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May 13 2013

Just when you thought you wouldn’t have to slog through a feminist analysis of “The Bletchley Circle”

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.

Because she apparently isn't pitiful enough, the battered wife character is also attacked by a random stranger on a train.

Because she apparently isn’t pitiful enough, the battered wife character is also attacked by a random stranger on a train.

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.

22 comments

  1. Lidon

    That director is a fucking douche. Silly me, I thought an excess of testosterone led to fighting. Reading this review has to be far better than watching the series.

  2. Comradde PhysioProffe

    Thank you for watching this fucken schlocke and reporting back, so we don’t have to!

  3. Natasha

    That sounds so bad I’m almost tempted to watch it just to make rude comments but I’m not sure that I’m that much of a masochist. Especially given the usually dreary pacing of any British mystery show picked up by PBS.

    *sigh* I don’t supose there’s any chance any TV network would decide to adapt ‘Butch Fatale, Dyke Dick – Double D Double Cross’ to the screen. It is a actual book written by a female person which probably disqualifies it on that account alone.

  4. Katherine

    I am so grateful for this blog. I missed you. I am in love with your jaundiced eyeball(s) and feel my spleen purge every time i read this page. It is lovely not to be alone in the rage*sigh*cry*holler*trytoexplain*FuckExplaining!*rage that is being a “woman” in this society. I get so tired of it, and your droll, wicked accurate assessments of the situation are a balm. I love you! (schlock, but true)

  5. Katherine

    Money shot of hot, dead victim looking somewhat sexy? Check. (Ibid)

    This sort of stuff makes me feel literally sick. There was an ad for CSI on British TV a couple of years ago where they took this to its logical extreme and made the whole ad about how sexy all these murdered women looked. Whilst dead. And how sexy the series therefore was and how turned on we’d all be. By these murdered women. Who were dead.

    It was so necrophilic I thought there’d surely be an outcry. But no. Death of women, dead women, actual decaying corpses – sexy. I struggle to understand this, but the only explanation I can think of is that the extreme passivity of death is supposed to be the turn-on.

  6. Katherine

    Ha, finally we meet, other-Katherine who I see on blog threads sometimes. I think I’ll be KatherineK from now on to avoid confusion.

    And apologies for thread-jack.

  7. Twisty

    At last, the Katherine mystery is solved.

  8. Michelle

    Question for the advanced blamers. Are portrayals of rape on TV and in movies unavoidably misogynistic? I watched the Stieg Larsson movie awhile back – the Dragon Tattoo one — and was infuriated by the portrayals of sexual violence… then had a heated debate with my partner about whether or not they were gratuitous. I HATE portrayals of rape in fiction – in print or on screen – that are even mildly explicit, because I think they reek of salacious, prurient voyeurism. But rape happens in life. Should it be censored in fiction? This issue hits my fury nerve, but I’d like to be able to make some reasoned arguments. Thoughts welcome.

  9. Twissb

    I see the tattered remnants of “The Bletchley Circle” scattered knee deep around the lime-green recliner.

    Lucky for us that the horses gave you a moment away from nursing duties to tend to the essential task of goring Masterpiece Theater.

  10. Kristine

    If only that poor hausfrau were given pay equivalent to her herculean efforts and multitudinous skills. THAT would be feminist.

  11. Saurs

    British TV a couple of years ago where they took this to its logical extreme and made the whole ad about how sexy all these murdered women looked. Whilst dead. And how sexy the series therefore was and how turned on we’d all be. By these murdered women. Who were dead.
    [...] Death of women, dead women, actual decaying corpses – sexy. I struggle to understand this, but the only explanation I can think of is that the extreme passivity of death is supposed to be the turn-on.

    Allow me to introduce you to the high-concept concept of Twin Peaks. (It also has little people and “cherry” “pies”!)

  12. quixote

    Michelle, I have the same response and the same lack reasoned arguments. It just feels like that crap is in their to grab eyeballs, and not because anyone is trying to make people understand the pain and damage caused.

  13. K

    “The other final nail in the coffin?”

    Hahahahaha! I never even heard of this show but thank you for the laughs!!

