Wednesday, August 20, 2014


The Great Hope of TV's Female Crime-Stoppers

no one ever suspects a book club

I don’t remember how or why I first started descending into Law & Order afternoons, letting bright days slip by in the darkness of my parents’ den with the curtains drawn. I was seventeen or eighteen – a few years before Netflix made marathoning a known verb and acceptable pastime; all I knew was that the show was hypnotic, and USA never aired fewer than three in a row.

It didn’t occur to me that my particular taste for SVU, the sex crimes spinoff in the franchise, was messed up until I moved east and spent a summer living in New York. There I watched episodes on my friends’ parents’ cable, and then took the subway home, alone, making my way through the neighborhoods I had just watched flash by on screen. I had taken just enough literary theory courses my freshman year of college to explain it to myself: that I was actually soothing my anxiety by watching stories about rape in which things came out right, and justice was mostly served in the end. For many years that explanation was enough.

The problem with sex crimes shows — a genre that stretches far beyond SVU’s fifteen seasons — is not a new one. Stories about rape that center around the search for justice suggest that narratives begin when women’s bodies are violated like objects, and end when men punish the perpetrator. All hail Olivia Benson: she is SVU’s only female cop.

In the last few years, though, television has stumbled onto a way to unsettle that kind of story, giving it pathos and resonance in the simplest possible reversal: by making all of the police women, whose mere physical presence in the narrative stands in stark, blessed contrast to the silent, still bodies of the girls whose lives and deaths they are called on to investigate.

Sometimes the women have been victims of similar crimes: Top of the Lake opens with detective Robin Griffin returning to her tiny hometown of Laketop, New Zealand, where men who gang-raped her as a teenager still hang out in the local bar. “I know you from somewhere,” one of them says to her. Robin stabs him with a shard of broken glass.

Top of the Lake is an otherwise quiet show, replete with scenic shots of the New Zealand bush; it is a careful excavation of the fury and hurt and grief that roil beneath still surfaces and idyllic pictures. This scene, though, is harrowing not just because of the sudden physical violence, but because of the emotional moment that underpins it: the rapist fucked some woman years and years ago, and walked away and was given the privilege of forgetting about it. Robin has lived in the aftermath every day since. She will never forget his face, but he never even learned hers.

It could seem like a cheap gimmick — making the detective a victim to weaken her, and make her sympathetic, and more likely to crack as the investigation unravels. But I appreciate the way that foregrounding women in rape narratives points out that the crime is one with a long reverberation, not just in one person’s life but throughout our entire culture. It reminds us that there are living victims: rape acts on a body, but it affects a person. And there is something specific and beautiful and brave about the way all of these women acknowledge that there is horror in the world, and some of it is aimed at them simply because they are women, and they do not let that stop them.

In The Bletchley Circle, a BBC miniseries, none of the women have been raped — or if they have been, it doesn’t come up on-screen. They are also not detectives. They are four women who worked as high-level code-breakers during the second World War, and then retired to their homes after it, as women are supposed to do. When a pattern-making serial killer picks off three women in London and the police are ineffective, they take matters into their own hands.

The first series, which focuses on a killer who tortures, murders and then rapes his victims, doesn’t end well: it sacrifices the heroines it’s built up as smart and resilient for needless suspense and drama in its final minutes. But that doesn’t diminish the joy of watching the beginning, in which a handful of very British women very Britishly find a way to work around the obstinate men they’ve been saddled with, personally and professionally. They cover up their murder-solving circle by pretending it’s a book club.

My favorite of this genre, though, is The Fall, which has Gillian Anderson escaping her history of playing the perpetual victim of The X-Files’ rape/kidnap/seduce plots to become the cool-headed detective investigating yet another serial rapist and murderer. (This time, in that order.)

The Fall doesn’t stop at Anderson, though: it populates its world with all kinds of women: the pathologist, and the young cop, and the rapist’s wife, and daughter, and teenage babysitter, and his victims, before they’re victims. His name is Paul. We get to see the effect his depravity has on his family and community, instead of just acting it out on a silent, unconscious female body.

When there are only one or two women on a show, they become tokens, defined by their gender in everything they do. The Fall’s most startling scene intercuts Gillian Anderson’s Stella having casual, voluntary sex with images of Paul bathing one of his victims. In so many of these shows, sex and violence get mixed up without much effort: we’re so used to being titillated by the screen that we never stop to examine what it is exactly about these rape narratives we find so compelling, except that they’re satisfying, when they’re through.

The scene as The Fall plays it gives you the constant, skin-crawling reminder that you’re sitting and staring at women’s bodies, reveling in your own power over them, the way you can tune into their stories and then tune out again when the image doesn’t interest you any longer. The way you, too, can walk away from them when you start to get bored.

