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Whitechapel: Murder, Masculinity and Mental Health

Whitechapel: Murder, Masculinity and Mental Health

Warning: this contains some spoilers for all four series of Whitechapel, although I’ve tried to avoid any major plot twists and I haven’t named any of the killers.

I watched Series 1 – 4 of Whitechapel quite recently. I’m four years late to the party, so all the fanfiction, forums and fan phenomena are long dead. Nonetheless, I’m glad I sat down and watched each series consecutively, because it enabled me to spot certain recurring themes and to watch character arcs develop.

For the uninitiated, Whitechapel is a British crime drama, which aired on ITV from 2009 to 2013 and consists of four series. The first two series focus on modern “copycat killers” replicating historical crimes. From Series 3 onwards, the focus shifts slightly – rather than the crimes being directly lifted from history, the team use historical accounts in order to help them solve each case. It was described in The Times thus: “It is all in the worst possible taste and bloody good fun.” It stars Rupert Penry-Jones as DI Joseph Chandler, Phil Davis as DS Ray Miles and Steve Pemberton as Edward Buchan, an author and “Ripperologist” (expert on Jack The Ripper).

I was initially put off by the lack of female characters in Whitechapel – the women in Series 1 with the most screentime are the ones who end up brutally murdered, aside from the pathologist Dr Caroline Llewellyn. The killer in the first series finds his inspiration in Jack The Ripper, and the modern murders are clearly sexually motivated. It can be difficult to pull off a narrative like that without vindicating the sexual element and objectifying the women involved, but Whitechapel handles it very well in my opinion. Having watched the later series, I found that this motif of women being mutilated was ditched by the narrative. Although representation did steadily improve with the introduction of DC Meg Riley, DI Mina Norroy and Morgan Lamb in Series 3, I don’t actually mind the lack of women so much, mostly because I think Whitechapel just happens to be better at handling themes of masculinity.

You could accuse me of reading too deeply into it and analysing something that’s not there, but Whitechapel showcases the broadening spectrum of masculinity in our modern society, as well as depicting toxic masculinity and its abusive, repressive nature. This is crucial, especially as we live in a society in which the biggest killer of men between the ages of 18 and 50 is suicide. The series neatly covers that spectrum, with each of the main male characters representing a facet of masculinity. All of its main characters inhabit their roles as men in varying ways, and it’s both interesting and poignant that the series never condemns any of them for it.

On one end of the spectrum, we have DC Emerson Kent, who is the baby of the team (all of the other officers play a parental role for him to some extent). I like to think of Kent as representing a kind of “new” masculinity – a masculinity characterised by openness, acceptance and emotion. In Series 1, DS Miles convinces Chandler – whose confidence is wavering – that he’s strong enough to remain with the team. He discusses how everyone on the team has a different way of coping, and he mentions to Chandler that Kent copes with emotionally challenging cases by having a good cry in the toilets or out on the car park. We see this onscreen in Series 2, Episode 2. It’s heartbreaking and a moment of character development for Kent in terms of how we as viewers react to him, but more interesting is how the other characters respond. Edward Buchan sees him and tells Chandler. They don’t laugh, they don’t mock him; it’s just accepted that that’s what he does.  Edward Buchan is another example of this. In S3, Ed is struggling to cope with the weight of expectation in his new role as police researcher. As Chandler relies on him to find historical precedents for the crimes, Ed often finds himself under pressure to hunt down the right case file in his newly-constructed archive. He has to learn to deal with the fact that he can’t save everyone – he feels enormously guilty for having unwittingly aided The Ripper in Series 1 and for discovering the truth too late in Series 3, resulting in the deaths of two young women. We see him seeking counselling with Morgan Lamb in Series 3 and he asks Chandler for advice too. Ed is a great example of a man who isn’t afraid to admit when he feels vulnerable.

