Apple Tree Yard: sex and double-standards

Spoiler Alert!

Trigger warning!

The last episode of Apple Tree Yard, based on the book of the same name by Louise Doughty, aired on BBC One last night and it treated audiences to a thrilling climax.

Speaking of climaxes, lets talk about sex and in particular the portrayal of sex in Apple Tree Yard. It’s great to see on mainstream T.V., a woman in her 40’s who has both a  successful career and enjoys sex, a woman many women may aspire to. On the surface at least Yvonne played by Emily Watson, appears to have it all, the perfect house, a loving husband and family and a job she is passionate about. But as we all know, appearances can be deceptive and Apple Tree Yard effectively plays on this to reveal a woman who wants not just to be noticed but also to be wanted. Enter the tall dark stranger in the form of Mark Costley played by Ben Chaplin. As his name implies, her liaison with him will prove costly for them both.

When she starts her affair with Costley they have risky sex in public or semi-public places, Apple Tree Yard being one of them. She’s seen enjoying sex and the thrill of her covert liaisons. But a woman can’t have an affair and not be punished for it. It’s a trope we see again and again in literature and in films, the double-standard when it comes to sex. Men can have affairs and not be punished for it, women usually are. Clearly Yvonne hasn’t read the Scarlett Letter or she’d know that she’s crossed the boundaries of what is permissible for a woman. You either have sex within the sanctity of marriage, remain in a loveless/sexless marriage or you end up a lonely spinster, those are your options we’re told.   God forbid you desire more. At least that’s what society repeatedly tells us. and Yvonne becomes a symbol of the fallen woman, one who will soon learn to “know her place”.

When Yvonne is raped by a colleague, George Selway the scene is brutally visceral, shot almost like an out-of-body experience. Selway’s justification for doing so is that “everyone knows you’ve been fucking someone else”, the implication being that she must therefore be “up for it” with anyone and has brought this on herself.

What I found particularly telling was during the scene when Yvonne reveals the rape to Mark Costley, she apologises. She says, “I’m sorry, you didn’t sign up for this.”  She’s been through a horrific experience and yet feels the need to apologise for it, a smart woman who is essentially attempting to lessen the burden of the rape on her lover. This kind of response is telling. Yvonne thinks of the impact it will have not only on him but on others.

Later when her husband’s affair with a student is confirmed we yet again witness the burden of a man’s actions rested firmly on a woman’s shoulders when he blames their lack of a sex life for his affair, on her not “needing him”. Once again Yvonne is punished for seeking sexual and emotional fulfilment. If it seems like I’m condoning adultery I’m not. But what I am questioning are the assumed we make about those that do, especially women.

This is taken to the extreme when Yvonne is then accused of conspiring to murder George Selway. This is what happens when a woman steps beyond the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable. Here we see the long arm of the law reinforcing this.

There was a scene that was particularly difficult to watch when Yvonne testifies about the rape in a courtroom. Here we begin to understand the reasons why Yvonne chose not to report the rape when she is crossed-examined by a barrister. The suggestion is that this is exactly what she would have had to have gone through if she had taken the rape case all the way to court. It was a poignant moment, one I’m sure many woman who’ve experience sexual assault found hard to stomach. Yvonne is hounded by the barrister into admitting that she lied about her sexual relationship with Mark Costley and that, as a result she cannot be trusted when it comes to the rape and the subsequent murder.

What is also interesting that Yvonne’s fall occurs on multiple levels. Her indiscretions are used as an excuse by George Selway to rape her but it’s consequences stretch still further when she is forced to leave her successful career and is shunned by her daughter. Yet her husband who also had an affair experiences none of the same stigma. Towards the end of the final episode Yvonne and her husband are talking in the bedroom and Yvonne wants her husband to reveal his affair to their daughter who isn’t speaking to Yvonne because of her affair with Mark Costley. Here we see the double standard in play once again. He refuses to do so.

Yvonne is eventually found not guilty of the manslaughter of George Selway but Mark Costley is and justice, we believe has been served. But it doesn’t end there. The final twist in the tale comes at the very end when Yvonne goes to visit Costley in prison and we discover that she did in fact ask him to murder Selway. In a flashback we hear her tell him, “I want you to kill him – I want you to smash his fucking face in,” only then for her to add when she’s face-to-face with Costley in prison, that  “People can say anything – you really can’t tell the difference can you?”

What was interesting about this T.V. drama was that here we have a three-dimensional, complex character in Yvonne Carmicheal. Yes she is presented as a fallen woman but it’s the way the drama explores this that made it worth watching as was the way she went from being a victim to the final scene when we discover that she instigated or at least put the idea of murder into Costley’s head and someone who fights back. Did she use Costley t murder to Selway? That’s the question we’re left with and this final piece of information certainly changed the way I thought about Yvonne’s character. Some may see her affair with Costley as reckless or implausible but the drama did a good job in showing how sometimes one mistake can have dire consequences.

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