Re-Appraising the Television Heroine:
Scott and Bailey, The Politician’s Husband, The Fall, Top of the Lake, The Americans
Over the past few months I’ve found myself engaged with television heroines once again.[ii] The ‘Television for Women’ conference at University of Warwick in May threw up lots of examples of women on and off the screen who might fulfil such a role and Charlotte Brunsdon spoke with insight about the changes that have taken place in the representation of the female police detective, now that she’s become a standard feature of British television fiction. In the last few months, also, I’ve been watching a number of high profile dramas with strong female leads being screened on British mainstream television. They included a successful third series of Sally Wainwright and Diane Taylor’s Scott and Bailey, continuing with two controversial serials on BBC2, The Fall by Allan Cubitt and The Politician’s Husband by Paula Milne, and culminating, for the moment at least, with Top of the Lake an international co-production written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee which was the first television series to premiere at Sundance and in the UK was screened on BBC2. And then, as Top of the Lake was drawing to a close, a review of Breaking Bad by Rebecca Nicholson complained that ‘its women are underwritten characters who only exist as plot-enabling satellites to the men’ and suggested that it had failed the Bechdel test: ‘To pass, a show must have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something besides a man’.[iii] So all of this got me thinking about how the television heroine has been changing and what I felt about those that were being offered this year. What is it I’m looking for in a television heroine?
Out of the four series I’ve chosen here Scott and Bailey was the most conventional and in some ways the most female-orientated perhaps connected to the fact that this was the only programme with all eight episodes created by, written by and directed by a woman, an extraordinary achievement even now. It mixed up, in soap fashion, the personal lives of the characters, including the completely chaotic love life of Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones) and her consequent falling out with her best friend and colleague Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp). While the two investigators have to deal with horrible crimes including family abuse and murder, the tone is set by the warmth between the two women and the viewer is engaged with the events of their friendship as much as with the crimes they are investigating. The pace is dictated by this as much as by the investigation. In the manner of soap characters, Scott and Bailey check things out with each other and use the gaps in the detective narrative (time spent in the car, walking up to the crime scene, hanging about the office) to gossip, laugh together and to work through a major falling out. Cagney and Lacey hangs over this but this female interaction is now normal, instinctive and recognized by others as an asset in their work. It’s important that Scott and Bailey are professional, even through the hangovers and quarrels, and that being professional can accommodate female solidarity. It is striking that at various points, we see that the whole investigation is being conducted by women: Scott and Bailey are overseen by their boss (Amelia Bullmore) who is being given orders by her boss (Gabrielle Reidy). This female dominance doesn’t smooth over the anxieties and resentments which are routine in such a hierarchical situation but the presentation of such a female work group as normal and effective is still unusual enough to notice.
By contrast, The Politician’s Husband and The Fall presented women who were much more isolated and lacked the easy rapport of Scott and Bailey. As they were screened, both programmes were caught up in a debate about how women, sex and violence were represented on screen. For myself, I felt that the representation of the brutal sex inflicted by the husband on his wife Freya (Emily Watson) – the subject of discussion on Women’s Hour – was a credible outcome of his anger that she had ‘betrayed’ him and overtaken him in the drive to the top. But overall, Freya seemed a thin character and her story seemed to be overwhelmed by the current tendency in the media to present all politicians as cunning, corrupt, and self-serving. The Fall was more complex. Initially I deeply resented being put into the position of the serial killer. This is now a commonplace of crime fiction but the brilliant camera work and mise-en-scene made it more oppressive here and the series certainly offered the opportunity for the audience, like the killer, to linger over the posed bodies of the female victims. My unease was reinforced initially by the glacial impassiveness of the heroine D. S. Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson). But gradually it becomes clear that Gibson’s approach is not only professional but humane. She has learnt how to talk to people not in the empathetic manner which Scott and Bailey use but in a calm, considered and composed way. She seeks to know them – the failed policeman as well as the bereft father – and she lets them know that she is using techniques based on her professional experience and training. She is just better than anyone else. But here too we get a female team, a private one that Gibson puts together and draws on as she wins the loyalty of both her junior, the Patrol Officer Danielle Ferrington (Niamh McGready) and her fellow professional, Professor Tanya Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi), the female pathologist.
So, it would appear that what I am seeking from these heroines is professionalism and female solidarity based on personal as well as professional respect. Because of that I’m not going to dwell on Top of the Lake. I know that there are lots of reasons why Robin (Elisabeth Moss) seemed to stumble blindly around the case and had to be rescued (was it three times?) by her boyfriend who was, of course, the son of the chief suspect. And I know that her approach to police procedures was meant to contrast with the (corrupt) male methods of her boss. And I know, buried in the past, were reasons why she seemed so out of touch with her dying mother (who was, after all, the reason for her visit) and was able to forget her death so quickly. But I don’t think Wainwright and Taylor would let her get away with such stuff, however beautiful the visual organisation and however mythic the themes.
But the surprise of the summer was somewhere else. I’d been recording the US drama, The Americans, which is being screened by ITV on Saturday nights. I’d watched the first episode but then let it lapse. But in catching up recently (I’m only on episode 6), I’ve discovered a new television heroine. Set during the during the Cold War period in the 1980s, The Americans features Phillip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) as KGB spies who arrived in the US as newly weds and have built up the perfect facsimile of a suburban Washington life which provides cover for the missions, including murder, they undertake at the behest of their minders. For the heroine, it’s a brilliant premise because it turns the apparently perfect marriage against itself. Here she is, in the suburbs, apparently loyal to her husband and committed to motherhood and apple pie. But really she is a more than equal partner in a marriage which is dictated by politics rather than romance. As a KGB agent, she is intelligent, brave, resourceful, ruthless and passionate and, in order for the series to keep going, its makers have to get her out of the house and put these qualities to use in a lethal game of cat and mouse with the FBI. In terms of credibility, this series probably has as many holes as Top of the Lake and I’m not sure how long the pure intensity of Elisabeth’s character can be retained but for the moment, she has re-energized the family/work dilemmas of so many female dramas and made us realize that it pays to be alert, even when chopping onions.
Christine Geraghty is Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Glasgow. She has published extensively on film and television with a particular interest in fiction and form. Her publications include Women and Soap Opera (Polity, 1991); Now a Major Motion Picture Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and Bleak House (BFI, 2012). She is on the editorial board of the Journal of British Cinema and Television and the advisory boards of a number of journals, including Adaptation, CST and Screen.
[i] See also, for example, Sophie Mayer, Political Animals. The New Feminist Cinema. (London & New York: I B Tauris); Deborah Jermyn ‘Silk blouses and fedoras: The female detective, contemporary TV crime drama and the predicaments of postfeminism.’ Crime, Media, Culture. (3rd February 2016. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1741659015626578).
[ii] I use the term ‘heroine’ deliberately, even though (as with the ‘actor’/’actress’ distinction) ‘hero’ or possibly ‘female hero’ might now be deemed the more acceptable usage.