“The Fall was so confusing, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be murdered or not.”
That was the tongue-in-cheek text I got from a friend after she belatedly viewed The Fall. So, weeks into the important societal debate about women’s safety, a woman was fixated on the attractiveness of a fictional TV character who also happened to be a sexual predator and a serial murderer of women. With Netflix also announcing a third season of You, is it time to stop glorifying, and stylising, sexual predators on television? Or, should we accept television as escapist entertainment and ignore the confusing reactions these characterisations may provoke in us?
For those unfamiliar with the series, The Fall is a crime drama that ran from 2013 to 2016; now also streaming on Netflix. It stars Jamie Dornan as fictional serial killer Paul Spector, and Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson, a senior investigating police officer.
When first aired, The Fall received some criticism for how it portrayed a serial killer, with people asking whether the programme glamorised rape and violence. An article in The Guardian commented: “The Fall is still in the business of glamorising violence against women by equating it not only with sex but with sexual attractiveness.” The Fall does not glamorise the actual violent or sexual acts – many scenes have subtle references to what is happening rather than graphic depictions. But, part of the issue with the series is in its casting. Jamie Dornan cannot help his looks, but using a former model to act out the sexual fetishes of a serial killer risks influencing the viewers’ moral compass.
Is it right that some of the audience feel torn as to whether to root for a misogynist due to his physical attractiveness? There may be a case for arguing that being attractive is part of the requirement of being a successful predator, but the fact that the series emphasises it makes it feel like titillation. Though The Fall tries to redeem itself with good characterisations for women, even that is eventually undone, as Anderson’s strong single woman slowly starts to become obsessed with Spector. Herein lies another problem; the obsession may be about seeing justice done, but there is enough ambiguity for it to feel like sexual tension.
The Fall is not alone in using an attractive lead to play a character with obsessive and violent tendencies towards women. In You, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a book store owner, becomes infatuated with aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), with increasingly devastating consequences. Once again, clever writing draws the audience into a situation where it is easy to be gaslit into believing that Joe is misunderstood or acting out of love. There are tender moments where the viewer wants a happy ending for Joe and Guinevere. Those with a sense of right and wrong know that the behaviours displayed by Joe are obsessive, controlling and violent. He doesn’t deserve his happy ending, so is it right that the writers managed to weave a narrative that messes with our moral barometer? Even Badgley took to his social media channels to remind people that they shouldn’t be romanticising his character.
Unlike The Fall, season two of You did introduce some balance into the moral dilemma facing the audience by focusing more on Joe’s victims, so viewers start to see him more for who he truly is. Additionally, You achieves greater balance by introducing an attractive female sociopath, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). It is an interesting approach: redress the emotional conflict the viewer faces by making them sympathise with one attractive sociopath over another. While season two of You is much weaker, it works because the storyline does feel far more like a fantasy. Though he is just as predatory and misogynistic as ever, there is less romanticisation of the handsome male character.
The moral mind-twist trick isn’t limited to productions featuring male sexual predators. A Teacher employs it to great effect. Starring Kate Mara as a predatory female teacher, Claire Wilson, the series focusses on her sexual relationship with Eric Walker (Nick Robinson), a seventeen year-old student. Once again, we see an attractive lead in a role that covers a serious subject; in this instance, grooming by a sexual predator. As in You, the story draws in the viewer with romantic scenes so that, occasionally, you want the illicit relationship to succeed and for both parties to be happy – a rather sickening game for the writers to play. Rather than highlight right and wrong, there are times where the emotional pull has you briefly rooting for the oppressor.
In some ways, A Teacher is more dangerous than the other two shows. Only as the series reaches its final scenes does the audience fully appreciate the true nature of the relationship and realise there was only one victim. The revelation is not earth-shattering, but the impact is; viewers feel guilty for previously wanting a different outcome.
Read our review of A Teacher here.
Ultimately, television is about entertainment and escapism. Perhaps, challenging the moral ambiguity of some of these shows is tantamount to censorship or the 1960s ‘clean up TV’ campaign by Mary Whitehouse. However, when tackling issues that are so raw and current in our society, television can entertain but still retain a sense of moral balance. The use of attractive leads in predatory roles is one thing but becomes a dangerous game when paired with storylines that introduce moral ambiguity. Is a show which ‘mindfucks’ the audience into rooting for a misogynist not somehow misogynistic in some way itself?
This is not about political correctness or failing to respect viewer intelligence; this is about television having some accountability by not employing cheap tricks concerning serious issues to win ratings.
Words by Andrew Butcher
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