It’s Tuesday night. I get home from work and watch the last half hour of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a full episode of Scott and Bailey and the opening twenty minutes of DCI Banks. That’s a pretty light night for me. When it comes to trash TV, you can’t beat a good whodunnit. I should know, I’ve watched them all: the good ones (The Fall, Luther, Wallander), the bad ones (Midsomer Murders, New Tricks, Death in Paradise) even the bad American ones (The Mentalist, Castle, Bones). And I’m not sorry.
I can’t remember when I became obsessed with crime dramas* but I can pinpoint the exact moment they made me fear for my own safety. It was series three, episode one of Luther. I hadn’t watched series one or two but the first of series three was on iPlayer so I took a punt.
In the opening sequence we see a woman walking home alone at night. She looks around nervously as she opens her front door. A camera shot – taken from under the bed – shows her bare, vulnerable feet disappear up and under the covers. She falls asleep. Then, very slowly and quietly a man slides out from under her bed. He stands up over her, his shadow passing across her face. She opens her eyes.
Cue: opening credits and me checking under my bed for the first time in over twenty years.
Up until this point, I had a healthy relationship with solitude. Alone walking down the street at night: bad. Alone in my own home: good.
This was two years ago and I was living with my boyfriend. It was my first time in years out of a share house and he worked in a bar so I was often home alone. I started doing a quick tour of the flat when I got in: checking the front door was locked, looking in all the rooms, double-checking the front door was locked, opening the wardrobe, triple-checking the front door was locked. You know, the usual.
One of the inspirational internet quotes I hate the most is “Do one thing every day that scares you”. It’s annoying because it’s the sort of meaningless trash that idiots trot out on their Facebook statuses without any intention of understanding what it’s actually saying and definitely no intention of doing it. But what I truly hate is that it is far easier to do one scary thing every day if you are a woman than it is if you are a man. And not in a good way.
In Ellena Savage’s article ‘How to be Alone (If You’re a Girl)’ she writes “[I used to] think that my fear of being alone, not in the relationship sense but the actual physical sense, was something to do with my dependence on other people’s minds to activate my own… Then I realised that being alone is just fairly dangerous when you’re a girl.”
Having a fear of walking down the street alone at night doesn’t stop me doing it – taxis are expensive and night buses unreliable. And having a fear of watching Luther in case a psychopath is waiting in my wardrobe doesn’t stop me downloading the first two series – good cop drama is hard to find.
I decided I should re-watch this Luther episode, this turning point in my reality/fiction/fear Venn diagram. I wanted to see if this piece of filmic personal history was as momentous as I was giving it credit for. But I was home alone when I decided, so I waited until two nights later when my boyfriend was in the next room.
The next victims in the episode are a married couple, again in their own home – this time the killer was hiding in the loft and pretended to be their cat in order to coax the husband up there. Afterwards we see this cold-blooded serial psycho tapping his Oyster card on the number 11 bus like a normal person. He even eats a packet of crisps.
Guardian journalist, Rebecca Nicholson, suggests that it is the comic-book absurdity of Luther, its overt grisliness – both in plot and visuals – that make it so popular. “It looks like the stuff of nightmares. It has a knack for tapping into common fears with cases that play out like urban myths.” But is working off these alleged mythical fears playing into a common misconception?
Two years after the horrific rape and murder of his wife Jill Meagher, in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, Tom Meagher wrote an article for the White Ribbon Campaign, in which he warned against the danger of what he calls the ‘Monster Myth’. How attributing monstrous acts of violence to monstrous men, such as Jill’s killer, Adrian Bayley, masks the violence of ‘regular’ men by perpetuating the “intrinsic otherness of violent men”.
“By insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.”
We know statistically that we are far more likely to be attacked by someone we know than by someone we don’t. Statistically speaking, I should be more afraid to be in the house alone with my boyfriend than without him. But that’s not the reality of my personal situation and it’s not the reality of my fears. My fears as perpetuated by television. Television as perpetuated by society.
