Among the notable entertainment events of late 2016 was the third season of The Fall, the British-Irish show brought to American audiences by Netflix immediately after its first airing on the BBC.
Created by writer/producer Allan Cubitt, the dark crime thriller about a female police investigator’s pursuit of a serial killer in Belfast has been justly acclaimed for its taut drama and psychological tension, its atmospheric visuals, and superb acting—especially by Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Gray) as the elusive murderer Paul Spector. But it has also been widely hailed for its feminism.
The Atlantic and Fusion dubbed it “the most feminist show on television” after the airing of Season 2 last year. And just this month, noting The Fall’s relatively low viewership, the feminist lifestyle site Bustle called it “the feminist show you weren’t watching in 2016.”
Well, I did watch The Fall in 2016, recently wrapping it up in a marathon. And I can say that while it is indeed gripping, powerful drama, it is very bad feminism. It is also a near-perfect representation of the faux-progressive brand of feminism currently dominating liberal culture.
To be sure, The Fall also has some good feminism of the equality/empowerment kind. It gives us a compelling heroine in Gibson, the senior investigator brought in from London to help with the case: a strong, smart woman in charge, completely comfortable with her authority—and with her sexuality. (Further points for having a fully sexual and strikingly sexy female character played by an actress in her late 40s.) It shows women and men on the police force working as a team, as equals bound by camaraderie and respect.
(Caution: Spoilers ahead.)
The bad news is that more often than not, when The Fall tries to be feminist, it beats the audience over the head with its gender politics. Stella periodically delivers mini-sermons so heavy-handed, she might as well be posing for the camera with an “I need feminism because…” hand-scrawled sign. She reminds a female cop, Dani (much too appealing a character to be subjected to such dialogue) that they’re working in “a masculine, paramilitary, patriarchal culture.” She educates a male colleague by invoking the Margaret Atwood-attributed quote about how men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them.
And Stella is not the only one with the “message” talk. In the season finale, a male doctor who asks her questions to test her alertness after a possible head injury asks whether men or women are stronger; when she lobs the question back to him, he replies, “Oh, women, without a doubt. In fact, it’s time you hurried up and took over. I mean, it’s going to happen, so why not get on with it?” Subtle.
Worse yet, The Fall’s gender politics are usually less about equality or even womanpower than about female victimization and male beastliness. Stella thinks all men have a bit of the sadistic stalker/strangler Paul Spector in them, and the show apparently agrees. (Cubitt has said that it suggests “a continuity between all kinds of male behavior and what Spector is doing.”) Even the feminist blog Jezebel admits that The Fall “almost feels cruel in its portrayal of male characters.” One is a wife-beating thug. Another, Stella’s colleague and still-devoted ex-lover, gets mean and aggressive when she rebuffs his drunken, pathetic advances. A third can’t get over blaming his wife for letting Paul abduct her, despite Stella’s patient, men-just-don’t-get-it explanation that submission to a mortal threat is not consent.
It’s no exaggeration to say that The Fall has a major misandrist streak. At one point, Stella even explains to her hapless ex that “the basic human form is female. Maleness is—a kind of birth defect.” But is it also misogynistic? A few critics have claimed as much. And indeed, the show’s relentless focus on female victimization, sexual violence, and women in jeopardy is precisely the sort of thing that feminists have often decried as misogyny in entertainment.
In the opening episodes, we watch Paul stalk a beautiful young woman, terrorize her by breaking into her house and laying out her lingerie on the bed—after which she is implausibly lackadaisical about safety measures—and finally attack her, tie her up, and choke the life out of her. (By then, we know from a discussion of his previous murders that he likes his strangulations slow, repeatedly stopping before the victim loses consciousness and making her agony last nearly an hour.) We watch him bathe the woman’s dead body, paint her nails red, and carefully pose her on the bed; if that sequence wasn’t eroticized enough, it’s cross-cut with Stella’s sexual tryst with a male cop. Later, we see Paul stalk and toy with his next target, who is savagely assaulted but saved by an unforeseen interruption. At one point, Stella herself becomes Paul’s potential prey as he sneaks into her hotel room and lurks in the closet; he doesn’t attack, but does leave clues that make her feel terrified and violated.
The Fall’s feminist fans have congratulated the show for refusing to glamorize its psycho killer. But that’s debatable at best. Paul is a handsome hunk whose physique is frequently ogled by the camera. He is smart and charming. He’s a loving dad who has genuinely moving scenes with his eight-year-old daughter when he’s not doing creepy stuff like giving her a victim’s necklace as a gift. He tends to have quite an effect on the ladies: even a hospital nurse who knows about his crimes seems a bit smitten with him, and there’s a teenage babysitter whose crush on him grows into obsessive worship.
Paul does intense workouts and has superior strength and agility. He is crafty and daring, brazenly using his day job as a grief counselor to chat with his surviving victim. He almost slips past a massive police manhunt near the end of the second season and is only caught because he gets waylaid by a counseling client’s jealous, violent husband (toxic masculinity saves the day!). And at the end of the third, he outwits his captors and commits suicide, arguably going out as master of his fate and thwarting Stella’s determination to have him brought to trial and locked up for life.
Speaking of which: despite her air of uber-competence, the show repeatedly undermines Stella. Her errors of judgment expose a witness to a harrowing near-fatal ordeal, then lead to a disastrously botched operation in which, among other things, Paul is gravely wounded and left possibly unfit to stand trial due to memory loss. (When a Belfast police official chews her out, Stella seems to think she’s being scapegoated by sexism; maybe we’re expected to agree, but he’s clearly right.) Finally, during an interrogation at a psychiatric hospital where Paul’s maybe-fake partial amnesia is being assessed, Stella deliberately goads him in the hope of getting him to reveal his true nature—while he sits across a table from her with no restraints. (The site TV Tropes has a name for this kind of thing: “Too Dumb to Live.”) It works so well that Paul pounces on her and pummels her into a bloody heap, requiring a rescue by six burly and patriarchal guards.
The third season thus ended with Stella beaten by Paul in more ways than one—and revealed as a deeply lonely woman who, by her own admission, has not been happy since her father died when she was a child.
Did I mention that earlier in Season 3 Stella has a dream in which Paul sensually caresses her hand while she relaxes in a bathtub by candlelight—even though, a few episodes back, she vehemently rejected the notion that she could be attracted to the killer given her revulsion at male violence toward women? And did I also mention that for all her preaching about the dynamics of sex and power, Stella has a tendency to treat colleagues and subordinates as her personal harem? At one point, she even plants a surprise kiss on a female colleague she’s set her sights on, under the pretext of warding off a male pest in a bar lounge. I’m pretty sure that under feminist rules nowadays, that’s sexual assault.
I certainly don’t mind a hero having serious character flaws and human weaknesses, or a show exploring dark themes including a twisted bond between detective and killer. But when you add gender-war feminism to the mix—the kind that sees all male-female interactions through the lens of misogyny and male abuse of women—the result is a tangle of contradictions.
The Fall is a preachy show that doesn’t practice what it preaches: Is Stella its moral voice, or is she a hypocrite with a deplorable lack of self-awareness?
At times, one is tempted to think that Cubitt was making a subversively anti-feminist show camouflaged in faux feminist rhetoric—particularly since, within the show, Paul himself easily spouts such rhetoric in his grief-counselor role. In reality, of course, it’s not deliberately anti-feminist. It is simply the product of a cultural moment in which it’s considered “feminist” to depict women as always one step away from being victimized by predatory males. Is it any wonder, then, that a feminist show can be hard to tell from a misogynist one?