“You are a slave to your desires, you have no control at all, you are weak, impotent, you think you are some kind of artist, but you are not… you try to dignify what you do, but it’s just misogyny, age-old male violence against women.” So says Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson at the end of the first series of The Fall, a BBC 2 show set in modern-day Belfast about a serial killer who murders and ‘poses’ his women victims in the nude. It is the most watched new BBC drama in 20 years and the second series, premiered last month and hitting screens in November, is stirring up fierce divisions over whether the show is presenting violence against women as entertainment. However, whether we view The Fall’s violence as ‘gratuitous’ or not depends in part on how far it reflects realities on the ground, and particularly of male violence against women in post-conflict Northern Ireland.
Unlike the average ‘whodunit’, we are introduced to the serial killer Paul Spector at the very start. A young attractive family man and bereavement councilor, played by James Dolan, Spector strangles his victims to death, before carefully stripping, washing and posing the bodies for extensive photographing, keeping a ‘scrapbook’ in the attic above his daughter’s bed. The show has been heavily criticised, with Radio Times TV critic Alison Graham citing it on Woman’s Hour as an example of major dramas that have “overstepped the mark”, routinely showing women raped, bound, gagged and otherwise abused. The Daily Mail followed with a long article by author and journalist Christopher Stevens entitled, “Why does the BBC think violence against women is sexy?”
DS Gibson is played by Gillian Anderson, who has defended the show by arguing that it reflects a reality in which “there is a huge amount of violence against women in the world today”. Margaret Ward, whose leading work on women in post-conflict Northern Ireland we have published elsewhere, said the series can be seen as bearing a “real political message”. “This sense of the series reflecting what violence against women is really like is reinforced with the central character, the murderer, also having a 'normal' life, with wife and children,” she added. “In other words, men who abuse women are not outwardly abnormal, and can appear to be pillars of society.”
Critics have denounced the character as sensationalist and fantastical, but Spector is not an a-typical serial killer. Roughly seventy per cent of serial killer’s victims are female, while desiring dead women rather than living ones is part of a recognized profile, as are traits of voyeurism and fetishism and a fascination with control. In 2010, male serial killers outnumbered female by roughly 95 to 5. Of course, this does not excuse the portrayal of violence against women as a means to derive cheap entertainment. Yet there is a huge gulf between dramas such as US series Dexter, named after its glorified alpha-type psychotic, or the newly premiered series Stalker, and The Fall. The horrendous aspect of these series is precisely that they fail to be disturbing. The killers and abusers go from one gruesome crime to the next, apparently insulated from their victims and the society around them.
In sharp contrast, The Fall’s writer Allan Cubitt sees the city of Belfast as “a character in its own right” and we can’t fully understand Spector without examining his relationship with the society in which he lives. Northern Ireland has seen increasing rates of organized crime and domestic violence since the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, which ended the conflict often called ‘the Troubles’. Crime gangs have increased in number from an estimated 60 to 170, with paramilitary groups diversifying their range of criminal behavior, including involvement in human trafficking and sexual exploitation. According to a recent OFMDFM report, women have a higher fear than men of crime in terms of their community settings, with 39 per cent fearing for their personal security, as opposed to 26 per cent. This forms the backdrop to a society in which the conflict’s legacy continues to deprive women of their agency, with many women living with daily fear.
The Fall can be framed as ‘Ulster Noir’, a nascent genre of Northern Ireland-based crime thrillers. The police series Line Of Duty, filmed in Belfast, plays on the same tensions, while the BBC are currently adapting a series of books by Claire McGowan about a forensic physiologist, set in the border town of Ballyterrin. “Crime fiction is always about the past,” Cubitt has told The Guardian, “the whole genre is about starting at a point in time and then tracing back to work out where it all went wrong. That suits Northern Ireland right now, because whenever a society tries to move to a new identity you need to do a postmortem on the past." Last year, we saw the return of the Billy Plays, an influential TV trilogy aired in the 80s, which used the conflict as a backdrop for its plot on domestic violence.
Jo Egan, director of Shankill play Crimea Square and co-writer of the acclaimed Fresh and Blood Women, says The Fall “captures the current post-conflict mood and mindset of Belfast.” The sub-plots take us beyond the entertainment industry’s ‘Troubles tourism’ with scenarios “actually being lived in streets across the city as we speak. Issues of unresolved bereavement, post traumatic stress, redundant paramilitaries controlling little pockets, are all realities.” We see the killer’s job as a bereavement councillor, and get a glimpse of the other cases being dealt with by the PSNI around political corruption and the abuse of sex workers. At one juncture, Spector persuades the wife of a former Loyalist paramilitary to report her husband for domestic abuse. She is reluctant at first, as her husband is on a suspended sentence for conflict-related crimes. In modern-day Belfast, the past and the present blur into each-other. In December of last year, the PSNI reported the highest levels of domestic violence since these records began, with police responding to a case of domestic abuse every 20 minutes. Data is often unreliable, but grassroots work with women from both Protestant and Loyalist communities has found consistent reports of an increase in domestic violence since the 1998 peace agreement.
In an article in the International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Melanie Hoewer explores male and female identity and roles in post-conflict Northern Ireland, concluding that there has been “an increase in contention and violence in intimate relationship post 1998”. She points not only to domestic and sexual violence, but also to rising male suicide rates. Between 1999 and 2008, suicide rates rose by 64 per cent, while in 2010 a total of 240 deaths were registered, the majority of these being men aged between 15 and 34. Hoewer sees “the competition between the traditional image of hegemonic masculinity and new gender images” as central factor to male violence on the self and to others.
By mapping a serial killer’s damaged psychology onto this terrain, The Fall sets up a tension between the ‘everyday’ violence of post-conflict Northern Ireland, and the ‘singular’ and sensationalist killings of a psychopath. While Spector’s victims have often never met him, his method – including breaking into their houses while they are present, lurking in the shadows as a silent ‘partner’ in the house – lives out a double life in which the murders are sickeningly ‘domestic’. We will wait to see what the second series does with this dynamic. What is certain is that The Fall is not simply ‘murder porn’. It is powerful storytelling about men, the urge to hurt women, their victims, and how this relates to Northern Irish society.