Tuesday, December 24, 2013


A Tribute to Top of the Lake's Robin Griffin, Made of China and Steel

Warning: Spoilers. Top of the Lake is on Netflix.

An incomplete list of all the shit that Robin Griffin has to deal with in the Jane Campion miniseries Top of the Lake:

• A mother who’s dying
• A mother who’s living with a guy who may or may not be physically abusive
• A very long (read: five year) engagement to a guy she doesn’t love anymore
• That guy’s insistent texts
• Thinking that she came home to hang out with her mom only to be pulled onto a statutory rape case that bears increasing resemblance to her own statutory rape, 15-plus years before
• A police force full of dicks, headed by a major dick who keeps hitting on her when she’s trying to get shit done
• An ex-boyfriend who inadvertently contributed to her rape but is now sexy and sinewy
• One of her actual rapists just hanging out and having beers at the local bar
• Every inch of every place in town evoking her traumatic past...

...and that only really brings us halfway through the mini-series’ seven-episode arc. Shit begats shit, and as one of several hardboiled female detectives maneuvering this type of trauma on (imported) (Netflixed) television this year, Robin wades through all of it.

But Griffin’s also the youngest and, crucially, the only woman in a narrative co-written and directed by one. And not just any woman, but Jane Campion, the director responsible for two of the films that linger most hauntingly on my heart. My freshman year in college, I listened to the soundtrack to The Piano so much that even when it wasn’t on, I was walking and moving to its rhythms like an internalized metronome. And Bright Star awoke something long dormant and romantic in me, something that wanted to lie on the bed and just watch the air move the curtains and listen to my body in love.

Which is just another way of saying that Campion is an intensely affective filmmaker: the way she (and, in this case, collaborators Gerald Lee and Garth Davis) conceive, write, and direct doesn’t just promote narrative identification, but physical empathy. When I watch her, I feel a fierce form of embodiment. It’s not just that I want to go to Lake Top; I feel Lake Top—but that “feel” is mediated through Robin’s complicated, infuriated experience of it.

Traditional cop shows make their protagonists into observers: outsiders that allow the audiences to place judgement on the situation before them. It’s a highly therapeutic narrative practice, in part because it leverages some semblance of order on the otherwise morally chaotic world around us.

But Robin is no cipher, nor is she an anti-hero—a character that weds moral repugnance with irresistable charisma. The anti-hero, at least in contemporary media, is almost always a privileged person’s gig: only white men, rich men of color, and rich white women get to be anti-heroes. All sorts of people are complicated and occasionally morally repugnant; only some (at least on television) get the privilege of being likable as well.

Robin doesn’t have the social or financial capital to be an anti-hero, and yet I like her so much better this way. The narrative gradually contextualizes her frank unlikability, but it refuses to apologize for it. From the beginning, she’s warm with children and cold with adults, including her own mother, who tells her “You can be very hard. And what I don’t like is that you think it’s strength.”

But it is strength: that coldness is armor. It’s not against one person, or even the four people who raped her. It’s against the entire fucking world—or, somewhat more precisely, a world defined by patriarchy. Think about it: her defining trauma was enacted by men brazen with the belief that they could do whatever they wanted with a woman’s body and face no consequences. And they didn’t, save a brief beating from a different group of men who designated themselves as keepers of community justice—the sort of justice that repeatedly exploits girls and women (their bodies, their labor) in the name of profit and power. Her workplace may not be filled with rapists, but the men who run it refuse to respect her or the legitimacy of the case she’s trying to solve which, uncoincidentally, revolves around a sexually victimized young girl.

There’s an old adage from the feminist “porn wars” that states “if porn is the theory, then rape is the practice.” If unchecked patriarchy is the theory in Lake Top, then rape, along with other forms of sexual exploitation, is the practice. That’s devastating to think about, but that’s what Robin’s up against. She has no time to be charismatic, or do her hair, or put on anything that’s not a hoodie and a black puffy jacket. And unlike other female protagonists who operate “within” the system, using their sexual objecthood to manipulate and exploit the men around them, Robin’s past trauma precludes that possibility. She wore a pretty white dress once, and look where it got her.

If unchecked patriarchy is the theory in Lake Top, then rape, along with other forms of sexual exploitation, is the practice.

She’s not part of the dominant order, and she can’t bring herself to play within it. So she goes about smashing it—clumsily at first, and with significant injury to herself. What’s beautiful, however, and what further separates her from other female characters on television, is her desperate desire to save the next generation of women from her own fate. Lots of characters try to save their daughters, but the wide-eyed, wordless Tui embodies something broader than blood connection.

Robin sees herself in Tui: when she watches the footage of the young girl singing in the forest, she’s mourning her lost innocence. But if were just about Tui, Robin wouldn’t have such fierce motivation to bring Matt, and the entire structure that supports him, low; nor would the narrative wouldn’t provide us with the foils of older women who, almost like a Greek chorus, telegraph the emotional and physical toll of living under patriarchy. “Paradise” can’t be Paradise so long as the old world has access road within.

