Woman, Subject: The Fall Is The Feminist Crime Show We've Been Wanting


Call it the Netflix curse: An entire weekend spent with my eyes transfixed on the television, consuming episode after episode of The Fall, a show about a murderer, a detective and the crimes that draw them together. It’s a bleak series—full of ugly, sad things that are only made more grim by the rainy Belfast backdrop. At times, it feels like too much to bear, but, just as I get overwhelmed, in walks Gillian Anderson, absolutely luminous as the cool and sharp DSI Stella Gibson. “Would you like to continue watching?” Netflix asks. Yes. Yes, I would. And suddenly the whole day is gone.

The series follows Gibson, a detective from the Metropolitan Police, who is brought to Belfast to review an investigation into the death of a woman named Alice Monroe. Within days, she’s done what no one else in the Belfast police unit could do, link Monroe’s death to several other murders, and suddenly she’s the lead detective in the hunt of a serial killer.

The Fall‘s ingenious twist is that it’s not a whodunnit. The murderer, Paul Spector (played with terrifying coldness by Jamie Dornan), is identified to the audience in the first episode and the plot is as much his as it is Stella Gibson’s. The tension that drives you binge watch comes not from suspicion, but from watching Spector and Gibson’s stories as they head towards an intersection, break away from each other, and intersect again.

Anderson’s Stella is breathtaking—not because she’s beautiful (she is) or owns an endless supply of white silk blouses that never get spilled on (she does), but because she’s a brilliant detective who’s constantly treated like she’s less intelligent than her male colleagues. Never does she let such sexist disrespect pass by unremarked upon. She’s a woman in a distinctly male world, but she will not let you forget that she is more adept than every man on the squad put together.

Here’s what she has to say when a fellow detective questions her about an emotionally detached one night stand with a handsome cop:

“Man fucks woman. Subject: man; verb: fucks; object: woman. That’s OK. Woman fucks man. Woman: subject; man: object. That’s not so comfortable for you, is it?”

When a constable wants to use the word “innocent” to describe the killer’s victims—hitherto all professional and attractive brunettes in their late 20s or early 30s—in a press release, Gibson cuts him off:

“Let’s not refer to them as innocent…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? Culpable? The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores. Let’s not encourage them.”

Gibson is the type of detective who will continue to remember the women murdered as people rather than cases and, when alone, will weep for them. She’s also the type of detective who can break a man’s nose with a quick upper cut or, with calculating detachment, sit across from a dangerous criminal in an interrogation room as he hurls abuse at her. She’s smart, brave, capable and unapologetically sexual—a matinee idol for a modern-day feminist.

Some have said that The Fall—a series that’s second season arrived on Netflix this past weekend—is misogynistic, but it’s a shallow critique. While it’s true that women are frequently treated as objects or lesser in the show, they’re never treated as objects or lesser by the show. In fact, rarely has a series hit back at misogyny so relentlessly, sometimes to the point where it almost feels cruel in its portrayal of male characters, all of whom—even the most innocent—find ways to demean the women in their lives. Some do it through murder, others through underestimation, but—either way—undermining is everywhere you look.

Even when considering the lingering camera shots of the victims or the way Gillian Anderson will undresses in the soft lighting of her hotel room, it’s still hard to view The Fall as an exercise in misogyny. (If you want to make it tit for tat, it’s worth pointing out that the shots of women are no more gratuitous than the frequent scenes in which Jamie Dornan—a real-life former underwear model—strips down to boxer briefs as the camera pans slowly across his muscular body.) If anything, it’s a critique of masculinity, misogyny and all the ways that the audience is implicit in it. It’s a messy world, but, thankfully, we have Stella Gibson as our guide.

At a certain point in the plot, you might start to mistake The Fall as a twisted sort of love story. Dornan and Anderson are both striking in their beauty and, despite never being on camera together, they have a palpable chemistry as they get deeper and deeper into one another’s heads. It’s not a perception that showrunner Allan Cubitt let’s you get away with—at least not comfortably. When one detective suggests that Gibson might be fascinated with the killer to the point of sexual attraction, she replies with the patient weariness of a woman who’s been expecting this question all along:

“A woman, I forget who, once asked a male friend why men felt threatened by women. He replied that they were afraid that women might laugh at them. When she asked a group of women why women felt threatened by men, they said, ‘We’re afraid they might kill us.’ He might fascinate you. I despise him with every fiber of my being.”

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them” is a Margaret Atwood quote that comes up a lot in feminist discussions, but rarely is it stated so plainly on a mainstream television show. It’s particularly remarkable for the crime genre, a genre typically plagued with deaths of women who are never given true identities and the gruff male detectives who take over their stories.

And therein lies the beauty of The Fall. While women are often victimized for senseless reasons (much as they are in real life), they’re given an advocate—a strong female advocate—who will never strip them of their complexities. Stella Gibson knows their fears, their joys and the right they had—the right that was taken from them—to live their lives free from violence or aggression.

It’s unclear whether or not there will be a third season (so far, all signs point to “MAYBE“), but what’s clear is that The Fall, in a mere eleven episodes, has accomplished what most shows fail to do over the course of several seasons. It’s created rich and complex characters, woven a most intriguing plot and presented the homogenous world of crime and murder drama with something completely (and depressingly) novel—the female perspective. And what an amazing perspective it is.

Image via BBC

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