Which Portrayal Is Fairer to the Sexes?

Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) and DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) in BBC1's Luther

Women may often be victims in shows like Luther, but this status frequently exonerates them; men, on the other hand, are labeled sick, creepy and twisted -- there is hardly ever an understanding for their deviant behavior.

I was inspired to write this article by fellow PopMatters blogger, Andy Johnson, who mentioned in his article the large number of negative complaints that BBC crime drama Luther has pulled from national publications such as the Radio Times. It has been accused of misogyny of the first level -- the consistent brutalization of women onscreen. Admittedly, Luther has done something to deserve this title; the third episode of its six-episode run featured a woman held captive in a freezer by a sadistic Satanist, and her sustained physical and psychological torture was graphically shown.

I'm responding to the consistent "How could you do this to women?" air of such complaints. Yes, Luther showed horrific violence perpetuated by men upon women, as have shows like Wire in Blood before it. Yet there has been very little mention of the almost feminist bias shown by both Luther and other television shows.

Yes, women may be shown as prostitutes and victims in such shows, but men don't exactly get the fair end of the stick, either -- they are consistently portrayed as pedophiles, serial killers and rapists. For example, episode 4 of Luther featured an impotent, unpleasant man who manipulated his wife (through mental torture and an orchestrated suicide attempt) into staying with him, drove her into an affair, stole handbags, lost jobs and, finally, was driven to strangling women in order to achieve sexual release. Meanwhile, the alpha killer was a young woman, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) -- Luther's (Idris Elba) ultimate foe, someone given more and more layers throughout the story, shown to be both a femme fatale and a child genius, able to get away with murder.

So how Luther can be labeled with misogynistic bias is beyond me. In the final episode, Alice -- a strong and intelligent woman-- was portrayed as being the only woman who could help the now-helpless Luther get out of the hole he had dug himself into.

This is equally true of stateside shows; to call to mind an episode of long-running American TV series Law & Order: SVU. In the season 7 episode, "Taboo", a young college student (female) was portrayed as having thrown two of her newborn babies into the garbage and left them to die. However, when it was found out that these children were products of (apparently consensual) incest, her father -- and father of the babies -- was (rightly) deemed as the villain, and the college student melted into a shivering, crying mess who claimed to have been driven into the relationship by a dysfunctional relationship with her mother.

While the father may not have had anything to do with the murders, or even know that she was pregnant, he was pigeonholed by the SVU writers as having committed the larger sin. While this appeared to be true in context of the story, it still continued a pattern seen in a large number of shows (even one so apparently immune to the gender bias as SVU). Women may often be victims, but this frequently exonerates them; men, on the other hand, are labeled sick, creepy and twisted -- there is hardly ever an understanding for their deviant behavior.

Of course, we should always aim to buck gender stereotypes in our brave new TV world. To label Luther as a misogynistic house of horrors, however, is pure laziness. For every one of Lucien Burgess' (Paul Rhys) suffering victims, there is a strong and diabolical femme fatale/genius like Alice Morgan. For every Alice Morgan, there is a weak and pathetic excuse for a man like the serial killer in episode 4 or the incestuous father like in "Taboo".

Men are subjected to the same unfair and perhaps unfounded stereotypes as women; simply because they don't have extreme amounts of violence thrust upon them to highlight this does not excuse it.

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