In an article in the Guardian (and a Radio 4 documentary) the actor Doon Mackichan has criticised what she calls “crime porn” – the use of “brutalised women as entertainment fodder”.
She’s singled out The Fall for particular criticism and I am at something of a loss to understand why.
Of course, if crime fiction is only a direct representation of reality, we might expect to read and watch more about male victims. Men are more likely to be the victims of violence than women, as well as far more likely to be the perpetrators.
Yet the drama is about a serial killer, Paul Spector. The story itself focuses on so much more than the victims. We see Spector’s family life and his relationship with his wife and daughter. We see some clues from his personal history to suggest why he is violent. And we see the way the teenage babysitter has become obsessed with him, even knowing what he is. And most of all we see Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of DSI Gibson… On the surface cool and calm and independent – she is clearly both fascinated and repelled by Spector. In much the same way that the audience is.
Calling it “crime porn” suggests the reason for watching is pure titillation. I don’t see it that way. I think we are fascinated by this kind of crime not because it turns us on, gives us a sexual thrill, but because we have an urge to understand. According to Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal (read about it here) we humans are addicted to story as a matter of survival. It’s how we learn to be human. It’s how we try out different ways of being without taking too many risks.
Women are both writers and readers of crime fiction, and disproportionately so. We not only identify with the victim – women are aware of the risks of sexual violence, after all…. but in crime fiction we also get to identify with the protagonist. We get to explore our feelings about vulnerability and power in a safe way. And in fiction we find a resolution that doesn’t always happen in real life.
But fiction does reflect life. The babysitter’s obsession with Spector in The Fall reminds me of the way so many women become obsessed with killers. The Guardian has reported that Ian Huntley – the soham murderer – gets bundles of fan mail. Even Charles Manson has never been short of female admirers – although apparently the last one who wanted to marry him (Afton Burton) was hoping to get access to his body as a tourist attraction, which at least is different…
Meanwhile we live in a world where a man who apparently has a real chance of becoming President of the United States has been caught on tape talking about how his fame allows him to grab women by the pussy. Egged on by Billy Bush, George W’s cousin. It has been excused by some as “locker room banter”, although now Trump has issued a half hearted apology – which makes him seem sorry mostly for being caught, and where he has excused himself by saying he’s heard worse from Bill Clinton. And it wasn’t banter – it was a direct confession of actual sexual assault.
The really interesting part about this “revelation” about Trump, though, is that it’s a recording from 2005. That means that it’s been available all that time – and we know there was a case for sexual assault filed against him back in 1997. Yet only now has it been made public. It’s almost as if whatever happens to individual women doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?
That’s why we need fiction to explore these issues. Because fiction is our way of challenging reality.
Perhaps if there’d been a Stella Gibson for me to identify with as a teenager, I’d have fought back and not just meekly accepted being groped by my first boss. I might not have felt it was somehow my fault. I’d perhaps have had a chance to imagine a different way of interpreting the silence of the other girls who worked in the newsagents, and the sympathy for his wife – who looked the other way while her husband preyed on the young female staff. Perhaps I’d have found the courage to knee him in the balls – like I did to the next guy who tried it on. If I’d seen a fictional portayal of sexual assult, I might have been able to rehearse possible responses in the safety of imagination, rather than being frozen in shock.
It’s not stories that hurt us. It’s reality.
Here’s the radio documentary – Body Count Rising