  14. Lexia

    I’m sorry, I know this isn’t the place, but I have to say something somewhere: last week, yet another woman was murdered by her owner, aka husband, and the only reason it made the news here is that whoops, he murdered a man when he wiped out his possession’s parents as well. Big mistake, so he killed himself after running a bit. The usual “troubled marriage, she brought it on herself, what a tragedy, he lost his job, so what was he -supposed- to do” coverage. Men murder their female possessions so often everywhere in this country it barely rates a paragraph in the local papers and any coverage ALWAYS describes it as a “tragedy” and ALWAYS includes victim blaming.

    Meanwhile, one of a very small number of women kills a boyfriend, and that’s described in gory outraged detail nationally and internationally, there’s never any mention of any excuse, it’s never described as a “tragedy”, the whole tone of every bit of coverage is shock and outrage, and she’s up for the death penalty with the full approval of the media.

    In the U.S. the average sentence for a man wantonly killing a woman, for no reason at all, is seven years. In 2011 the U.S. was ruled in violation of an international treaty to which it is a party because it fails to protect women from male violence.

    I can’t stand it. I’ve said over and over that the law does not protect women from men, but will use its full force to protect men from any violence by women. The response has always been “Oh, you’re exaggerating” or “That’s just not true”. There couldn’t be a clearer example that this.

  15. dominique

    Could you write something deliciously snarky about jolie’s much touted bravery? perhaps how it only merited paeans if she chose not to opt for breast reconstruction?

  16. KatherineK

    Allow me to introduce you to the high-concept concept of Twin Peaks. (It also has little people and “cherry” “pies”!)

    Oh sure, I do have memories of that, although I was a teenager at the time is was out.

    The thing this ad did, which I think elevated it to severe-puke level, was to make the actual, explicit tagline about the sexy dead women. Every. single. shot. in it was of another sexy corpse. It was a moment of quite disgusting honesty. Just about the only thing you could say in its favour was that there was no way anyone could claim that this was the feminist seeing stuff that wasn’t there.

  17. Twisty

    “Could you write something deliciously snarky about jolie’s much touted bravery? perhaps how it only merited paeans if she chose not to opt for breast reconstruction?”

    Why don’t you write it?

    I’ve got that fucking mutation. I didn’t get reconstruction, and I consider the surgery to be appeasement behavior, but I don’t begrudge any woman the right to make her own decisions about her own boobs, especially when they get the BRAC mutation news. Anyway, looking to a Hollywood starlet to be a beacon of feminist activism seems kind of futile.

  18. Saurs

    The thing this ad did, which I think elevated it to severe-puke level, was to make the actual, explicit tagline about the sexy dead women. Every. single. shot. in it was of another sexy corpse. It was a moment of quite disgusting honesty.

    I’ve been thinking on it, KatherineK, and it’s really a motif of a lot of western male literature: how sexually arousing female corpses are, a corollary, I suspect, of the (highly sanitized and selective) eroticism of the deathly ill woman (ashy, pale or “off color” complexions, sinking eyesockets with glittering eyes, emaciation, languor, et al). Apart from the fact that a dying woman is less likely to be herself and more like, I suppose, an animated dummy, that dead women can be poked and prodded to one’s heart’s content, I imagine dudes get off on imagining in what Sexy, Rape-filled Contexts dead ladies were murdered. Very depressing.

  19. KatherineK

    Indeed. I think it’s one of those things where now I’ve seen it once, I notice it everywhere. One of those flashes of realisation that makes you remember how far down the rabbit hole goes. I imagine it’s been quite obvious to many people and I’m not saying anything new.

  20. Veganrampage

    Jill everything you wrote is true, and I too hated the director’s guts for his disgusting comment.
    The true crime here is that real women did the majority of code breaking and war analysis for the Brits/Allies, and then were told to never speak about their service. I bet they were paid shite too. Why keep a secret this long? Perhaps because it proved that women were indispensable in winning the war. That doesn’t jibe well with the male warrior hero dream theme we’ve all had knocked into our brains the second we were born.

    BC is a terrible title too.

  21. Kali

    “The true crime here is that real women did the majority of code breaking and war analysis for the Brits/Allies, and then were told to never speak about their service.”

    The Wikipedia article on Bletchley Park dismisses the role of women in code breaking with this: “Reliable and trustworthy women to perform administrative and clerical tasks were similarly recruited by personal contacts”.

  22. Veganrampage

    @Kali

    Wiki admits that there are “reliable and trustworthy women”?

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