The Feminist Aesthetic of ‘Happy Valley’: A Refusal to Eroticize Violence Against Women
‘Happy Valley’ has magically transformed the crime drama genre by decoupling the violence against women from the suspense that keeps us watching.
Crime dramas have never been easy on women. Until very recently, the best a woman could hope for was a role as a supporting character whose destiny was limited to propping up the genius of a male protagonist, while the inevitable worst ranged from murder to mutilation to rape-plus-all-of-the-above.
It’s hard to blame the writers or directors. After all, these tired tropes, which seem to luxuriate over the ravaged female body and mind, often make for good, and even great, TV. Take True Detective—great acting, gorgeous cinematography, ridiculous about women. Even shows featuring a female lead, like the The Fall—can’t seem to break free of the titillating specter of beautifully cast dead women, and the exciting dread the audience must endure as their rape and murder is plotted and carried out.
Is it possible that there is an anti-feminist element buried in the nature of suspense itself? If not, why are rape scenes always so erotic? Why does one find oneself waiting for the promised end? Is it even possible to have a feminist crime show?
Happy Valley, a BBC One crime drama now available for streaming on Netflix, has arrived on the scene seemingly with one purpose: to answer that question with a resounding Yes! Written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the show has magically transformed the genre, decoupling the violence against women from the suspense that keeps us watching, without sacrificing the gripping absorption offered by the best crime dramas. It is a uniquely feminist approach to suspense, transforming the viewer’s experience by modifying all the tropes of the genre.
Happy Valley is set in a drug-addled suburb of Northern England, and centers on the life of Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood—both her convoluted, tragedy-ridden family life, as well as her dangerous attempts in her professional life to stop a kidnapping gone awry. It’s Fargo meets Prime Suspect, with the best aspects of both: a deep investigation into the psychology of crime, navigated by a female police chief.
Catherine is equal parts playful, competent, flawed, and grief-stricken, played with deceptive effortlessness by Sarah Lancashire, who navigates the shades of Catherine’s emotional palette—strength, recklessness, vulnerability, grief—with incredible precision. Catherine also seems to relish the danger and violence of her job. When she shows up at a dinner party with a black eye, a few of the other female characters are concerned, and you can see the pride percolating just beneath the surface of Catherine’s dismissal, “Oh, it’s just work.” In a less artful rendering of this scene, the other women would be uptight bitches, and Catherine would be a “Strong Female Character.” Not in Wainwright’s capable hands. The women actually seem to care, and Catherine’s laissez-faire attitude scans as playful pride, rather than tortured darkness.
Throughout the show, Catherine cries freely, unlike the other tough broads of crime. She is also deeply, realistically flawed, unlike male protagonists of crime shows, whose faux “flaws” (commitment-phobia, rage-aholism, overly-aggressive sexual tastes) are typically forgiven as these imperfections transmogrify into the apparatus whereby the hero’s vigilantism saves the day.
Catherine’s flaws are magnified as the show progresses; her deepest—her failure as a mother—is only revealed in the fifth episode of the six part series. It’s a particularly feminist flaw, too. Rather than a flaw that heightens her appeal, it is a flaw that makes her difficult to forgive. “I’m not your mother,” she exhorts a younger, adoring female officer, breaking the latter’s heart and ours. And yet, her own brokenness over her failures is written in such a way that the audience is implicated in them.
The audience feels complicit in everyone’s failures in Happy Valley and is therefore judged by the story along with them. For example, the plot begins when Kevin, a classic beta-male—Walter White before Heisenberg—asks for a raise from his boss so he can send his daughter to a better school. With his stammering British accent and his impotent desire to help his family, we feel for Kevin, especially when he is turned down by the boss. But then Kevin goes home and yells at his wife, and the boss goes home and is scolded by his, and the screw is turned in the opposite direction.
Power flows both ways, and people are complex in Happy Valley. But Wainwright is not finished: later that night, we see Kevin gently helping his wife into bed—she has MS—and later still, hatching what he views as a “harmless” plan to kidnap his boss’s daughter and make a buck; for his daughters, or for revenge? What’s the difference? Wainwright withholds the easy pleasure of revenge, or the noble suffering of a Robin Hood character. Kevin is simply a man with no ability to take responsibility for his actions. How the hell are we supposed to feel about that?
