Drama in the dock: does The Fall glamorise rape and violence against women?
Annie McLaughlin is the winner of the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women bursary. She will be writing articles for our media partner, the Sunday Herald, around the topics of violence against women and gender equality. Find out more about Annie here.
This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald on Sunday 25th September – read it here
AS the nights shorten, broadcasters are unveiling their autumn TV schedules, and among the most eagerly awaited dramas is the third series of BBC2’s psychological thriller The Fall. Starring Gillian Anderson as DCI Stella Gibson, the enigmatic Metropolitan Police detective on the trail of Belfast serial killer Paul Spector played by Jamie Dornan, the critically acclaimed drama has become one of the channel’s most watched of the past decade, attracting over three million viewers.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the return of a programme which – alongside other hit TV dramas such as HBO’s Game Of Thrones – has attracted opprobrium for its depiction of violence against women.
In a departure from the “whodunnit” format of traditional crime drama, Spector was revealed to The Fall’s audience as the killer almost immediately. Early episodes showed him hiding in plain sight as a seemingly devoted husband, father and professional bereavement counsellor, with scenes of him plotting and carrying out sadistic sexual attacks and murders juxtaposed with cosy domestic vignettes. Over two series, his double life unravelled as Gibson closed in, their deadly game of cat and mouse culminating in a cliffhanger which saw Gibson cradling a potentially fatally wounded Spector in her arms.
Series three’s much awaited first episode, screening this Thursday, sees Spector fighting for his life in hospital while Gibson clings to the hope that he will survive to be tried and convicted for his crimes.
However, along with rave reviews, The Fall has attracted criticism for prolonged scenes of the stalking, torture and murder seen through the killer’s eyes, which some argued were at worst a glamorisation and sexualisation of the degradation and killing of women in the name of entertainment.
Critic Terence Blacker accused the first series of presenting scenes of abuse and killing of women “as an intense sexual experience, at the excitingly taboo end of things”, albeit “without any crudely explicit detail”.
Eyebrows were also raised at the casting of ex-underwear model Jamie Dornan as Spector and his subsequent turn as sadomasochistic “sex symbol” Christian Grey in Fifty Shades Of Grey. While The Fall can perhaps take credit for reminding viewers that violent, murderous men can also be handsome and charming, it’s perhaps telling that even Dornan himself has made the link between the two roles, joking that with one job following another, he’d had “seven months straight of tying up women”.
The Fall’s writer Allan Cubitt says he finds accusations that his work sexualised violence against women “personally insulting”, claiming that they affected him so much that he was forced to consult with his 22-year-old daughter on whether he should pay them any mind. She assured him that he should not.
Series one certainly featured several drawn-out scenes of women being tortured and strangled, the camera watching unflinchingly from above as they struggled against Spector and his restraints and lingering over their half-naked bodies in rooms lit like soft porn sets as he arranged and photographed them after death.
Cubitt says critics miss the point – that The Fall’s stance is one of a “particular criticism of patriarchy and the way male violence sits in the patriarchy”. He claims that “the most violent” act we actually see Spector commit is against another man.
Cubitt’s is certainly not the only big drama facing charges of irresponsibly presenting violence against women. In particular, Game Of Thrones has been accused of excessive sexual violence against its female characters.
Many fans and critics finally lost patience with the show after an episode depicted the brutal rape of central character, Sansa Stark. They saw the scene as both gratuitous and inappropriate in its point of view, since it did not feature in the books on which the show is based.
Gary Davey, managing director of content at Sky (whose Sky Atlantic channel hosts Game Of Thrones in the UK) dismissed such criticism as “nonsense”. Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg attempted to defend the show claiming that sexual violence is not merely used as a lazy plot device, but that “rape and denial of sexual autonomy” is central to the narrative and what the story is actually about.
Central to the debate over misogynistic violence on the small screen is the question of artistic licence versus the responsibility of dramatists.
Some argue that it’s the very prevalence of gender-based violence in society that makes it an important topic for drama. Critic Michael Deacon claimed that by “criticising The Fall and its kind, we’re focusing on the wrong problem. If TV drama abounds with terrorised women, that doesn’t mean it’s hackneyed or cheap. It means it’s true to life. And if it’s graphically disturbing – well, so it should be. There’s no way to make palatable the truth about what men do to women”.
