Feminist Police Procedural: ‘The Fall’ successfully avoids crime show cliches


By Melissa (Mish) Zimdars (Originally published by Little Village)

American television is known for being especially violent against women, or for depictions of sexual violence. Crime shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, Stalker and True Detective generally portray women as victims of murder, sexual assault, abduction, stalking and other horrendous crimes. Of course women are more likely to be victimized, making these representations, perhaps, just a reflection of our regrettable reality, but it’s arguable that television violence also contributes to that reality.

While I don’t believe television directly makes individuals violent, I do believe there to be a relationship between the on-screen and the off-screen, between the violence and objectification we see in crime show after crime show and the violence, victim-blaming and victim-silencing that occurs in our own neighborhoods. Personally, I worry about my own desensitivity to these fictionalized images on television and sometimes wonder whether they further numb my emotional response to reports of sexual violence in real life.

And that’s why I’m sick of all the sexual violence proliferating our televisions and, of course, our communities. I’m sick of camera shots that linger on bound limbs and exposed skin, on expressions of terror and bloody crime scenes. Too many women are treated as just another case of the week to be solved by television detectives, and it’s hard to encourage viewer empathy for the inhuman, the body treated as mere evidence.

Given this constant objectification of women’s bodies, an objectification that doesn’t stop after death, apparently, it’s unsurprising that crime or police series are generally seen as being the antithesis of feminist entertainment.

However, one BBC show, The Fall, is working to reverse this trend and is even gaining popularity amongst U.S. viewers, who generally love violence. The Fall features Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson, who investigates a serial killer, Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan (of Fifty Shades of Grey). Not only is Gibson portrayed as a superior detective in comparison to her male counterparts, but she is overtly and unapologetically feminist. For example, when asked by a male colleague, “Why are women emotionally and spiritually so much stronger than men?” Gibson responds by saying, “Because the basic human form is female. Maleness is a kind of birth defect.” In another episode, Gibson quotes Margaret Atwood in a discussion about the gendered realities of violence: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

The Fall is a welcome feminist intervention to the police procedural for other reasons, too, including the fact that women are not only the most well-developed and complex characters on the series, but they are also the strongest and most supportive of one another. Further, the show is sex-positive and doesn’t entertain the too-common television trope of women sacrificing personal success in order to achieve professional success.

But, perhaps, more importantly, The Fall humanizes those who have been victimized by Spector, detailing each woman’s history, delicately and selectively depicting the bodies of victims, and allowing Gibson to express sadness and anger toward the perpetrators of such crimes, even crying for one deceased woman, Alice Monroe. Conversely, Spector is one-dimensional, hollow, weak and altogether ordinary in his hate for women, and Gibson doesn’t hesitate to call him out as being such, saying, “You are a slave to your desires, you have no control at all, you are weak, impotent, you think you are some kind of artist, but you are not … you try to dignify what you do, but it’s just misogyny, age-old male violence against women.”

Gibson is also sensitive to the way victims are talked about by her fellow Belfast detectives. When one woman is framed as being “innocent,” or virtuous, Gibson points out the implications of such a description by explaining, “What if he kills a prostitute next or a woman walking home drunk, late at night, in a short skirt? Will they be in some way less innocent, therefore less deserving [of our empathy/sympathy]? Culpable? The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores. Let’s not encourage them.” This echoes the same push in our own community to stop blaming the victims of crime and to instead focus on those who perpetrate violence as well as the social norms, systems and institutions that implicitly condone such violence.

For these reasons, The Fall critiques the very genre to which it belongs and the society within which its narratives resonate. Of course, the show can still be faulted in numerous ways (can we seriously get some more women behind the camera?!), and the violence is still hard to watch, but hopefully it demonstrates a more empathetic, compassionate and nuanced way to tell stories of violence against women, stories that fight against such trends rather than reveling in them.

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