“Die to Yourself”: The 21st Century Feminist Crime Drama’s Dream of Justice

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The Fall

Image Credit: BBC Two

“Thirteen bodies, all female, 11 white, two Asian-looking, all between the ages of maybe 20, 30, all very dead.”
“If they were alive, they’d be illegals and that would mean Immigration. But they’re dead, so they’re cargo.”

This exchange between two cops on The Wire epitomizes a particular strain of sexism common to contemporary crime dramas featuring male leads (see also The Shield, True Detective): a backdrop consisting of anonymous women’s corpses against which portraits of nuanced, instrumental, and primarily male law enforcement agents are painted. If these shows acknowledge the entrenched misogyny of the criminal justice system at all, they do so with a resigned shrug. Or—worse—a deluded wink, as in the episode of The Wire when Detective McNulty (the show’s lead, played by Dominic West) busts a brothel and ends up having sex with some of the workers, much to his colleagues’ amusement.

As if summoned by a coven of disgruntled feminist cultural critics, three recent crime dramas scrapped the troubled-pussy-hound archetype in favour of tough, righteously angry women investigators with firsthand experiences of the violence faced by the girls and women for whom they advocate. Created by Sally Wainwright in 2014, Happy Valley follows Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a police sergeant in a small West Yorkshire town, as she attempts to track down the assailant of’ an unprosecuted sexual assault that led to her daughter’s suicide. In Allan Cubitt’s The Fall (2013­-2014), Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) leads the investigation into a Belfast serial killer of women who eventually becomes obsessed with her. And Jane Campion and Gerrard Lee’s Top of the Lake (2013) features Detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) as a child cases specialist consulting on the disappearance of a twelve-year-old girl who has been sexually assaulted in rural New Zealand, leading to the discovery of a child prostitution ring. Collectively, these shows explore both the crime drama and law enforcement as platforms for women’s empowerment, presenting their leads as fantasy feminist protectors or vengeance-seekers bound to their communities by virtue of a shared embodied vulnerability. They’re not the first television series to imagine the potential for women on the force to address institutional misogyny and sexist corruption; the BBC’s Prime Suspect (1991–2006), starring Helen Mirren, thoroughly pioneered this hypothesis. But it’s worth examining the resurgence of this motif—in each individual incarnation and collectively—to determine its strengths and limitations as a contemporary feminist narrative of justice. 

Happy Valley: The Rage of the Everywoman

Happy Valley introduces Sergeant Catherine Cawood in full uniform, responding to “an unruly male” threatening to publicly set fire to himself in her small West Yorkshire metropolitan borough. “I’m Catherine, by the way,” she says casually, attempting to calm the agitated man. “I’m 47, I’m divorced, I live with me sister who’s a recovering heroin addict, I’ve two grown up children—one dead, one who don’t speak to me, so….” Unglamorous and down to earth, Cawood is so thoroughly integrated in her community that she and her family bear the wounds of its afflictions (rampant hard drug use and the sexual violence which resulted in her daughter’s suicide). Who better than an everywoman and her cheerful, ethnically diverse colleagues to uphold the Peelian Principles upon which England’s law enforcement agencies are founded? That is, ethical community policing by consent of the public through minimal use of force.

But the local constabulary is far from a perfect institution. Its most egregious failure, according to Cawood, is a persistent indifference to violence against women, from the unprosecuted sexual assault of her daughter, to the lackadaisical investigation by her male superiors into the murder of a female constable, to the kidnapping and sexual assault of another young woman. The trauma of this unpunished violence physically haunts Cawood throughout the season: she sustains a bloody eye during a routine arrest, followed by a ruptured spleen and sprained arm during a brutal fight with her daughter’s rapist—Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who is also the kidnapper and the constable’s killer—after he discovers that Cawood has attempted to free the woman he kidnapped. With each new scar on her pleasant, middle-aged face, the sergeant’s rage grows, eventually mushrooming into violence and vigilantism. Lying in bed after sex, she fantasizes about “the exquisite satisfaction you’d get from grinding [Royce’s] severed scrotum into the mud with the underside of your shittiest shoe and then burying his worthless carcass in a shallow grave up on the moors where it can rot, undisturbed and unloved, until the end of time.”  The viewer is invited to escape into this fantasy of a competent, unwavering feminist missile, to nod in sympathy when Cawood (temporarily) resigns from the force in frustration at her supervisors’ apathy, and to pump her fist in triumph during her final showdown with Royce. There, she physically overcomes him as he attempts to set himself and her grandson on fire. She then kicks him repeatedly as he lies on the ground pleading for death. In the following scene, even Cawood’s male supervisor concedes to her righteousness, reinstating her on the force with only the gentlest of admonishments about her conduct.

