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Comment: The Fall may be disturbing, but it is certainly not misogynist

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The Fall is a breathtaking, mesmerising drama series. For lovers of slow, careful, precise filmmaking it is a wondrous treat; a show that presumes its viewers are intelligent and doesn’t patronise nor pander to them. It is cool, calm, confident and at times unsettling. The two central performances, from Gillian Anderson as the detective and Jamie Dornan as the killer, anchor it perfectly and make it truly unmissable television.

However, the drama has come under attack from some viewers and critics because of its dark subject matter. Yesterday an article was published by The Observer, written by critic Rachel Cooke, that suggested the show itself was simply ‘misogyny dressed up as classiness.’

There have been other strong opinions voiced. The Daily Mail’s TV critic Christopher Stevens has called it ‘the most repulsive drama ever broadcast on British TV’ when it debuted with its record-breakingly successful first series last year. The way it deals with violence towards women has become a hot topic in the world of British television drama (even people like Dame Helen Mirren have waded in on it).

It is true, we have certainly become preoccupied of late with the idea of serial killers targeting women. The Fall is once again yet another drama about a violent sadist who kills women. The initial subject matter presents problems. Now deceased series Wire in the Blood and Waking the Dead often focused on the issue. Indeed, there were so many young women on TV being raped and tortured and left crying in dungeons, it felt like a shock when a middle aged male got stabbed. Luther is another series that has had issues in this area (an episode in its first season treated us to the horrible sight of a young woman terrorised and tortured in her own home). Lynda La Plante-helmed drama Above Suspicion devoted entire series to the truly sickening ordeals young women were put through. So yes, television has become too obsessed with such content. It has perhaps even become normalised. But – and this bit is really important – we must now move on to looking out how the subject matter is presented rather than simply moan that it is there at all. It is there. Let’s recognise the problem, but let’s not pretend that all shows that dare to show such content are supporting the acts of the killers they depict or guilty of revelling in them. What people are failing to realise is that a much stronger argument could be made out that The Fall is misandrist rather than misogynist.

Let’s think about this. Every single female character in The Fall is portrayed sympathetically. Whereas every male character is portrayed in a generally negative light. DI Stella Gibson, the lead cop, is a female and clearly inclined to think about the killer’s victims as humans rather than slabs of meat. The males, however, laugh at the victim’s internet profiles if they dare suggest they themselves enjoy sex. The idea of women being allowed to be sexually active beings without judgement or retribution is also a key topic of the show, whereas the males are shown to have a problem with this. Even if the men on Stella’s team do not exhibit overt sexism, they are incompetent or corrupt or weak. She is the strong one and her female colleagues are her confidants. The overall aim of the team is to catch a killer of women; a man who likes to terrorise his victims in their own home, do weird stuff with their underwear and lay out their sex toys on the bed, and strangle them to death.

Another problem raised by critics of the series is the fact that Jamie Dornan is a highly attractive male. Indeed, Rachel Cooke made a point of mentioning how his buttocks looked when they arrived on camera (‘we get a good, long glimpse of the tight-cheeked backside’) clad in, as she describes, ‘exactly the kind of underpants that Jamie Dornan [...] might have worn in his previous career as a model.’ She signals the fact that he is ‘devastatingly attractive’ and ‘kind to children’ as if this is evidence of the show cheering him on in his perverse behaviours. This is misguided. First, the ‘good, long glimpse’ of his ‘tigh-cheeked’ buttocks is nowhere near as exciting as it seems to Ms Cooke. I’ve seen the upcoming episode and I can tell you it is very hard to make out much of Dornan’s backside in the shot, since the room is dark and his boxers are black. Speaking of his underpants, Ms Cooke may feel they are too close to the underwear Dornan has previously modelled but actually look like just general run-of-the-mill black boxers you might pick up in Tesco. In actual fact, the Dornan’s sexual attractiveness is only ever highlighted to show how he tries to manipulate people – like a vulnerable and naive 15-year old babysitter and an aggressive though insecure young man. He demonstrates how men have for years used their bodies as a form of agency in their quest to dominate women and intimidate other men. If anything, this is a harsh attack on traditional notions of masculine behaviour rather than an attempt to make a misogynist killer seem hot and desirable to audiences.

The creator, writer and (for series two) director of the show is a man (the amazingly talented Alan Cubitt). Perhaps, knowing this, it seems unlikely that the show is man-hating. Though I have argued that it could be seen this way, I don’t think it is. I am just demonstrating how an accusation of misogyny may not hold water when approached from a completely different angle. Mr Cubitt has had to defend the series and explained in a piece for The Guardian that ‘having a female protagonist made it possible to articulate, through her, various ideas about male violence against women that seemed important.’ As he says, using words he gave his character Stella in the show, Stella is not going to be bought off with ideas that what the killer does is somehow mysterious or ambiguous: ‘It's just misogyny – age-old male violence against women.’  This scene, when she spoke this line to the killer on the phone in the finale of series one, was one of the most powerful in the entire series, and it really made it clear that this drama is anti-violence and anti-hatred. By making the two lead characters work against each other – then meet, in a sense, during one of the final scenes, this overall was hammered home. The Fall is not just about one killer. It is about a patriarchal society that has allowed misogyny to become endemic. By shining this harsh and painful light up to our faces it is bound to make people try to shield their eyes. But accusing The Fall of being misogynist or attempting to make violence look sexy is to miss the point entirely. It is actually one of the strongest and most dedicated forces against misogyny you will find on television today.

The Fall is showing on BBC Two & BBC Two HD on Thursdays and is available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Series 2 will be available on Netflix USA from January. Watch the trailer below: 

Portions of this article have appeared on 

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