DS Ray Miles is more emblematic of what we might consider “traditional” masculinity. He’s a father figure for the team, especially for DI Chandler, although as a character he even subverts that successfully. There’s no doubt that he’s the patriarch of the team, but he’s a very nurturing character; he just appears gruff when expressing it. He takes his anger about his father’s absence (partially resolved in Series 2, Episode 3 when he discovers what really happened to his dad) and converts it into caring for others. Despite being a more traditional male, he never ridicules the others for their personal coping mechanisms and is happy to share his own with Chandler (he likes to sit by his fish pond and think, FYI).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is where we find The Ripper (whose name I won’t reveal to avoid spoiling it for you!). He’s representative of toxic masculinity, or masculinity to the extreme. This is reflected in his absolute misogyny. Through him, women are objectified in the most extreme way possible. They become his tools, his paint palette, as he recreates the crimes of Jack The Ripper. They lose any autonomy – his mutilation of their bodies means (metaphorically speaking) that he owns them, he possesses them. It’s a pretty terrifying way to interpret it, but it’s not outlandish.

Aside from my own interpretations regarding masculinity in Whitechapel, it also deals openly with mental illness. DI Joseph Chandler, the protagonist, has OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). What I really love about Whitechapel is how it approaches his mental health. It’s never dismissed as a quirk or manipulated as a plot device. It is just part of his reality and, as the stakes grow ever higher with each passing series, Joe’s compulsive behaviours become increasingly difficult for him to manage. He starts with compulsive handwashing in Series 1, but by Series 3 he changes his shirt several times a day in order to feel clean enough. I think the writers deal with it in a very frank manner – it’s upsetting to watch him break down or struggle with his compulsive behaviours (i.e. Series 2, Episode 2, when he can’t leave his office because he keeps flicking the lights on and off), but (speaking as a neurotypical person) I’d rather be made uncomfortable than have mental illness sugarcoated.

I think it’s necessary – if not essential – that the series has a mentally ill character who isn’t a “baddie”. The series has several killers who are either implied to be or are described as mentally ill, and it would have been easy for a series like Whitechapel to reinforce stereotypes about mentally ill people. We see it all the time in the “haunted asylum”/“mad axe murderer” additions to the horror genre. In reality, mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

In conclusion, Whitechapel is well worth a watch. It’s witty, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it doesn’t shy away from symbolism.

Is Ross Poldark A Hero?

If you’ve read the novels or seen the original series (I have done neither), then you probably saw the events of last week’s episode of Poldark coming. In Series 2, Episode 8, we saw the tension between Ross and his former lover Elizabeth come to a head… and it was less than romantic. Let’s be real: it was a rape scene. There is no getting around that, there was nothing consensual about it. No matter how the BBC or the fans dress it up, Ross was firmly in the wrong. He was aggressive (he had the air of a fairly dastardly Bond villain when he entered the room). He ignored her wishes (she asked him to leave her bedroom and he refused). Finally, damningly, she plainly and repeatedly said “no”. It was rape. But the handling of the scene seems to suggest that those involved think otherwise. The BBC haven’t bothered to try and contextualise it, the author’s son has praised their faithful attitude to his father’s text – written in 1953, I might add – and even Aidan Turner, Cap’n Poldark himself, has weighed in on the issue. He said of the scene in a statement made to the Sun newspaper: “It seems consensual, and it just seems right. He goes to talk. He doesn’t go to commit a crime. They talk and it seems like there is still this spark between them, this unfinished business emotionally. Certainly, that’s how Ross feels. He doesn’t force himself upon her. He is emotionally quite inarticulate. I don’t think he quite understands himself.” He elaborated: “It would be boring to play a character who’s just a do-gooder”, which I think is in somewhat poor taste. This isn’t the excusable behaviour of a rogueish ne’er-do-well. It was a calculated attempt by a male protagonist to intimidate and control a leading female character. In a popular TV series, to cast that man as a hero is unacceptable.

The response from the cast, the crew and the fans begs the question: why are we so willing to excuse the flaws of our heroes? Furthermore, is Ross Poldark a hero at all?

The answer lies both in how the narrative unique to Poldark treats its protagonist and in how fiction at large treats rape and sexual violence.

First and foremost, Ross is not a nice character. He is a terrible person dressed up by the narrative and the cinematography to seem like a lovely ray of sunshine. Oh wow, look at his Adonis-like bod… whoops, you missed him being an abusive, unfaithful shitbag. At this point, he is as bad as the series’ villain George Warleggan. George is violent, emotionally manipulative and arrogant, and we as viewers are encouraged to hate him for it. All those qualities could be said of Ross too. We are not, however, expected to hate Ross, because he doesn’t know he’s doing wrong, poor boy. I think this ties in with the comments Aidan made – that Ross didn’t intend to commit a crime. The implication there is that, because he didn’t really mean to violate both her body and her autonomy, it isn’t actually that bad. 