Professor Karen Boyle, Co-Director of the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies and Chair in Feminist Media Studies at the University of Stirling, points out that “the representation of violence against women on television is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. When it’s handled well, it can allow viewers who are experiencing abuse to recognise that they are not alone and even encourage them to seek help”.
The big question of course is: how far should we expect writers to actively fight violence against women? The primary purpose of drama, after all, is to entertain and enthral, and storytellers have a long history of inflicting brutality and murder upon both their female and male characters as a sure-fire way of raising the stakes in their dramas and the adrenaline of their audiences.
Writers and directors of television drama may rightly point out that they are not journalists but storytellers and that they cannot afford to club audiences over the head with a particular social message at the risk of interrupting the flow of a narrative. Viewers are adept at recognising when social commentary has been shoehorned into a plot line and are likely to switch off, either literally or emotionally, when it happens.
However, dramatists are as capable as journalists of both reinforcing and challenging myths and problematic attitudes towards gender-based violence when they choose to feature it in their work. Surely, therefore, they share a certain amount of power and responsibility to contribute to the fight to stamp it out?
What can writers of drama series do, then, to avoid sensationalising, glamorising or minimising violence against women in their work while at the same time paying due attention to the need to enthral and entertain rather than lecture audiences? Boyle recognises that crime drama deals in thrills, shock and intrigue but highlights the high female body count in many series as a particular issue, commenting that when audiences are drawn into a game of guessing which woman will die next, those women become little more than disposable plot devices. She cites Danish drama The Killing, which explores the investigation into a single murder and its ramifications, particularly on the victim’s family, as evidence that good crime drama does not need a conveyor belt of dead women.
Similarly, while dramatists should not need to deny that there are often sexual elements to male violence, they can avoid suggesting that sex rather than misogyny are the motivations for such crimes. In doing so, they would not only avoid accusations of using women’s dead bodies to titillate viewers, but play an important part in increasing awareness of violence against women.
Boyle points to soap operas, whose timescale allows them to expose and explore the serial nature of men’s violence against women over a long period in a way that often seems to be a challenge for writers of drama series, who may have as few as six episodes in which to develop and resolve plots and sub plots.
Producers of serial drama could learn from shows such as BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers. It was widely praised by domestic abuse charities for its treatment of a recent storyline which concluded with character Helen Titchener being found not guilty of the attempted murder of her abusive husband Rob.
Allan Cubitt’s reaction to accusations that The Fall serves to reinforce Paul Spector’s misogynistic worldview may suggest that series three is unlikely to mollify his critics. With Spector incapacitated, however, the show would now have an opportunity to take a break from the killing to explore and potentially answer some of the criticisms which have been made against it.
There are some signs in episode one that Cubitt may have taken this on board, including an explicitly anti victim-blaming speech that Stella Gibson gives to the husband of Rose Stagg, one of Spector’s surviving victims, in which she gently but unequivocally berates him for suggesting that Rose was somehow complicit in her assault because she didn’t physically struggle against Spector when he abducted her.
The experience which is prioritised is still very much Spector’s, though, rather than that of the women whose lives he has taken or attempted to take. The central question of the episode is whether he will live or die and, even in his comatose state, we are granted an insight into his psyche through dreamlike sequences in which he appears caught in a tunnel between this world and another.
If The Fall could find space for less of Spector’s perverse point of view and more for how his extreme actions sit within a wider context of gender inequality and everyday violence against women, the drama could be remembered for its success in challenging pervasive but unhelpful myths around gender-based violence as much as for its carefully crafted dialogue, plot twists and the committed performances of its lead actors. The jury, so far, remains out.
The Sunday Herald is the media partner for this year’s Write to End Violence Against Women Awards. The awards celebrate high quality writing around violence against women. The awards are organized by Zero Tolerance and supported by Engender, NUJ Scotland, White Ribbon Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Everyday Victim Blaming, Women 50:50, Rape Crisis Scotland, Women for Independence and the Scottish Refugee Council. The closing date for submissions is September 30. For more information visit https://writetoendvaw.com/how-to-enter/