TV writers have responded to a call for strong female police detectives. But, says Laura Macdougall, there’s still a way to go.
Their sartorial choices are given almost as many column inches as the crimes they’re tasked with solving – think that jumper (1); silk blouses paired with pencil skirts (2); a much-worn leather jacket and bootcut Levis (3); long khaki military coat (4). They’re described as ruthless; unfeeling; prickly; cynical; remote; enigmatic; cold; indifferent; compassionless; unnerving; inscrutable. Welcome to the current generation of female television detectives.
(1. Sarah Lund in The Killing; 2. Stella Gibson in The Fall – pictured right, and below; 3. Laure Berthaud in Spiral; 4. Saga Norén in The Bridge.)
Although the formidable Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect is arguably the inspiration for many ‘anti-heroines’ currently dominating television crime drama, until recently the UK lagged behind Europe (France’s Spiral, Denmark’s The Killing and Sweden’s The Bridge), and it’s only in the past few years that programmes such as Scott & Bailey, Happy Valley and The Fall have premiered.
Across all forms of popular culture there appears to be an appetite for so-called ‘strong female characters’ – or at least, that’s who women (the largest consumers of most forms of media) say they want to see. Furthermore, many leading actresses are frequently quoted as saying television – not film – now offers them the best roles. (Recent years have also given us Academy Award-winner Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, Glenn Close in Damages and Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife).
But what does ‘strong female character’ actually mean? Are these women realistic and relatable? Does their creation go hand-in-hand with an attempt to overcome what actress Doon Mackichan in the New Statesman called ‘crime porn’: dramas which normalise violence against women and where that violence is gratuitous, voyeuristic and used purely for entertainment.
Last week saw the much-anticipated return of The Fall to BBC2. Mackichan believes it guilty of misogyny: women are victims of the most horrific crimes and the plot focuses on female pain and suffering as a form of titillation rather than allowing these women any trace of character, intelligence or sense of a life.
In The Fall, serial killer Paul Spector (played by Jamie Dornan) fantasises about, stalks and finally strangles his female victims. The programme makes for uncomfortable watching, not only for the graphic depiction of Spector’s crimes, but also for the detailed insight it allows the viewer into the killer’s daily life. Writer and creator Allan Cubitt said he was mindful from the start of not making a ‘gratuitous or exploitative’ drama and deliberately wanted to make Spector’s female victims feel like ‘fully-fledged human beings’.
Do any male television characters, apart from perhaps the Doctor in Doctor Who, receive quite so much focus on their clothes?
The Bridge BBC ZDF (Carolina Romare)
If The Fall was the BBC’s hit of 2013, Happy Valley was the crime drama that had everyone glued to their televisions earlier this year. Written by Sally Wainwright (also behind the brilliant series Scott & Bailey, Unforgiven and Last Tango in Halifax), Happy Valley also has a woman police detective (played by Sarah Lancashire) taking top billing. It, too, got flak in the media for allegedly depicting gratuitous violence against women (the Daily Mail called it ‘unrelentingly bleak’).
Like Cubitt, Wainwright vigorously condemns what she sees as the ‘misogyny’ endemic in British crime drama (singling out another BBC series, Luther, as particularly culpable). Although Wainwright acknowledges all the women in Happy Valley ‘suffer’ in some way, she believes we can create feminist crime drama.
“If I wanted to avoid everything that contained damaging depictions of women, I would have to live in a cave,” wrote one journalist, and it’s clear we have a long, long way to go. But, sadly, violence is a fact of life (one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police in the UK every minute, and two women are murdered every week by a current or former male partner) and therefore dramas that want to be true to life will depict it. But the question of violence against women on television (or any other form of media or popular culture), is one of vital importance, and there does seem to be some truth to Cubitt and Wainwright’s claims to have thought more carefully about how women are depicted in the dramas they have written. Although both series frequently depict violence, and that violence is directed almost exclusively against women, in both series it is far from casual. Both writers give their victims more of a story – and therefore the audience more of a chance to get to know them as people, rather than ciphers. Cubitt has his lead character, Stella Gibson, tackle the typical portrayal of women in the media as ‘victims or vamps, angels or whores’ head-on.
In this new wave of crime drama it is possible to identify an attempt to break free from the stereotypes that have plagued the form for decades. There are writers and drama commissioners with a conscience, who are committed to thinking more carefully about how women are portrayed on-screen, whether they’re enforcers or victims. We also now have many more women in lead roles instead of men. (Though, in some cases, the fact the part was originally written for a man is fairly obvious, and the character doesn’t ring true.) These women are intelligent, interesting, independent and powerful. They don’t avoid every cliché (I refer you back to the list of adjectives used to describe them in the first paragraph of this article), but there’s a sense that women can be sexual and use men purely because they fill a need (Stella Gibson and Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood both do this, as do Laure Berthaud in Spiral and Saga Norén in The Bridge).
Very small steps have also been taken to show some of these women as happy and fulfilled in their jobs, but there is still a great deal of progress to be made in this area. Moreover, the media continues to have an important role to play in how we perceive these women: do any male television characters, apart from perhaps the Doctor in Doctor Who, receive quite so much focus on their clothes?
I’m not ashamed to admit I am a fan of each and every show I’ve mentioned in this article, as are most of my female friends. We are heartened to see the greater breadth and depth in television drama, particularly when applied to female characters (though what is a ‘strong female character’? Give me real, flawed, honest, relatable women any day).
Top of the Lake has been commissioned for a second series, the fifth season of Spiral aired in France last week, and I can’t wait for the third season of The Bridge. I’m already gripped by this season of The Fall (I’ve heard there might be a chance that – shockingly – not all the victims are female), and will be looking out for Happy Valley’s return next year.
Crime dramas no longer always revel in the weakness of women. We can’t yet say they positively celebrate women’s strengths, but hopefully that day isn’t too far off.
Laura is a London-based writer, reviewer and editor with a focus on arts and culture, feminism, lifestyle and LGBT issues.