This is the same thing survivors of rape are told in real life. Rapists are constantly leaving court without a conviction. They didn’t mean to, you see, they didn’t know. They thought they had the victim’s consent, because “no” really means “yes” in the throes of passion, doesn’t it? That’s my real issue with this scene. I get why it happened. Ross Poldark, a desperate, angry man with a big, control-freak ego, feels betrayed and confused. Elizabeth is torn, caught between the man she really loves and the man she must marry to secure her son’s future. Something catastrophic and ugly needed to occur at this point in the plot – as a writer, I know that. I’m also aware that the BBC are adapting a book series from over 50 years ago which is set in the 1790s; of course there will be iffy ethics and dodgy morals. However, there are ways to present this scene without condoning what happens. They needed to pick a point on the spectrum, frankly – either she consented enthusiastically or Ross forced himself on her. Yes, there might have been a grey area; perhaps Elizabeth was simply overcome with her long held passion. But, unfortunately, there is a long history in cinema of what amounts to a rape fantasy, in which the victim will eventually enjoy an unwanted encounter if the perpetrator is pushy enough. Poldark, unwittingly or not, has signed its name on that list.

We’re at a point in the evolution of pop culture that, by now, we should have grasped that you can enjoy something and still be deeply critical of it. Poldark is not a bad TV series, nor am I crediting it with being some kind of moral touchstone for the masses. The cast are fantastic; the plot is (generally) well-crafted and engaging. The Cornish coast is the real star of the show, obviously.

However, my enjoyment of it doesn’t diminish the discomfort I feel. We excuse the faults of fictional men – and often those of real ones too – all the time. In a way, that “Oh, but he didn’t know” (which we’re all so fond of) is rather infantilising to men and it’s deeply violent towards women. Our media and our visual culture is saturated with this idea that all can be forgiven because he’s the hero. Ross, in my opinion, is very much a Homeric hero – an Achilles or an Odysseus. In ancient Greek culture, a “hero” achieved incredible feats, but always for personal gain. Our modern heroic qualities are normally more along the lines of selflessness and compassion. There’s a real clash of ethics there. We’ve blurred that line, I think, and now we don’t really know what we want or deserve from our fictional protagonists. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t portray bad people on screen. I’m also not saying that the main character of a film or book should always be a saint. Real people are flawed and they do terrible things.

We just need to be honest about that.

Still thought Demelza was justified, tho

Please like and share if you enjoyed! 

Dateline London, 17/09/2016

Just catching up on Dateline London (Owen Jones appeared on it on Saturday), and the panel are having a fascinating discussion about the presidential election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The consensus is that Trump, while lacking in ideals and policies, is very good at galvanising and “inspiring” (for want of a better word) his particular demographic. Conversely, Clinton has the ideals and the political gravitas, but she hasn’t managed to garner support in quite the same way.

You can find the episode on BBC iPlayer here, although it’s only available for the next month.

“Women Transform Into Their Idols” – BuzzFeed

I just watched this super cute video from Ladylike, a series by BuzzFeed. In this episode, the team get to dress up as their female role-models. It’s amazing. I loved all their reasons for choosing these women as their role-models, and their choices said a lot about what each Ladylike member finds important in their own identity.

 

Corbyn and the Coup: A Socialist Fairytale

Once upon a time, there was a far-away kingdom, alone on an island.

The kingdom’s rulers did not care much for their people and theirs was a world of bloodshed and betrayal, so the people relied upon a court of mages for guidance, led by an old wizard chosen by the people. He and the king sought to restore balance between them. (This is a magical democracy, children. Now shut tf up and listen.)

Of late, the kingdom had isolated itself further still. Their former king had abdicated. He was not the best king, but the alternative was much worse… and now it had come to pass. The king’s courtiers bickered and quarreled over who would take the throne, and the people looked to their royal wizards for comfort.

