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Heroines and anti-heroines in the feminization of crime series

by Milly Buonanno | 13.05.2019

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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon), Doctor WHO (BBC1), Homecoming (Amazon), Sharp Objects (HBO), The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), Killing Eve (BBC America), The Crown (Netflix), L’amica geniale (Rai1-HBO), Les impatientes (France2): from dramedies to sci-fis, from psychological thrillers to dystopias, from spy stories to biopics, from relational stories to prison dramas, and more. The process of feminization in TV storytelling has recently reached an amazingly broad range of narrative genres, making “widespread female protagonists” – whether individual or choral – distinct elements (and always more often award catalysts) of contemporary TV drama.
Examples and models of what had been defined heroine television at its early age (Brunsdon, 1997) can be found whenever storytelling focuses on female protagonists, as underlined in therefrom studies. Yet, it must be acknowledged that the crime genre, which is known to be among the most common and popular genres on the international TV arena, has perhaps played a paramount role in favoring and let’s say ‘normalizing’ the entrance and the creation of female protagonists within environments and spheres of action that for a long time had conventionally been considered exclusively or mainly belonging to men, thus strongly impacting the imaginary of the genre itself.
The presence of female protagonists within the crimegenre has actually become a largely diffused trend, led more recently by highly influential examples of Nordic noir Forbrydelsen/ The Killing, DR1; Broen/The Bridge, SVT1). In British and French shows, after a first step into the genre that took place at the beginning of the Nineties (Crime suspect, ITV, Julie Lescot, TF1), the trend has become even stronger in the second decade of this millennium, with a growing number of women protagonists in detective stories and legal dramas. It can be said that the popularity, success and awards earned by several British crime series (The Happy Valley, BBC1; Broadchurch, ITV; The Fall, BBC2) and French ones (Capitain Marleau, France3; Munch, TF1) over the past few years are mainly due to the memorable and iconic performances of their actresses.
Two further, and perhaps more interesting, opinions have also taken on evidence in the feminization process of crime stories.
One has been defined by the above British critic as #MeToo-ness,referring to the tendency, whether emerging or subtle in several dramas over the last seasons, to narrate the different forms of physical and symbolic violence women undergo, such as abuse and subordination, where the criminal “male dominium” on woman is expressed and made evident (Bourdieu, 1998). From the feminist re-reading and rewriting of the classics of mystery (The Woman in White, BBC1) and detective stories (Ordeal by Innocence, BB1) to the contemporary settings of psychological thrillers and legal dramas focused on controversial rape stories (The Liar, ITV; Apple Tree Yard, BBC1), British TV drama has staged despotic, insensitive, physically or psychologically abusive male characters – who finally become the objects of the liberating (and punishing) female reaction, even after a long period of endurance. French dramas, on the other hand, following the widespread trend of true crime, has drawn on social and legal stories, as in the narrative reconstruction of a historic rape trial (Le viol, France3), or the dramatic case of a domestic abuse (Jacqueline Sauvage, France3). Other thrillers such as Big Little Lies and The Tale (HBO) and the dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) follow the same trend: stories of women whose victimization are reversed into the accusation and conviction of their perpetrators.
The other, and definitely the most intriguing and potentially controversial intersection between gender (female) and genre (crime stories) deals with the phenomenon of an increasing character that can be found in today’s drama arena: the advent on an international scale of the unseen-till-today anti-heroine character (Buonanno, 2017). This character shouldn’t be confused with a more traditional image of the villainess, the “bad girl” of the story. The anti-heroine is a morally ambiguous female character, who, faced with social and gender norms, becomes transgressive in different ways: her resistance and challenge in accepting conventions, together with some sympathetic and even admirable aspects of her personality, make her the captivating symbol of an outside-the-box femininity. Although not necessarily matching conventional criminal characters (as for The House of Cards, Netflix; Sharp Objects, HBO; UnREAL, Lifetime), this dramatic anti-heroine is embodied at her best and most incisively in the protagonists of crime and spy stories: for example, Rosy Abate in Squadra antimafia (Canale5), Imma Savastano in Gomorra: la serie (SkyAtlantic), Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans (FX), Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder (ABC), Teresa Mendoza in Queen of the South (Netflix), Villanelle in Killing Eve (BBC America).
It is likely that this new representation of the feminine, which seems to arouse widespread interest and appreciation among the audience and critics, may end up adding to the creation of a less conventional and more complex perception of the woman figure and of human condition, in general.