A few weeks ago I got off the train some time after 11pm to make the seven minute walk home. A man had gotten off the train at my stop and began to keep pace, just five or so metres behind me. When I crossed the road, he crossed too. I tried to catch a glimpse of him in shop windows to see if he was getting any closer. I watched as his long, streetlamp-thrown shadow brushed against mine. I turned my music off, quietly got my front door key out of my bag, held it firmly between my fingers and braced myself to run.
We reached the corner of my street and I turned right. He turned left. I felt relief, then anger. I wanted to shout after him What are you doing? Don’t you know that’s terrifying? Don’t you know it’s not fair to intimidate someone like that? I didn’t, because he hadn’t done anything. But I was scared of him, because he was a man and I am a woman. This isn’t an original story, there are millions like it. Every woman you know has one, she could probably tell you a new one each week.
In Pamela Clark’s excellent ‘35 Practical Tools for Men to Further Feminist Revolution’, tool number four is “Give women space”. She explains: “Many women walk around — especially at night or while alone — feeling on edge and unsafe. Being in close physical proximity to an unknown man can exacerbate this feeling. Recognize that this is not an unreasonable fear for women to have, given how many of us have experienced harassment or abuse or been made to feel unsafe by men when we are in public spaces. Also recognize that it doesn’t matter if you are the kind of man who a woman has any actual reason to fear, because a woman on the street doesn’t have a way of knowing this about you or not.”
Her examples include: “If a seat is available on public transit next to a man, take that seat rather than one next to a woman. If you are walking outside in the dark close to a woman walking alone, cross the street so that she doesn’t have to worry someone is following her.”
It is not surprising that most men do not follow this rule. Non-violent men should not be made to feel violent simply by walking home. That doesn’t seem fair. But then, I think men are about ripe for a bucket-load of unfair to rain down on their parade. I think it’s probably time for unfair when we read that Jamie Dornan stalked a woman off the tube as part of his preparation for his role as a serial killer in The Fall. “I’m not proud of myself,” he says cutely from his handsome little face.
The Fall is one of the most successful crime dramas of recent years, it is also a show that was heavily criticised for coating its murders in softly-lit cinematic gloss. As Rachel Cooke wrote for The Guardian “it’s crystal clear to anyone who cares to tune in that The Fall is still in the business of glamorising violence against women by equating it not only with sex, but with sexual attractiveness.”
We sort of fancy former-model turned grief counselor and father-of-two Jamie Dornan, even when he’s strangling those women. The intimacy the show allows between him and us makes us feel weird, but sort of ok. He doesn’t know his victims; he picks them based on a visual profile. He breaks into their houses and kills them, hanging around long enough to bathe and manicure them, post-mortem. He is the Monster. And, beneath our attraction, we are afraid.
Transferring real world fears to a fictional Monster is a coping mechanism that we are taught as children when they put up ‘stranger danger’ posters in our schools. The strangers that I am afraid of on the television allow me to distance myself in the same way. It is just TV, it isn’t real life, these things don’t happen in real life.
Meanwhile on my laptop, Luther’s serial killer is still on the loose. His next victims-to-be are three young, pretty nurses/housemates. We see them having a glass of wine and making a bolognese together like the nice, good-hearted people that they are, while the killer hides in a wardrobe and lures them upstairs one by one.
The obvious solution would be to stop watching. To allow my overactive imagination to rest, to not have to wonder if someone could be crouched in the cupboard in my lounge. That he might have been there since I got in three hours ago and is just waiting for me to go to sleep. But to stop watching would be to stop doing something I enjoy, because I am afraid. To not watch TV, to not walk home at night, to not be alone.
In series two of The Fall, Gillian Anderson’s character tells her colleague a story. It stuck out a mile as a symbolic plot device, but as a story it was a brilliantly concise summation of this whole problem. A woman, she says, asks a male friend why men feel threatened by women and he says “We’re afraid that they might laugh at us.” She asks the same question of a female friend and then another and another and another. Why do women feel threatened by men? “We’re afraid that they might kill us.”
*For the purpose of this essay a ‘crime drama’ is any show where a good guy is in some way investigating a bad guy, be it police, barristers, pathologists, amateur detectives or unemployed former-lawyer Guy Pearce.