to cut ties and move on for good.
Let’s be real – most sexual assault is committed by someone known to the victim. Many of those attackers are people who are currently or were previously in a relationship with the person they assault. And that means that most people are not going to have that cut-and-dry view of the person who assaulted them – they’re going to have one that is far more similar to the one that Martin writes and performs in Feel Good. For so many people who go through sexual assault of some kind, their relationship with their attacker is going to be something complex and messy, something that may even take a long time for them to even recognise as abuse.
It’s easy and tempting to view sexual assault as something that happens down dark alleys by evil people and leaves victims with nothing but contempt and anger to their abusers, but it’s also just not true. Amplifying that myth only serves to undermine people who struggle with mixed feelings towards the person who assaulted them, leaves them out longer in the cold without being able to recognise what happened to them for what it was.
Which is why I love the way Feel Good deals with this storyline so much. It’s complex and a little uncomfortable to watch at times, but reflects what I feel is a far more truthful version of this story into pop culture. It marks this show out as one of the most daring and honest versions of this story that TV has ever seen, and I sincerely hope that it clears the way for more complicated, difficult, and vitally important conversations about sexual assault in pop culture to come.
If you enjoyed this post, and would like to read some more of my work on sexual assault and survival, please consider grabbing a copy of my first novel about rape, recovery, and love after abuse right here. You can also support me on Patreon to see more blog posts like these!
(header image via Royal Television Society)