However, it seemed that the wizards had forgotten their code of magical honour. All of them, except for that wise old wizard. Although he was the people’s choice (Which? Magazine winner), the courtiers and other wizards had long mocked him for his unkempt beard and tattered robes. The truth was, the wise old wizard found no pleasure in expensive wands and fine garments. What he loved was good magic, done for the benefit of his people. He wanted to protect them and to ensure everyone got their share.

But their mockery was deeper and darker than that. The other wizards feared the new and different magic that the wise old wizard had, and they had only one solution: to overthrow him.

You’ve probably guessed by now, but I’m not actually talking about an old sorcerer, an absentee king and a wizardly code of honour.

I’m talking, of course, about the EU referendum and its consequences, namely the underhand, unfair campaign against the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. I won’t pretend this “coup” – if you can call it that – is anything new. Ever since he became leader, there have been detractors and naysayers within the party itself. It’s been brewing in the cauldrons of the centre left (and if you think Corbyn is too far left, you probably shouldn’t be in the Labour Party) for quite some time; it’s just that the country is in convenient turmoil at present. Our prime minister has resigned, our government are battling it out for the top job, and nobody knows where to look for leadership or guidance. Those in the Labour Party who want Corbyn out have made their opinions known – opinions which have been ad hominem at best, downright character assassination at worst. This was an opportune moment to do so.

That’s what politics is about in this country at the moment: opportunity. That’s what we are to most politicians – us peasants, the serfs on their land – we are opportunities. They’re vultures, picking at the carcass of this country and squabbling over the last scraps of meat that remain. Jeremy Corbyn’s only crime was to see us for what we are. We are people who have already been taken advantage of. We are people who do not need any more cuts, any more austerity, any more lies.

Jeremy Corbyn is not, to the best of my knowledge, a liar. That’s the key difference between him and many other politicians I’ve seen. He does not mince his words, he does not avoid the question. He does not hide behind flashy cars and sharp suits and an Etonian education. He cycles, appeared on television in 1984 in a jumper knitted by his mother, and is the son of a maths teacher and an engineer. He has fought all his life to make the world a better place, often at great personal cost regarding his career. This is a man who has won awards for his human rights activism and he has openly opposed the Labour whip on several occasions. Precisely when kindness and compassion became radical qualities, I don’t know, but these are the things that have made him so popular among young people. He sticks it to the man, sure, but he does it in a way that is fair and just.

We should be ashamed of the bullying that has been perpetrated against Corbyn. He has been subjected to the most inane, the most insulting media depiction of recent times. He’s been a victim of biased media. We have all been victims of that same biased media. It’s unfair for people to label him uncharismatic or unelectable, when they’re the same people who would never give him a chance and gave him so little room to manouevre. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

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Even his side-eye does not discriminate. It sees all.

He is honourable. He is decent. He is principled.

Of course I’m a little predisposed to like him. His politics align very closely with my own, and he is the kind of person for whom I have always had the utmost respect. Regardless, I have been proud to call him our Leader of the Opposition, and I hope I can continue to refer to him as such.

Thank you, Jez. Whatever may happen in the coming months, thank you.

And to the wise old wizard on the lonely island: your good magic is strong enough. Keep the faith.

“Lefties: Angry Wimmin” – BBC

I just watched the documentary Lefties: Angry Wimmin (BBC, 2006), exploring the world of the revolutionary feminists of the 1970s and 1980s. This episode is from a three-part series about left-wing politics, and it’s a fascinating look at the “boom”, if you like, of radical feminism.

I think it’s important we look back at the work that these women did. Some of it might seem shocking – it certainly shocked me! I knew that some lesbian/separatist feminists advocated for “political lesbianism” and for the excision of men from women’s social circles, but I never realised how many women actually put it into practice. Please consider it in its social and historical context, though; these women were living in a dramatically different society to the one we live in now. Feminists of my generation don’t push for the abolition of heterosexuality because we don’t need to – these ladies paved the way for us and made the statement that desperately needed to be made at the time. At that point in time, we had only just begun describing the unequal social hierarchy as patriarchy, and its looming presence in their lives forced the revolutionary feminists into much more radical activism.

I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Linda Bellos, especially the frank discussion about how mainstream white feminism treated her. That highlighted what third-wave feminists and intersectional feminists have always asserted: that second-wave feminism wasn’t very inclusive. The dismissive attitudes of the white, cis, able-bodied feminists who were interviewed demonstrates just how reluctant they were to address issues of accessibility and discrimination within their own movement. The repercussions of that lack of insight into diversity is something with which we are still dealing today.