Zan Romanoff just really loves television. She works, lives and writes in Los Angeles. 

18 Comments / Post A Comment


The other thing that's interesting about the fall is the way it presents Paul as a sex object. I haven't quite figured out what's going on there, but I think it's very interesting.


I *loved* The Fall and The Bletchley Circle! I also have a thing for slow burning British crime shows (except Wallender, that shit was too slow). This was a great analysis.


@yourstruly Also, Tom and Lorenzo (my favorite internet gay uncles) have this awesome recommendation for the Bletchley Circle, touching on many of the points you do here: http://tomandlorenzo.com/2014/04/call-the-midwife-and-the-bletchley-circle/

warrior rabbit

@yourstruly The British Wallender was excruciating. Have you watched Scott and Bailey? Rachel's a bit of a ridiculous, unprofessional mess, but I love Godzilla. In all, three solid female leads.


Big fan of The Bletchley Circle. Also, if you can find it on a PBS station somewhere, I recommend the Aussie production "Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries." Feminist flapper socialite becomes a private detective in 1920s Australia, bedding every hot dude she meets along the way to solving murders more efficiently than the police. Lots of focus on women and girls and feminist issues, through the prism of that era. And it is also SO MUCH FUN. The series is based on novels, of which I've read a few - somewhat different but equally enjoyable.


@bureaucrab Miss Fisher is also streaming on Netflix.

warrior rabbit

@bocadelperro Discovered Miss Fisher via Netflix earlier this summer. Binged on the entire season in one weekend! It's fluffy and formulaic, but also entertaining, empowering, and just plain fun. Sadly, they currently only have the first season.


Question: How do you feel about "The Killing"? Also, have you seen Wire in the Blood? I now have The Fall on my list.


Oh man, I am currently winding my way through "The Killing" and LOVING IT. She's so messed up, but she's my kind of messed up. It does seem, as the show progresses, that she winds up playing "crazy broken female in need of protecting" against her male counterparts, but that rings true to me too, in a way. She seems to be constantly sacrificing bits of herself just to get by in her world--the brutal, blood-soaked and psychologically scarring world of violent crime, which is so often relegated to men.
However, my love for the show was checked recently by this conversation with two dude friends:
"Oh man, how much do you love the protagonist of The Killing?"
"Like, Holder? The hood guy?"
"No! The lady. The MAIN CHARACTER."
"She's a sh*tty mom."
"Right, but, all of the other stuff--"
"Man, she's such a sh*tty mom."


@MissCajlin I have the same response! The way Mireille Enos play her, Sarah seems so tightly wound and impenetrable largely because of what you've identified - she keeps having to sacrifice parts of herself (JACK, oh my lord, poor Jack!) to get by.

Although whoever is writing Holder's lines is clearly having way more fun with all of this, I must say. He gets some of the best lines on television!


@MissCajlin I haven't seen the third season. That said. Am I wrong to LIKE that she is a shitty mom? I think I like that she tries so hard, but is so bad at it. And I think she realizes that (the second season is less painful with this aspect of the show). I love how deeply and truly flawed she is. I think all too often male detectives are portrayed as shitty fathers, but it's because of their dedication to their work so we forgive them. So, it's interesting to me that this is a hang up for a female character, like your dude friends couldn't look past that. But hello, every TV dad detective is the world's WORST father (except Hotchner...NO YOU HAVE A CRIME SHOW ADDICTION). SO, I get why she makes people uncomfortable, but I think that says more about our expectations of women than the show or the character. Why do women have to be good moms for us to like them? Why do we have to like them? Also, speaking of shitty moms in TV shows. Glenn Close in Damages is perfect.


@lyzl@twitter is The Killing worth watching through the second and third seasons? I liked most of the first season, but was kind of burnt out by the end of it.


Women should use effective way to protect yourself.


I was having this conversation with someone recently- how my go-to "comfort viewing" is Law & Order SVU, and how bizarre that is. I can't wait to check out Bletchley Circle. I included Top of the Lake and The Fall in a list of recommended feminist tv shows: http://ofmeansandends.com/2014/08/13/6-feminist-tv-shows/


Love Wire in the Blood and The Killing and The Fall! If you can find it, you should check out The Field of Blood. One of the best things I ever did for myself was buy a subscription to AcornTV: http://acorn.tv/featured

simone eastbro

OK, but what about Amanda Rollins? Olivia isn't the only female cop on SVU anymore! Also there was that awful season when she was undercover and Dani Beck was Stabler's partner.

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