Desire is the main reason almost all TV shows are set in the cop, lawyer, and doctor arenas. These jobs give their shows a simple and repeatable desire line that tracks the episode every week. Catch the criminal. Win the case. Save the life. But of course this is extremely limiting. Most people don’t spend their daily lives solving crimes, prosecuting bad guys, and saving lives.
– John Truby
I wouldn’t call myself a fan of crime fiction. I have a grim fascination for true crime, so long as it’s done well, and if you curate your true crime well, you can achieve a fascinating insight into the human psyche, even if it doesn’t do much for your generalised misanthropy.
Related: Why Do We Love Grimdark TV? from Bitch Magazine
Since so much horribleness goes on in the real world, I’ve reached the age where I have no time for stories about men whose motivations are spurred by the torture and murder of women. I can enjoy a good crime series, but if the crime is going to be against women, I want to see a certain amount of female agency. Sometimes this agency comes from the victim/survivor herself; at other times the focus is on the women who work to solve the crimes.
In my middle age I am sick to death of stories such as True Detective, hailed as ‘dark masterpieces’ which are about the way men deal with the rapes and gruesome murders of women in their jobs, and with the nagging, unreasonable, one-dimensional wives and girlfriends in their real lives. Even a great show such as Breaking Bad unwittingly, I believe, turns female characters into annoying, nagging sidekicks. (Vince Gilligan blamed the audience for hating Skyler; after watching that series three times I’m now sure there are things he could have done, or rather plot points he could have avoided, to make the female characters more empathetic, if that’s what he’d been going for.)
Crime writers who base their plots around the murder, rape and mutilation of female bodies need to be especially careful to go out of their way to present live women as rounded individuals. FFS, it should be part of the damn contract.
The following shows are not about the murder and rape of middle aged men. Far from it. There’s still that uncomfortable link between sex and violence in here, and crime drama isn’t for everyone.
If, like me, you would like to enjoy the suspense of a good crime show but you’d only sit through slightly more female-friendly crime, here are three series for your consideration.
THE FALL (Belfast)
A lot has been said about The Fall, which is what made me watch it in the first place.
The Fall: The Most Feminist Show on Television from The Atlantic
This is a story comprising two short series, both available now on American Netflix. Gillian Anderson plays the SIO (Senior Investigation Officer) looking for a serial killer of women. From the start, the audience knows who the serial killer is. He is not the serial killer of the popular imagination. Gillian Anderson’s character has some great lines, which show she isn’t wearing the rose-tinted glasses; she knows sexism when she sees it and she calls it out. This is immensely satisfying. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it.
TOP OF THE LAKE (New Zealand)
Are you a Jane Campion fan? This is like watching a mash-up of The Piano (scenery-wise), Once Were Warriors (plot-wise) and Twin Peaks (creepiness-wise).
I predicted the outcome by episode three, but I think you’re supposed to. You’re certainly given enough clues. As I said, I’m not a crime fan, so a lot of viewers will probably work it out before I did.
Unfortunately I’m from New Zealand and Australia and Elisabeth Moss doesn’t do a fantastic job of the accent. You’d think they could find some decent local actresses, wouldn’t you? Then again, Elisabeth Moss would introduce this series to an American audience, thereby expanding it many times over. I guess this is how it works.
What makes it feminist? The drama is focused on Elisabeth Moss’s character, oftentimes on her relationship with her mother. There is also a community of battered women — a sort of cult, lead by an aged Holly Hunter — so it definitely passes the Bechdel Test. There are times, though, when I feel the scenes at the commune are unnecessarily comic. (Monkey? Did it have to be a monkey?) But that seems to be the nature of TV that’s made in my home country. Even the darkest stories inject these comic scenes which, to me, often feel out of sync with the vibe.
This show features more diversity than seems usual, too.
Double X presenters (in particular June Thomas) wondered what on earth an Australian police officer was doing, seconded into the New Zealand police force to fight a New Zealand crime. I wonder the same thing, but I’m willing to put it aside for the sake of a story.
Looks like there might be a series two coming? Season one certainly doesn’t feel entirely wrapped up.
HAPPY VALLEY (Yorkshire Valleys)
The thing that makes this a standout for a feminist audience is:
1. The drama focuses around the female police officer just as much as it focuses on the life of the male criminals.
2. Whereas in The Fall, everyone rushes around Gillian Anderson’s character because she is senior and because she needs to be listened to (also refreshing) this show very accurately depicts some of the problems with being a female working in a mostly male environment. Part of this police officer’s problems stem from the fact that she used to be a detective, but took a demotion for family reasons (also relatable to many women), and is struggling to work under people who have vocational deficiencies.
3. The main confidante of Lancashire’s character is her sister. (Cue: Bechdel.)
4. The main character is far from perfect. (Watching a martyr would be unrelatable.)
5. The characters on here are dealing with things that romanticised characters on similar shows manage to avoid, by dint of being super smart or super sexy or something. For example, the grandson is dyslexic. There is addiction in the family. There’s the family female friend dying of cancer in early middle age. There’s PTSD, which has a real effect on the main character’s behaviour. This is a level of realism that can only be achieved by understanding the real, everyday lives of women.
I absolutely loved Season One of Happy Valley and Season Two was just as good.
THE KILLING (Copenhagen or Seattle)
I watched the AMC version set in Seattle, but I have it on good authority that the Danish version upon which it is based is just as good if not better. (It should be more of a surprise that the American adaptation is as good as it is, I guess.)
This show is still about the murder of a young woman. Sex and violence are still linked at the grassroots level.
But to balance this we do have a rounded, interesting female detective. It’s been suggested Sarah Lund/Linden is aspie — an increasingly popular trope which has also been utilised in The Bridge and its offshoots, such as The Tunnel. When you think of these female cops, think of Doc Marten. These are women who are single-minded, smart, straight-talking and damaged by something that happened in the past, wary of people. It’s a satisfying character to watch, though I note with interest that characterisations of more typically female outworkings of autism level one are still very much lacking on TV.