by Dr Elizabeth Yardley, Associate Professor of Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.
The ITV crime drama series Marcella draws to a close this week. Anna Friel plays Marcella Backland, a detective who returned to work at the deep end among a team of detectives on the trail of a serial killer. The story went from dark to darker as the weeks have passed, with many taking to Twitter to vent their outrage after episode six, in which a small child was abducted and murdered.
Behind the series is Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of the critically acclaimed Scandinavian drama The Bridge. As such, we expected Marcella to be grim and gritty as it played out on the damp and drizzly streets of London and indeed it was. The murders it featured were graphic and violent. The body count rose as people were killed through suffocation, shooting, drowning and being run over by a car to name just a few of the ways victims met their ends. In this respect Marcella is not unusual – television crime drama has become saturated with the dead and the dying amidst the genre’s forensic realism, in which labs, slabs and brutalized corpses proliferate (Jermyn, 2013).
Therefore to retain what Mark Seltzer calls the “strange attraction of the murder leisure industry” (2008: 35), crime drama has had to evolve. Whydunit has been added to the more established questions of whodunit and howdunit. We now demand insights into the complex narratives behind murder, the corpses fading into the scenery as an increasingly desensitized audience attempts to get into the mind of the offender. As a result of this, those on the trail of the killer come into focus – most notably the female detective.
Female crime-fighters are nothing new. Helen Mirren has been followed by many others since she appeared on our screens as DCI Jane Tennison in the first series of Prime Suspect 25 years ago. A woman on the trail of a murderer is in itself no longer novel or exciting – she needs to have something extra, a “unique selling point” or USP (Jermyn, 2016: 2). Sarah Lund of The Killing and Saga Norén of The Bridge are presented as abnormal and dysfunctional women. The antithesis of traditional femininity, they trudge around in flat shoes wearing no make-up and the same clothes from one episode to the next. They are prickly and direct, eschewing social niceties as they go about their business. Their authority and skill is doubted and questioned. They are flawed. At the other end of the spectrum lies the uber-feminine Stella Gibson – Gillian Anderson’s character in the BBC’s The Fall. Gibson is perfectly made-up, well-coiffed and glamorous, gliding through the series in her high heels on the trail of the equally aesthetically pleasing serial killer Paul Spector. Her authority and skill is never in doubt. She is cool, confident and commanding of respect from all.
Marcella Backland is more anti-feminine than uber-feminine, although her character contains elements of both. Like Norén and Lund, she has a well-worn item of clothing – her practical dark green parka. She is a wife and a mother but presented as not particularly ‘good’ at either role – her husband had a long-term affair with his colleague Grace (who turns up as one of the murder victims) and her children are away at a boarding school. Like Gibson, she uses traditional femininity as a tool to do her job, unbuttoning her blouse and wearing the perfume of a victim in an interview with a suspected serial killer.
So what is Marcella Backland’s USP? I would argue that it’s her violence. This isn’t just the legitimate violence involved in pursuing criminals in her capacity as a police officer. This is something else, something darker. The first episode opened with her sitting in the bathtub bruised and bleeding, the walls covered in blood. Backland looks worried rather than fearful, prompting the audience to ask “What has she done?” Backland smashes up her husband’s new BMW, she trashes the restroom at work and she regularly hits things with her fists and kicks off. Then there are the episodes that she discusses with an upmarket doctor. In a plush consulting room, she shares details of her blackouts, after which she comes to with no memory of what happened – or what she did. The doctor reminds her “The first was with little Juliette,” and “Last time you were quite violent.” The audience therefore speculated about Backland’s role in her baby daughter’s demise and asked themselves whether she killed Grace after turning up on her doorstep and announcing, “My name’s Marcella Backland. You know my husband”. Therefore we are captivated not just by her actual violence but also her potential violence. She is dangerous and threatening throughout the series as we ponder what she is capable of.
However, whilst violence may be Backland’s USP, making her stand out from the crowd – the explanations for it are all too common. We have a habit of putting violent women into two categories – they are either mad or they are bad, they are ill or they are evil. Backland’s violence is presented as something beyond her control, something primal and impulsive, placing her firmly in the mad and ill camp. The touch paper is lit by the revelation of her husband’s affair and off she goes, the ticking time bomb explodes. This contrasts with the control and agency of the male serial killer she pursues, whose violence is planned, calculated and the result of choice.
Portrayals of female detectives have always been – and always will be – heavily gendered, drawing on and playing with expectations about who women are and how they should behave. They are anti-feminine, uber-feminine or a messy combination of both. Whilst these characters are fiction, it’s important to remember that most of us develop our understandings of crime through media representations. Drama can indeed warp our perceptions of reality. Therefore we look forward to a time when crime drama pushes the boundaries further, goes beyond the idea of mad women and bad men and presents a more nuanced explanation for women’s violence.
Jermyn, D. (2013). Labs and slabs: Television crime drama and the quest for forensic realism. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 44(1), 103-109.
Jermyn, D. (2016). Silk blouses and fedoras: The female detective, contemporary TV crime drama and the predicaments of postfeminism. Crime Media Culture, Early View DOI: 1741659015626578.
Seltzer, M. (2008). Murder / Media / Modernity. Canadian Review of American Studies, 38(1): 11-41.
Dr Elizabeth Yardley
Latest posts by Dr Elizabeth Yardley (see all)
- New BBC thriller series ‘One of Us’ – a feast of crime and deviance - August 24, 2016
- Marcella and Female Detectives in TV Crime Drama – Mad Women and Bad Men - May 13, 2016
- The Killing of Becky Watts: Not sexual fantasy but twisted reality - November 12, 2015