Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson, both in character
Netflix is streaming “The Fall,” which is a BBC Irish police procedural starring Gillian Anderson as icy tough Chief Inspector Superintendent Stella Gibson pitched against Jamie Dornan as a killer of women. The idea is that they are well matched, similar in some ways, begging to be explained. Reviewer Ben Travers calls it “turning the Male Gaze against itself.” (There are many mirrors, photos, drawings, "mirroring" as resistance) The gender-assigned roles are reversed. The Belfast killer is the tender one, making dolls of his victims, while the detective seems as callous about sex as James Bond.
Alan Cubitt, the creator and director says: “A key concern in creating dramas that tackle such issues is the degree to which they compound the problem by glamorising violence against women. Perhaps those people who have raised concerns about the issue of women in peril in The Fall are asking the wrong fundamental question. Surely the first question is: why write about a serial killer at all? I think it would be hard for anyone on Woman's Hour to argue that it would be somehow more palatable if the victims were young gay men or small boys.”
“One of the ways the killer is able to perpetrate such crimes is by objectifying and dehumanising their prey. Torturers do the same thing. I think it's important that drama doesn't do that. For that reason, The Fall starts in a comparatively restrained fashion – with Spector exploring someone's private space – stealing underwear, leaving a macabre calling card on the bed, orange peel on the table. This is important because it speaks to a range of male behaviours that have often been dismissed as minor nuisances – flashing, stealing underwear, making obscene phone calls – but that are all acts men do in order to reassure themselves of their power and potency. They are predatory expressions of aggression.”
This conversation in and around the series gives me a chance to try out some ideas that come from my reading about neurology of the brain. First is the important human definitiveness of empathy as the peak of evolution so far. Not everyone HAS empathy, possibly because of a failure of organic development, or more likely a failure of the environment that would allow it to develop or that has forced it into an aberration. But can it be a choice? To empathize or not to empathize? Is Spector short for spectator? Is his gaze predatory because it shows no empathy? Or is he trying to become the women?
The writer sees him as a voyeur whose foreplay is actually occupying his victim’s space, even with her in it, first invisibly and then letting her know that he is watching. Then he becomes a voyeur of her death, strangling and letting up over and over so that she’s kept on that edge that is supposed to be erotic but very close to death. I’ve seen children and unenlightened adults torture animals with a kind of curiosity, unable to perceive the feelings of the creature, wondering what life is.
Gibson, the woman, is highly developed, so attuned to the rationality our culture prizes that she doesn’t allow her empathy come into play. It is a symmetrical voyeurism, in that she is watching almost microscopically for clues, and enjoys very much informing Spector of how much she knows about him, all the while he has counted on being the unseen gaze. These are gender-assigned roles: the man who acts, the woman who watches. (Cubitt wrote the second “Prime Suspect” and there is more than a little Helen Mirren going in this series as well.)
In addition, this series reflects the idea that I’ve been thinking about but can’t find the original relevant research for. The idea is that in the brain there are three neurological nodes in the mammal brain that are crammed tightly enough together that the reflexes sometimes bleed over on each other in the way that color perceptions sometimes mix with number perceptions or music, so that some brains report that 5 is blue and 3 is yellow. These bits are in the mammal brain because of what mammals necessarily must do to survive as a species.
The three nodes hold sexual reproduction in the middle, no doubt the original oldest most potent neurons because otherwise there would be no creatures of this species. Next on one side is caring for children -- which can be generalized to all those needing protection and nurturing to survive until reproductive, which is gender-assigned to women in most cultures because they have the uterus and breasts. Close on the other side is providing and protecting the resources of life for a family: food, shelter, safety. These are usually gender-assigned to men and call for aggression, even violence.
If these nodes bleed into each other, which they can do if hormonal messages bleed across or a situation distorts reflexes, a man can yearn for babies, even wanting to nurse. There is a condition called postnatal psychosis in which women kill their own babies. Men who see children as uncontrollable or a threat to their independence, can turn violence against them. Or we have become aware of men who can see young children, even infants, as sexual objects. In fact, a person is an interplay of all three functions, responding to situations.
Spector, who has never been properly nurtured, marries a motherly woman and shares the care of them. He says he loves children and is horrified that he unknowingly killed a pregnant woman. He is not a pedophile, but he treats grown women as though they were sexualized babies. Gibson is physically honed, a crack shot, and anything but a nest maker. Neither has empathy except for being able to see other people as puzzles.
Evolution proceeds by producing difference, sometimes EXTREME difference, along a continuum, as the writer Cubitt notes. Then all those who are too extreme or too deformed by the situation are pruned back by circumstances that eliminate them. On the genome level the substrate of the identity may be just fine or have some vulnerability that is exaggerated by the circumstances of their self-forming through childhood and young adulthood. On the cultural level, our child-raising practices (including neglect, starvation, exploitation -- all of which are tolerated by our culture to some degree) produce different kinds of people and will simply eliminate some of them. We let them die, kill them, lock them up (which continues the distortions) and never admit it.
The dimension of culture responds to evolutionary challenge -- and fast. Sometimes it just means providing money. It also means that people who can adapt to circumstances through skills and attitudes are going to survive. They need not be conventional, but they should be flexible, resourceful, cooperative. Men who can cradle babies; women who will go into combat. Maybe either gender can see how to end combat that kills babies. This is what a first-class writer can do.
Stories -- even thrilling TV serieses -- change us and they often do it by prompting the release of the very molecules we’re considering here, plus adrenaline There are three ways that neurons communicate: one is through the “soup” that circulates in the blood, one is along the “telegraph wires” of the axons, and one is by jumping across the synapses at the ends of the wires, which also means molecules conversing. The interplay, the cross-wiring, the adrenaline -- all add up to empathy and that’s what we’re after. To feel what the characters seem to feel.
Incidentally, if I were casting “Fifty Shades of Gray” I would NOT cast Dornan. I’d cast Colin Morgan, who plays the cop who is the surrogate displacement in bed for the killer.