The Great Hope of TV’s Female Crime-Stoppers

by Zan Romanoff

no one ever suspects a book club

I don’t remember how or why I first started descending into Law & Order afternoons, letting bright days slip by in the darkness of my parents’ den with the curtains drawn. I was seventeen or eighteen — a few years before Netflix made marathoning a known verb and acceptable pastime; all I knew was that the show was hypnotic, and USA never aired fewer than three in a row.

It didn’t occur to me that my particular taste for SVU, the sex crimes spinoff in the franchise, was messed up until I moved east and spent a summer living in New York. There I watched episodes on my friends’ parents’ cable, and then took the subway home, alone, making my way through the neighborhoods I had just watched flash by on screen. I had taken just enough literary theory courses my freshman year of college to explain it to myself: that I was actually soothing my anxiety by watching stories about rape in which things came out right, and justice was mostly served in the end. For many years that explanation was enough.

The problem with sex crimes shows — a genre that stretches far beyond SVU’s fifteen seasons — is not a new one. Stories about rape that center around the search for justice suggest that narratives begin when women’s bodies are violated like objects, and end when men punish the perpetrator. All hail Olivia Benson: she is SVU’s only female cop.

In the last few years, though, television has stumbled onto a way to unsettle that kind of story, giving it pathos and resonance in the simplest possible reversal: by making all of the police women, whose mere physical presence in the narrative stands in stark, blessed contrast to the silent, still bodies of the girls whose lives and deaths they are called on to investigate.

Sometimes the women have been victims of similar crimes: Top of the Lake opens with detective Robin Griffin returning to her tiny hometown of Laketop, New Zealand, where men who gang-raped her as a teenager still hang out in the local bar. “I know you from somewhere,” one of them says to her. Robin stabs him with a shard of broken glass.

Top of the Lake is an otherwise quiet show, replete with scenic shots of the New Zealand bush; it is a careful excavation of the fury and hurt and grief that roil beneath still surfaces and idyllic pictures. This scene, though, is harrowing not just because of the sudden physical violence, but because of the emotional moment that underpins it: the rapist fucked some woman years and years ago, and walked away and was given the privilege of forgetting about it. Robin has lived in the aftermath every day since. She will never forget his face, but he never even learned hers.

It could seem like a cheap gimmick — making the detective a victim to weaken her, and make her sympathetic, and more likely to crack as the investigation unravels. But I appreciate the way that foregrounding women in rape narratives points out that the crime is one with a long reverberation, not just in one person’s life but throughout our entire culture. It reminds us that there are living victims: rape acts on a body, but it affects a person. And there is something specific and beautiful and brave about the way all of these women acknowledge that there is horror in the world, and some of it is aimed at them simply because they are women, and they do not let that stop them.

In The Bletchley Circle, a BBC miniseries, none of the women have been raped — or if they have been, it doesn’t come up on-screen. They are also not detectives. They are four women who worked as high-level code-breakers during the second World War, and then retired to their homes after it, as women are supposed to do. When a pattern-making serial killer picks off three women in London and the police are ineffective, they take matters into their own hands.

The first series, which focuses on a killer who tortures, murders and then rapes his victims, doesn’t end well: it sacrifices the heroines it’s built up as smart and resilient for needless suspense and drama in its final minutes. But that doesn’t diminish the joy of watching the beginning, in which a handful of very British women very Britishly find a way to work around the obstinate men they’ve been saddled with, personally and professionally. They cover up their murder-solving circle by pretending it’s a book club.

My favorite of this genre, though, is The Fall, which has Gillian Anderson escaping her history of playing the perpetual victim of The X-Files’ rape/kidnap/seduce plots to become the cool-headed detective investigating yet another serial rapist and murderer. (This time, in that order.)

The Fall doesn’t stop at Anderson, though: it populates its world with all kinds of women: the pathologist, and the young cop, and the rapist’s wife, and daughter, and teenage babysitter, and his victims, before they’re victims. His name is Paul. We get to see the effect his depravity has on his family and community, instead of just acting it out on a silent, unconscious female body.

When there are only one or two women on a show, they become tokens, defined by their gender in everything they do. The Fall’s most startling scene intercuts Gillian Anderson’s Stella having casual, voluntary sex with images of Paul bathing one of his victims. In so many of these shows, sex and violence get mixed up without much effort: we’re so used to being titillated by the screen that we never stop to examine what it is exactly about these rape narratives we find so compelling, except that they’re satisfying, when they’re through.

The scene as The Fall plays it gives you the constant, skin-crawling reminder that you’re sitting and staring at women’s bodies, reveling in your own power over them, the way you can tune into their stories and then tune out again when the image doesn’t interest you any longer. The way you, too, can walk away from them when you start to get bored.

Zan Romanoff just really loves television. She works, lives and writes in Los Angeles.