As seductive as this narrative of an everywoman avenger like Cawood is, Happy Valley‘s portrayal of the police as besieged frontline community workers—and its emphasis on the vulnerability of women officers—belies the considerable power they wield. At one point Cawood lectures a young female constable about standing up to those in positions of power: “Nobody bullies you. You’re a police officer.” In actuality, it’s Cawood who is the conservative middle-class bully: committed to the war on drugs, cracking jokes with her colleagues as they shove people from the poorest part of town into the paddy wagon, and in one scene, squeezing a bystander’s crotch until he cries and referring to him as an “ignorant, rancid, infinitesimal speck of dirt.” The people she has contempt for are depicted as eternally pathetic, cowardly and downtrodden. They are placed in contrast to the wealthy white kidnap victim who fights back so aggressively when Royce interrupts her rescue that she manages to save the sergeant’s life. Happy Valley could be accused of a wholesale endorsement of “us-versus-them” punitive justice, were it not for Cawood’s sister Clare (Sioban Finneran), the former addict whose gentle, nonjudgmental interventions (including acting as a mediator during nasty conflicts between Cawood and her son and grandson) consistently reveal the toxicity of her sibling’s rage.

The final scene of the season provides no resolution to the question of whether we can celebrate the sergeant’s bloody retribution with a clear conscience. Cawood stands smiling in the sunshine after rescuing her grandson from Royce, whose brutalized body has been carted off to prison. Finally purged of her violent anger, she has paradoxically been healed by its results, and—perhaps more disturbingly—is entirely free from its repercussions.

The Fall: The Wisdom of the Sage

If Happy Valley is conflicted about wielding rage as a tool for justice—presenting it as the refuge of the everywoman—The Fall is unequivocally opposed to this strategy. It follows that Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson is no everywoman. Clad almost exclusively in pale silk blouses and possessed of an unshakeable confidence, the high-ranking English senior officer glides through the laddish Belfast police department like Galadriel, shining a cool, corrective light on the misogynist biases of her colleagues. “Let’s not refer to them as innocent,” she says when drafting a statement to the press about the women murdered by the serial killer (Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan). “What if he kills a prostitute next, or a woman walking home alone drunk late at night in a short skirt? Will they be in some way less innocent, less deserving—culpable?” Time after time Gibson prioritizes the teaching moment over anger or retribution, in one instance gently but firmly explaining to the Assistant Chief Constable (her boss) that his aggressive advances during a prior encounter constituted a sexual assault.

Despite her portrayal as a powerful sage, Gibson is not impervious to the pervasive violence against women that saturates both seasons of The Fall. During an interview with a survivor of one of Spector’s attacks, Gibson reveals a coping technique that worked for her “once upon a time”; later she is stalked by the killer, who breaks into her hotel room and reads her dream diary. Once again, the underlying premise is that membership in this communal vulnerability is what makes women officers effective ambassadors for female survivors and victims of violent crimes. Gibson takes care to ensure that the department, the public, and even Spector consider each murdered or attacked woman as a fully realized human being. “You think I’d let you get away?” she asks at the end of season one. “You try to dignify what you do, but it’s just misogyny. Age old male violence against women. For Fiona Gallagher, Alice Monroe, Sarah Kay, Annie Brawley, I won’t let you.”

Gibson’s lectures reflect a broader, recurring theme in The Fall, one which suggests that in order to achieve justice for women, societies must turn away from violence and towards the leadership of women. On multiple occasions, characters reference the Mosuo people of China, a matriarchal society free of marriage or jails, whose language “has no words for war, murder or rape.” The conclusion to the second season further emphasizes the nonviolent resistance of women: a woman kidnapped by Spector is found alive in the trunk of a car, having carved “I love” into her arm as an act of defiance. Soon after, Gibson cradles Spector in her arms after he’s been shot, trying to save his life, presumably so he will survive to face the punishment of the law. Although women certainly have an important leadership role to play in ending misogyny and gendered violence, there are a number of troubling aspects to The Fall‘s exploration of this premise.

“Why are women emotionally and spiritually so much stronger than men?” The Assistant Chief Constable asks Gibson, not long after attempting to sexually assault her. The question reveals an essentialist vision of womanhood, wherein “naturally” nonviolent women are eternally willing to patiently reeducate their male colleagues and supervisors, who in turn succumb to this womanly wisdom in quiet awe or grudging respect. In fact, Gibson’s “emotional and spiritual strength” is near-mythical, enabling her to begin dismantling centuries of institutionally entrenched sexism without any infrastructural reinforcement or policy reform. Aside from placing unrealistic expectations and burdens on individual women in law enforcement, The Fall‘s benign portrait of feminine leadership sidesteps any examination of other systemic prejudices within the department. Yet the women served by the police are almost exclusively white and middle class, and their ambassador is literally invested with the power of the Empire (Gibson is sent from London to review, and then lead, the Belfast investigation). Law enforcement in Northern Ireland is inextricably linked to British colonialism, and the relationship of the police to the community is extremely fraught—so much so that its force is the only one in Great Britain to carry guns as a matter of course—but The Fall attributes the tensions entirely to local republicans, who are presented as dangerous thugs. In fact, one of the only recurring republican characters is a domestic abuser who tracks down his wife in a shelter and is on the verge of shooting her until the approaching police sirens drive him away. In a show that painstakingly spells out its politics through Gibson’s sermons, it’s worth noting her silences on the violence inherent to policing and law enforcement’s contributions to imperialism.

