What Top Boy Gets Right About Domestic Violence & Marginalised Women

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: The following contains graphic details of domestic abuse which some readers may find upsetting.
Spoilers for Top Boy series two ahead: Much beloved British crime series Top Boy returned to Netflix earlier this month to high praise. For series two (or four if you count the original series first commissioned on Channel 4), the urban thriller —  charting the lives of mostly Black, working-class young people selling “food” (drugs) to make money and escape the grey tower block skylines of poverty — delivered the high-stakes drama we’ve come to expect from the show. As well as the usual themes of gang-warfare, harsh choices, at times ruthless brutality, and an often deep emotional love between characters, the new series also explored in detail for the first time domestic violence. 
After being exiled from “Summerhouse” (the housing estate-based gang headed by Ashley Walter’s character Dushane) and after betraying Sully (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson) at the end of the previous series, we find Lauryn (played by Saffron Hocking) living in Liverpool and pregnant. She is under the controlling eyes of her male partner Curtis (played by Howard Charles), and his cruel, hawkish sister Vee (a reminder that domestic abuse women face can also be facilitated by other women). As her story continues, it soon becomes frighteningly clear that Lauryn is a prisoner, unable to make autonomous decisions or even go so much an hour away from home without being scrutinised on her whereabouts. Her life is not her own. 
This storyline felt extremely important, given conversations about male violence have escalated since 2021, following the tragic kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard by Metropolitan police office Wayne Couzens, Sabina Nessa, a young South Asian woman was killed in a London park by a man known to her, and countless other women have fallen victim to the violence of their male partners. In an interview with Digital Spy, Hocking described how vital the storyline was especially given the timing. “I knew that this was an important story to share and to tell especially because we started filming during the pandemic, during lockdown and domestic abuse was at an all-time high at that time if you look at the figures,” Hocking explained. The actor also detailed how emotional it was to portray someone suffering domestic abuse stating she “underestimated” the effect it would have on her as a person. “It was heartbreaking at times. It really was,” she said, per Digital Times. 

Lauryn’s storyline demonstrates that domestic abuse doesn’t need to be physical in order to have a life-changing, and extremely dangerous impact on someone’s life.   

Patriarchal violence plagues all women, and some wider conversations have explored a more nuanced view of how different aspects of our identities can impact our exposure to that violence. Top Boy gives viewers a rare glimpse of how race and class exacerbate abuse against women.  It’s notable that as viewers, we never really see Curtis lay a single hand physically on Lauryn. The coercion and control he exercises over her are frequently wrapped up in caring, loving language as though he is just trying to protect her. His manipulative nature is, at first, difficult to spot as he plays the role of doting partner so convincingly. It’s only as the plot progresses that we see his more sinister motives slowly appear; he’s uncomfortable with her being out for more than a couple of hours on her own and when she’s with her sister Jaq, it’s obvious Lauryn can’t be honest about who she’s really meeting. Her phone is later confiscated by Vee and she can’t even get Curtis to agree to a shopping trip to buy intimate clothing by herself.
Curtis’ violence takes the form of gaslighting, constant stalking, and eventually removing her ability to connect with others outside of his circle. She is in a constant state of palpable danger with no physical force exerted, though the threat of things escalating to that level is always lingering. Frequently, when making domestic abuse allegations women are challenged to “show proof” in the form of physical bruises as evidence that the abuse they are suffering is real. Lauryn’s storyline demonstrates that domestic abuse doesn’t need to be physical in order to have a life-changing and extremely dangerous impact on someone’s life.   
Class and racial dynamics also exacerbate Lauryn’s lack of options. Lauryn, who is mixed-race, doesn’t have the financial means to escape and she is utterly dependent on Curtis and his sister materially — underscoring that domestic violence is so often an economic issue for its victims. Women and Black women in particular are likely to earn less, and therefore be more reliant on their male partners for money. Simply getting up and leaving becomes an impossible task with little or no access to funds. Poor public service provisions for women fleeing domestic violence make this hurdle even harder, and some migrant women due to their migration status can’t have access at all to even the scarce public domestic violence support available.

 This Top Boy series is a stark reminder that many women stand alone in the face of male violence.

Like most of the other characters in Top Boy, Lauryn does not even consider going to the police and the criminal justice system isn’t to be relied on.  Top Boy reflects the very pertinent truth that the relationship between the Black community and the police is poor, with systemic racism often rife in policing. In 2021, two Met Police officers were jailed for taking and sharing images of the murdered bodies of Black sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. The previous year, despite evidence finding a slew of racist messages involving the police officers, they were allowed to keep their jobs. In terms of domestic abuse, between March 2020 and June 2021, domestic abuse charity Refuge (who also helped Hocking prepare for the role this season) found Black women were 14% less likely to be referred to them for support by police than white survivors of domestic abuse. The police in general continue to have a poor record of taking domestic abuse seriously with all women, and many are reported as guilty of domestic abuse themselves. 
Efforts are being made to try and change this. Last week, a 106,000-signature petition for Valeries law, a proposal to tackle domestic abuse specifically among Black communities, triggered a debate in Parliament after years of campaigning. Organisers named the campaign after Valerie Forde, a Black woman whose ex-partner murdered her and her baby, despite having reported him to police. The police had failed to take her calls seriously, with race being cited as a key reason. Valerie's Law would require anyone supporting Black survivors of abuse (including the police) to be given compulsory training on African and Caribbean heritage women’s experiences of abuse. 
It’s clear that Lauryn’s lack of trust in formal authorities is founded in reality, as policing continues to perpetuate state misogyny and racism to a devastating degree. Ultimately, the show chooses to depict Lauryn as the only person who can liberate herself from the torment of her abuser. In episode five she makes an emotional escape, fleeing to a shopping centre, tears streaming down her face and begging her taxi driver not to stop driving when Curtis tries to ambush her. She escapes back to London to her sister Jaq, creating a whole host of financial issues for the Summerhouse gang when Curtis steals all their stock of drugs, willing to only give the goods back in exchange for Lauryn’s return. The weight of Jaq’s potential rejection of Lauryn due to all these complications leads Lauryn to finally relinquish all calls for help, and finish things by herself in a harrowing and gory stabbing of Curtis.
Lauryn’s terrifying fight against escalating abuse in this season of Top Boy has shone a light on so many aspects of domestic violence, especially for marginalised women. Between the lack of support, compounded with Black female “strong woman” tropes, there’s an expectation that Black women can’t be in danger. As a result, they end up having to fend for themselves. 
This Top Boy series is a stark reminder that many women stand alone in the face of male violence, and portrays sensitively and thoughtfully the extremely limited choices that marginalised women often have when it comes to domestic violence. Let’s hope in the future, women can get the help and support they need. 

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