As the TV landscape becomes increasingly saturated, it gives way to a number of feminist shows that likely wouldn't have made it to the small screen several years ago. From comedies like Inside Amy Schumer that actively spotlight sexism to dramas like Orange is the New Black that pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, we have plenty of options — and that's something to celebrate. But, inevitably, a few gems have been overlooked in the process, especially The Fall, a feminist TV show that didn't get nearly enough viewers or attention in 2016.
The series, which is produced by the BBC and promptly begins streaming on Netflix the moment it concludes across the pond, focuses on a serial killer, Paul Spector, who preys on young professional women living alone. That may not sound like the makings of a feminist series, but that's because The Fall isn't really about Spector. The far more interesting character who steals the show is Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), the Detective Superintendent who is summoned from London to Belfast to review the case after the investigation stalls.
Stella defies the norms of the female detectives we frequently see depicted on the small screen. She never hides her femininity in an attempt to be taken more seriously by male colleagues and subordinates (she commands everyone's respect while rocking a now-iconic silk blouse collection), while successfully dodging the all-too-common TV trope of a detective who becomes so emotionally involved in a case that it compromises her judgement and leads to major investigative mistakes. Stella certainly makes her share of errors throughout The Fall's three seasons, but none of them happen to be related to her gender or emotions. Rather, she's a realistic, imperfect character (both personally and professionally), but none of her flaws are chalked up to her gender. However, it's important to note that her gender isn't ignored — and is instead presented as an asset to the investigation.
For example, a colleague drafts up a statement about an "innocent victim" who was killed in her home. When Stella requests that the word "innocent" be eliminated, she provides the perfect explanation why:
“What if he kills a prostitute next? Or a woman walking home drunk? The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores. Let’s not encourage them.”
She's keenly aware of the double standards women face, so she does everything her power to ensure that sexism doesn't play an ugly role in the investigation.
Viewers on social media have criticized Stella for being somewhat standoffish and not empathetic enough for their liking — and I'd venture a guess that these criticisms would never be directed at a male detective. I certainly won't argue that Stella is a warm, fuzzy character, but that's exactly why she's so important.
As a woman, it seems as though she's expected to take on the role of nurturer at every available opportunity, but the bottom line is that she's a detective whose job is to get a killer off the streets. Many people, including me, love to watch shows like Law & Order: SVU because it's comforting to see detectives like Olivia Benson essentially double as social workers when they interact with victims. However, this isn't an especially realistic depiction of how sex crimes are always handled — detectives' jobs are to put predators behind bars, it's therapists who are there to help survivors navigate the painful aftermath of an attack.
That's certainly not to say that Stella lacks empathy — but the scenes where this quality is on display are slightly different than what we're accustomed to seeing in other detective dramas. For example, when a victim's husband raises questions about why his wife didn't scream or fight back during her abduction, Stella provides him with a powerful explanation of what consent truly looks like:
"Men always think in terms of fight or flight. In fact, the most common instinct in the face of this kind of threat is to freeze. If she didn't fight, if she didn't scream, if she was silent and numb, it's because she was petrified. If she went with him quietly, it's because she was afraid for her life. And not just her life - yours and Nancy's and the baby's. In that state of fear she might well have been compliant. She might well have submitted. But that does not mean she consented."
In another scene, she pays a visit to a teenage girl, Katie, who has fallen under Paul Spector's spell and exhibited violent behaviors in an effort to impress him. Stella opens up to Katie about her own troubled past, but also provides some seriously tough love in an attempt to prevent the teen from becoming a dangerous predator in her own right.
Stella's main priority in the show is clearly to ensure that justice is served (and, let's be honest, that's a pretty time-consuming feat), but when she sees an opportunity to offer empathy and support as part of her job, she rises to the occasion. Whether it's helping a man understand why his wife didn't cry out for help, or breaking through a troubled teen's tough exterior, Stella doesn't actively turn away from emotional situations. She simply strikes a realistic balance and stays focused on the most important part of her job.
Although The Fall may or may not return for Season 4, the entire series is currently streaming on Netflix and deserves your attention. Not only is it one of the best crime shows out there, but it gave us Stella Gibson, who was as complex, flawed, and capable as ever in 2016.