BBC’s “The Fall” Takes On Violence Against Women

In the final episode of series two of BBC’s popular and much discussed “The Fall,” Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (played perfectly and powerfully by Gillian Anderson) tells this story to a younger male detective she’s bedded:

“A woman, I forget who, once asked a male friend why men felt threatened by women. He replied that they were afraid women might laugh at them. And she asked a group of women why women felt threatened by men. They said, ‘We’re afraid they might kill us.’”

The anecdote, often attributed to Margaret Atwood, is the perfect capstone to a series—like so many others on television—all about killing women.

“The Fall” is just the latest in a long line of television shows documenting the real violence women face everyday while also participating in our society’s fascination with dead women’s bodies featured on programs like “Law & Order: SVU,” “Luther,” “Criminal Minds,” and true crime shows like “Dateline.” These are the types of portrayals that are at first look accurate, but on second glance, objectifying by generalizing all women as potential victims of murder, sexual assault, domestic violence, and the like. Particularly when the only women of consequence on the show are literally—rather than written as such—cold and lifeless.

[In a sort of meta comment on this, the serial killer on “The Fall,” Paul Spector (played by Jamie Dornan, who is much more brilliant as a psycho sexual murderer than as a psycho sexual deviant in “50 Shades of Grey”), squares off with the camera yelling, “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick sh*t. What the f*ck is wrong with you?” at the end of one of his homemade torture tapes.]

Out of this prestigious television lineage, this new show featuring a whip smart and sexually attractive lead investigator, has emerged with a steadfast reputation as the “most feminist on television.” At The Atlantic, Amy Sullivan writes that it is Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson’s authority, her sexual impropriety, her faults, and her lack of work/life balance that make the character and the show a powerful ally to female-friendly TV. Other publications hail her never-subtle condemnation of the old [male] guard or her commitment to give voice to her female victims as proof of the show’s card carrying membership to the Feminist — with a capital F — vanguard. (It’s seriously such a good show. Go watch it).

I don’t disagree with any of these points even if I find the successful, strong, ambitious, sexy woman trope to be a little trite and tired. Instead, I think the show’s radical approach to the female killing crime genre stems from its clear cut view on violence against women, posited with the use of Margaret Atwood’s chilling quote. Anywhere you look, you can find a show about a maniacal male headcase killing women for sport and for pleasure until the good guy—who would never and could never do such things—finally catches up with the evil-doer.

“The Fall” does one better. Instead of presupposing violence against women—like that of serial killer Paul Spector or any other character who beats his wife—is the work of one madman or one chemically imbalanced sicko bent on destroying female life, the show and Stella Gibson understand that such deeds exist in a larger framework of degree and culture. The show understands that Paul Spector, with his unbridled hatred for women is the rule and not the exception.

The greatest case for this is the show’s serial killer himself. His victims are all professional women of average intelligence who have achieved more in life than him. They are happier than him and more successful than him, and worse still, they are females who have dared these achievements. His intent is not unlike that of Elliott Rodger, who killed six people in 2014 to punish women for rejecting him and the sexually active men who partook in pleasures he was not granted. But still, even with murder as his aim, Spector is not the insane or acting out of some kind of lone motive. It isn’t a God complex as he would present, but rather, as Detective Gibson tells him, “misogyny—age old violence against women.”

And then there’s the other men in the show. The men who aren’t serial killers, but aren’t the saviors of women like think they are. Particularly, there’s Jim Burns, Stella’s superior and apparent former lover, who questions her safety, her well-being, and her sexual actively like a hovering father or puffed up macho man who just can’t believe a lady can take care of herself throughout the two series long investigation. This obsessive attention culminates in series two of the investigation when Burns becomes overwhelmed with the desire to bed Stella. A near sexual assault occurs before Gibson defends herself, breaking his nose and proving that her former paramour wasn’t quite the protector he fancied himself.

“The Fall” has a radical approach to feminism that doesn’t display itself through the obvious feminine wiles of red nail varnish on the capable fingertips of a female detective. Instead, the show’s approach to equality paints both men—the killer and the condescender—with one brush. Stella Gibson dares to value women’s lives and assert that the same hatred that propels men to kill and strangle finds a seed in even the tiniest acts of aggression or control over women’s bodies, like that of Burns’.

When Burns, her would-be assailant, confronts her later on, clinging to his protector role and his belief that men like Paul Spector are monsters, Stella Gibson shuts him down. “Men like Spector are all too human… He’s not a monster. He’s just a man.”

Why are women afraid of men? Well, we already know the answer.

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