The care Wainwright takes with even the most minor characters is an aspect of the show that, along with Catherine’s complexity and the refreshing take on motherhood can only be called feminist. No one is anyone’s prop. Indeed, characters rebel constantly against being subordinated to others; the baddies especially chafe at the question of whose story matters most. Catherine’s sister Clare, played by the marvelous Siobhan Finneran (O’Brien from Downton Abbey, I hardly knew ye, with that luscious long mane!), could have been a stock character—a recovering heroin addict—but instead she is given depth, that childlike quality people who have recovered from addiction sometimes assume. She also has true flaws (she betrays her sister through her innocence, to real consequence) and true grievances (her sister overreacts, brutally insulting her), as well as true power—the power to forgive. She’s no one’s supporting character, though she and her sister support each other through thick and thin.
Much of the family drama revolves around Cawood’s grandson, conceived during a rape after which his mother—Catherine’s daughter—hanged herself. The emotions that the little boy inspires in Catherine, as he starts to act out in school and she wonders how much of his father is in him, turn every other family drama into a comedy by comparison. Catherine kept the boy, at great personal cost to herself, and she is never totally sure she has done the right thing. It is here that the drama picks up one of its recurring themes—the consequences one’s actions have on those around you. How far does one’s responsibility to others extend (asked no Matthew McConaughey character, ever)?
The question at the heart of the show is not about the nature of evil, or being secretly attracted to the dark side, or how some man feels about himself, or how he feels about the man he wishes he were, but rather, what does it mean to be responsible for others? All parties display ambivalence, all the characters lie to themselves, everyone has someone else they blame. This includes the show’s villain, who, like everyone else, is a man undone by circumstances and his own actions.
Speaking of the villain, played with horrifying minimalism by the absolutely stunning James Norton, Happy Valley is incredibly violent. Like most crime shows, the violence is sustained almost entirely by women. But Happy Valley has a unique take on violence against women, playing with the well-known tropes to create something entirely new. Most crucially, Happy Valley revolutionizes the connection between rape and suspense. Rape happens, but it is always a fait accompli rather than something the show is leading up to. Isn’t it enough that it has happened? Wainwright seems to be asking. You want to see it too? By withholding the scenes of sexual violence, she mocks and exposes the desire—produced by fifty years of television—to see it perpetrated on screen.
That is not to say the show isn’t suspenseful—it is as binge-worthy as the best of them. In this it is unique, for there have been feminist crime dramas but none as thrilling as Happy Valley (Top of the Lake was amazingly written and beautiful but, let’s be honest, not a gripping show). Happy Valley differs from male-oriented crime drama as well as feminist shows by being able to sustain intense suspense without it being the product of attaching the viewer to rape. Rather, the feeling of suspense is cultivated by the characters’ interactions with each other. The curiosity the show engenders is all bound up in how characters feel about each other, and not in what they will do to each other, which is almost unbearable to watch.
There is plenty of violence against women in the show, but it is so brutal and so terrifying that it seeps any kind of suspense out of the alchemy of viewing it. Happy Valley reveals every other rape scene to be the porn that it is, exposing the directorial choices in those other shows which artfully remove fear from the mix, choosing instead disgust and maybe arousal, in other words, sexualizing sexual violence. These other shows eroticize rape and violence against women, with naked murdered women splayed out in various ways. But in Happy Valley the viewer is totally identified with the victim. It is a horrifying study of being powerless—to society, to drugs, to a psychopath, to oneself, and most crucially, to the elaborate outcomes of our actions, intended and not.
One of the things that happens to you when you take responsibility for your actions is you become less of the person you may wish you were. At one point Catherine’s sister asks her what she thinks she might do if faced with her enemy. “The less you know, Clare,” Catherine says, unknowingly repeating the very words the kidnappers tell Kevin when he asks for details. When Clare tells Catherine she is worried she won’t behave rationally, Catherine cries out, “Rationally? I’ve no intentions of dealing with it rationally! I’m amazed anyone would expect me to!” The show takes us beyond good and evil to a place where actions speak louder than characters, for better or for worse.
The show is not perfect. There’s a neatness to the plot, a sparseness to the twists and turns that seems artificial (the man behind the kidnapping is also the man Catherine is obsessed with, the only rapist in Northern London, it seems). The cinematography, too, is sparse. In True Detective, even the landscape was caressed and ravaged by the cinematographer’s gorgeous touch. In Happy Valley the camera lingers only on Catherine’s time-ravaged, middle-aged face. And yet, it is better for it. The show is about violence against women, and it takes it very seriously.