I also found it pretty startling that these women – some of whom, like Julie Bindel, are lesbians – seemed to believe that homosexuality is a choice. One could accuse them almost of appropriating and misrepresenting the gay rights movement. I understand why they opted for “political lesbianism”, but really, this kind of rhetoric just played into the hands of homophobes. For years, the LGBTQ+ community has fought to assert that sexualities are not arbitrarily “chosen”.

5 Best Female Police Officers from UK TV

The UK has a proud history of cop dramas. We love ’em. It feels like there’s a new one being released every fortnight; we can’t get enough. However, with all those car chases and shoot-ups, the genre has a tendency to be a bit of a testosterone disaster zone (yes, that rhyme was intentional).

So, just to prove a point, here are my top 5 female police officers who just kick ass constantly.

DC Kate Fleming, Line of Duty (Vicky McClure)

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Line of Duty is probably one of the best dramas I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. It’s so good, and I’m praying a fourth series will be produced. It would be criminal (ha, get it?) not to include Kate on this list, because she’s such a brilliant character. She’s dedicated; she’ll put her life on the line (of duty) to serve the cause of justice. Also, she starred in the most tense car chase in the history of British television. She chased armed criminals down on foot  having hitched a ride on the side of a lorry – and then managed to shoot out the car tyres from the top of a bridgeKudos.

DC Janet Scott and DS Rachel Bailey, Scott and Bailey (Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones)

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I got your sisterhood of the travelling bulletproof vest right here. Scott and Bailey has some truly inspiring and awesome ladies, who are all exceptional and the forerunners in their respective fields, but these two are the protagonists and deserve a mention. They’re courageous, they’re tough, they’re bloody brilliant, and they’re taking exactly 0% of your bullshit. They’re very different – Janet is a no-nonsense mum to two teenage children, whereas Rachel’s a bit more of a party-girl – but their friendship is what really makes the series. I love ’em. Suranne Jones 5eva, tbh.

DI Alex Drake, Ashes to Ashes (Keeley Hawes)

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Alex deals with being sent back in time pretty well, all told. She’s super sassy – she can give true drama queen Gene Hunt a run for his money – and I think her fashion sense is awesome too! She brings her 21st century knowledge with her when she finds herself stuck in the 1980s, and she takes it all in her stride. She’s one lady you definitely don’t want to mess with. Keeley also played another police officer in Line of Duty, DI Lindsay Denton, who is implicated in the work of corrupt officers. She’s somewhat less friendly there, although Lindsay is still a complete and utter badass.

DS Sally Donovan, Sherlock (Vinette Robinson)

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I love Sally, but my love for her is nothing compared to my abject hatred for the way 99% of the Sherlock fandom chooses to treat her. Sherlock’s an arsehole. She calls him out for being an arsehole. I don’t know why they struggle to grasp that (well, I do – it’s the fact that she’s a WOC calling out a white dude with millions of fangirls benefiting from the rose-tinted “quirky white guy” glasses), because I think she’s super cool and really inspiring. Honestly, I think she’s probably the most well-balanced (emotionally speaking) character on the show. Obviously, calling Sherlock a “freak” wasn’t very nice, but it’s not really in the same ballpark as Sherlock outing her affair with Anderson and doing his level best to humiliate her. Nice double standard you got there, Sherlock fans.

(Also, Vinette is my major woman-crush. *heart eyes*)

WPC Rachel Coles, Inspector George Gently (Lisa McGrillis)

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I’ve chosen Rachel mainly for the episode Gently With The Women, which deals with the treatment of sex workers by the police force during the 1960s, when the series takes place. How were they treated? Not very well, but Rachel (along with feminist ally Inspector Gently, goddess bless him) sets out to challenge perceptions. She faces opposition from her male colleagues – all of whom see rape allegations by prostitutes as inherently laughable – but she perseveres, and it’s a really powerful episode. By the end of it, her colleague John Bacchus, initially sceptical, realises that she’s right and that the police force is flawed as long as it allows such injustice to continue.

Thank you for reading! I hope you liked this article – if so, please consider liking and sharing it!