Individualism and self-preservation (the fundamentals, really, of Lean In feminism) only gets us so far. Even if one person can avoid the system, there are thousands who, for reasons related to sexuality, class, body type, race, and ability, remain mired within it. Robin’s mom couldn’t save her, and Robin couldn’t save Tui from the abuse that drove her from her home. But the message of Top of the Lake isn’t “save the girl” or “save yourself.” Here, the only way to save anything is to wreck everything. When Robin’s boss says she’s being reckless in her dealings with the Mitchums, he doesn’t mean it as a compliment, but she should take it as one.

Even with the destruction of the literal and figurative Fathers, it’s not like Robin’s suddenly married and safe and has everything figured out. Those Fathers will haunt her, and Tui, and Tui’s baby, even as they build a life without them. But she’s found a compassionate, fiercely honest man who, as we learn in the last episode, has no idea who his father is. It’s a nifty bit of symbolism, and it underlines the overarching message of the show: men, as in people with penises, aren’t the problem. It’s the structures of privilege built up around them, and the liberty those structures, and the men empowered by them, take with others.

I look at Robin at the end of the show and I see all the cliched things: the vulnerability, the resilience, what seems to be something like warmth. But I also still see the eyes of the woman who broke a beer bottle in half and gouged her rapist with it, and the body that walked into the freezing cold lake and nearly didn’t walk back. She is healed yet broken, both china and steel. And she is, without question, the woman who’s made me think the most this year.


Previously: Internet Work and Invisible Labor: An Interview With Danielle Henderson

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here, and you can read the Scandals of Classic Hollywood series here.

13 Comments / Post A Comment

Lumpy Space Princess

Yes! I absolutely loved this show, thank you for doing this write-up about it. It was so horrifying, moving, mysterious, and many other descriptors. It's great that you were able to vocalize one huge reason it was so amazing.
I thought the ending was pretty incredible too - shows that really have a good ending stick with me hard, or very fondly - like the end of 30 Rock, or the end of Mike Birbiglia's "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend". Stuck the landing!


Freaking awesome!@t


Oh my goodness. I've never seen this show, but this is what I'm watching next. Thank you for sharing this, such a powerful analysis.


Yesssssssss thank you so much for writing this!

This is the one show I will not shut up about, won't stop recommending to people, even months after I first saw it.


Top of the Lake is not streaming on Netflix if you are in Canada, unfortunately. I basically check weekly, I've really been wanting to see it!

Eyre Apparent

This was perfect. I so thoroughly appreciate your accurate dissection of each layer of this show. We need many more examples of this type of character from television. It's not empowerment, exactly, but empathy and strength.


I feel exactly the same way about Bright Star, and this show was one of the best I've seen. So refreshing to see something about women, that doesn't immediately Other us. It's about humans who happen to have the experience of women. Brilliant. I was incredibly emotionally caught up in every aspect of the show. It was amazing. But did I totally miss the abusiveness of her mother's boyfriend?! I didn't catch that at all...someone fill me in!


@tofuswalkman Al drops it into conversation in the first episode, seemingly innocently, but pretty obviously to divert Robin's attention from her criticisms of the way they're handling Tui's case. He asks how Robin's mom is recovering, and she assumes he means the cancer, and then he corrects her and mentions there was a "bit of a domestic" where a wall got punched, does that whole infuriating "I didn't realize she hadn't told you" bit.

chickpeas akimbo

I watched this when it first came out on Netflix and loved it -- I've been meaning to rewatch it. But there must be something broken in the way I relate to people, because I didn't find Robin unlikeable in the slightest. Mostly I was like, "girl, let's go grab a beer and hang out, and maybe fuck up some rapists, if they happen to come by."

lasso tabasco

@chickpeas akimbo Yeah, I didn't find Robin unlikeable in the least! She is amazing. I also really loved her simple comfy way of dressing and her no-makeup face. I would like to see more female characters like her on tv for sure.

Beatrix Kiddo

@chickpeas akimbo I didn't find her unlikeable either! I want to be on her team.


I watched this early in the year when it was on Sundance and I can honestly say it affected me. Robin still resonates with me. Visually it was stunning and full of symbolism (female/male deer heads, she stabbed men (penetrated) not punched them, living in containers). What I loved most though, was seeing a woman deal with all the shit above in a realistic manner. She got tough and fought when she needed to, she broke down when she needed to, regardless of how it looked to other people. And sometimes, she just needed to have hot sex in the woods because, well, don't we all?

Also, kudos to Moss who could display any emotion with one flick of her eyes.


I adored this show, and will probably rewatch soon. I thought Elizabeth Moss was heartbreaking and the other, less known actors also fabulous.
However, one thing that did keep breaking in and keeping me from fully immersing in the show was Elizabeth Moss's accent. It bore no relation to those of people around her (New Zealanders) or any Australians I've ever met (other possibility since the character had moved there).
I hate to quibble about it, but it did keep me from being able to forget that she was an American actress playing a New Zealander.

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