You’ve heard that spinster aunts, their kiesters permanently affixed to their lime green recliners, are constantly monitoring the airwaves for examples of patriarchy-replication in male supremacist cultural narratives. Recently here at Spinster HQ we cast our jaundiced eye upon PBS mystery/period drama “The Bletchley Circle”. Four women, veterans of the eponymous WW II British code-breaking operation, join forces as civilians in 1952 to solve a bunch of murders.I believe it is customary to announce a spoiler alert at this juncture, but let’s face it. It’s a crime show, so you know precisely what happens. A creepy dude murders some hot babes and is eventually foiled in an abandoned warehouse by a slightly extraordinary sleuth who struggles with personal demons.
Even though “The Bletchley Circle” has been called “feminist” (nowadays the label is applied automatically whenever there is a female lead, irrespective of any actual evidence of feminist themes), it will come as no surprise to you that straight away I was able to tick off several boxes on both the Misogyny in Media Checklist and the Schlocky Old Plot Device Checklist. Note that there is some overlap between these checklists. Misogynical motifs — usually affirmations of the venerable Global Accords Governing Fair Use of Women — form the basis of so much of the literary and theatrical canon, they may also be considered schlock.
On to the checklists!
• Sleuth with superpower? Check. (Schlock)
• Scene wherein dude sexually assaults lone, vulnerable woman? Check. (Schlockogyny)
• Scene wherein same woman gets beat up by husband? Check. (More schlockogyny, in case you missed it the first time)
• Serial killer? Check. (Schlock)
• Serial killer is a diabolically clever madman? Check. (Mental illness disinformation, perpetuation of patriarchal myth that only raving outliers are capable of violence against women, and for the luvagod, lunatic serial killer is the most enschlockened character in modern entertainment)
• Serial killer predates upon hot young women by exploiting one or another of their stereotypically weak feminine failings? Check. (Porno-schlockogyny)
• Serial killer rapes the corpses? Check. (Really? Again?)
• Money shot of bound-and-gagged victim struggling in dungeon? Check. (BDSchlockM)
• Money shot of hot, dead victim looking somewhat sexy? Check. (Ibid)
• Though her motivation for doing so is howlingly unbelievable such that the viewer is compelled to yell at the screen “Shirley you aren’t going to confront the killer alone in that creepy remote location à la Silence of the Lambs!”, the plot in fact climaxes with heroine confronting killer alone in creepy remote location à la Silence of the Lambs? Check. (Aaaauuugghhh)
Is The Bletchley Circle “feminist”? Hayell no.
Well, OK, the leads are four “strong women” characters, where “strong” means “plucky.” Their intellective efforts eventually win the day despite open dudely hostility at every turn, so, grrl-power. Bechdelianly-speaking, they do have conversations with each other. However, except for a pretty riveting opening flashback portraying a code-breaking triumph at Bletchley Park, these conversations are largely about men, either their dickhead husbands or dismissive government authority figures or the dudely killer. Furthermore, their relationships with men are character-defining factors. The stifled hausfrau*, the battered wife, and the sexually harassed waitress depend for character development on dysfuntional dude-relationships (the fourth is another tired old stock character, the spinster librarian). Thus is the feminist thrust of “The Bletchley Circle” thrown into question. The realistic depiction of women’s crapulent status in post-war England, however historically accurate, is so lovingly, painstakingly bleak it practically amounts to torture porn.
The final nail in the coffin:
• Entire series — though purportedly about women’s experience — written by dude? Check. (Puke)
The other final nail in the coffin?
• In the post-series “Making of Bletchley Circle,” (one of those boring filler/filmumentaries that seem to append every episode of every PBS drama these days), the director makes a big fucken deal out of the fact that although he had to work with an unheard-of surfeit of females on this project, there was nevertheless an astonishing lack of catfighting on set? Fucking check. (Aaaand double-puke)
*In the empowerful-women-take-back-the-degrading-epithet department, check out this unexpected definition of hausfrau at Urban Dictionary.