Top of the Lake: The Rebellion of the Outsider

Of the three series, Top of the Lake is the most openly ambivalent about the role of police within a community. Set “at the end of the world” in rural New Zealand, a current of frontier lawlessness runs through the show. A group of women recovering from trauma live in a cluster of storage units on a remote piece of land called Paradise, seeking insight from an otherworldly wise woman with striking, waist-length silver hair named G.J. (Holly Hunter). An occasionally murderous patriarch (Matt Mitcham, played by Peter Mullan) dominates the adjacent town of Laketop by means of the drug business he operates out of his basement. The good ol’ boys at the police station charged with protecting the region are led by Detective Inspector Al Parker (David Wenham), a laid-back sheriff whose indifference to local crime conceals his involvement in running a child prostitution ring. When Mitcham’s twelve-year-old daughter Tui (Jacqueline Joe) becomes pregnant following a sexual assault, there is little hope that she will find justice in a community controlled by predators. Enter Detective Robin Griffin—a young child cases specialist on leave from Sydney to visit her sick mother after many years away from Laketop—who is called in to consult on the case.

When we first see Griffin she’s sitting in her childhood bedroom talking on the phone, wearing a tank top and jean cut-offs. For the rest of the season she continues to dress casually in denim and hoodies, her adolescent style signalling a parallel to Tui, whose experience echoes Griffin’s own sexual assault and unwanted pregnancy at age 15. The similarities between these two characters underscore Griffin’s vulnerability as a young female interloper in a town run by men. Unlike Cawood and Gibson, Griffin’s claims to authority are met with mild amusement or derision on the part of her colleagues, and she often resorts to investigating alone or relying on her civilian boyfriend for backup. Eventually she learns that the entire town knows the details of her own assault. Her humiliation fuels her anger to become—as Detective Parker calls her—”an avenging angel,” first jamming a broken bottle into the chest of one of her rapists, and eventually shooting Parker in the chest after uncovering drugged teenagers in his house. Once again Griffin’s story mirrors that of Tui, who shoots Mitcham (her own father) with a rifle when he tries to kidnap her newborn child.

While all three shows feature some form of resistance on the part of survivors and victims of violence, Top of the Lake is the only one to delve into the autonomous spaces girls and women create for themselves in defiance of patriarchal law. In a significant departure from the “rescue” narrative common to most crime dramas, Tui runs away from home and builds a shelter in the wilderness where she survives the winter and eventually gives birth unassisted—a rare cultural ode to the resilience of young girls. The series also acknowledges that women may have good reasons to resist being “rescued” by the police. When Griffin tries to convince the women who work for Mitcham to expose his drug business, one of them explains that “he pays for our medical bills, for our kids too.” Another says: “If you think you’re helping us, you’re dumb.” Later, during a visit to Paradise—another “outsider” space created by women—G.J. tells Griffin: “You people all want to help someone…. Stop your helping. Stop your planning. Give up. There’s no way out—not for others, not for you.” In the final episode, G.J. follows her own advice and walks away from Paradise, leaving Tui and Griffin to look to themselves for answers going forward. Top of the Lake is equally unwilling to propose an easy solution to the problem of combating sexual violence within communities. When the police are as predatory as the outlaws, who can challenge their authority? A high-ranking feminist detective from outside the department who closely identifies with the youth being targeted is an impossible position to recreate systemically.

While the season finales of Happy Valley and The Fall are cautiously optimistic about their feminist leads’ ability to fight the failures of the criminal justice system from within and force it to pay attention to violence against women and girls, Top of the Lake is far warier of the authority of institutions, suggesting that Griffin and Tui are best off depending on themselves. As a result, of the three shows it best reflects contemporary feminist critiques of the inherent paternalism of law enforcement (see arguments against the re-criminalization of sex work in Canada, for example) and the deployment of the police against marginalized communities and those who resist the establishment. As empowering as it can be to fantasize about ass-kicking (or ass-enlightening) feminist officers, it’s worth questioning the extent to which an institution whose mandate is fundamentally conservative can truly be radicalized, let alone radicalized by white women like Cawood and Gibson (whose experiences of gendered violence don’t offset their conservative or imperialist biases). Ultimately, narratives that focus on law enforcement as a means of ending gendered violence are rooted in a model of justice based on punishment and hierarchy rather than prevention, empowerment or healing. In Top of the Lake, G.J. counsels Griffin to “die to yourself. Die to your idea of yourself.” It may be time for the feminist crime drama to heed this advice, abandon the police procedural paradigm altogether, and imagine new narratives whose leads are activists, journalists, social workers and community organizers working towards a truly feminist model of justice.

Kathleen Kampeas-Rittenhouse is a writer and senior cléo editor from Quebec living in Toronto.

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Kathleen Kampeas-Rittenhouse is a writer and senior cléo editor from Quebec living in Toronto.