Voyeurism, Pleasure and Power in Netflix’s “The Fall”
Allan Cubitt’s thriller The Fall is not a series that limits itself to the one dimensional crime and mystery angle.
The audience already is aware of the killer from the very beginning. In no way is the centrality of the plot around the murders and the chase of the killer. What is central to The Fall, what brings it all together, is the discourse it creates around the idea of pleasure in relation to power.
There is a subtlety with which Cubitt allows his audience to recognise the undertones of a discursiveness around the plot. Netflix’s Mindhunter was an attempt to dive into the deviant nature of serial killers, and the close understanding of their psychological and libidinal drive through insights of their own. In Mindhunter, the audience saw various types of deviant personalities of serial killers, most quite self aware. But Cubitt is going beyond just that.
The centrality in Cubitt’s writing is not given to the understanding of the killer’s drive or motives as an end in itself, but rather the nature of the deviancy, and its representation in two different dimensions. Unlike Mindhunter, Cubitt’s writing takes one step ahead and taps into the discourse around what voyeurism really is, in relation to deviancy as well as in relation of sex and sexual assault.
The Fall is a series of dualities in conversation with each other. It is a constant juxtapositional presentation of perspectives, perceptions and behaviours through the central characters like Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), Jim Burns (John Lynch) etc.
The series unravels a commentary on the gendered perceptions of voyeurism in relation to power, sexuality, the politics of the gazes, and the various lenses used to represent as well as re-present these ongoing discourses through cinematic lenses.
Cubitt’s characters are strong, impactful and multi-dimensional, not to mention, in stark opposition to each other. Stella Gibson, the protagonist, is constantly placed in opposition to her male counterparts, like Jim Burns, Paul Spector, etc.
Although Gibson’s background and her expertise aids in the understanding of Spector’s drive, it is undeniable that the subjectivity of Gibson’s character is placed starkly in opposition to, and directly in conversation with Spectors, and rightly so.
The parallels are quite apparent, for instance, the scene of Sarah Kay's murder juxtaposed against the sexual encounter between Gibson and Olson.
Both GIbson and Spector’s character consistently remain in a kind of existential transgression of their own. Power and sexuality in conversation with each other are central to each of their domains.
For both the characters, power is central, especially in relation to sexuality. Gibson is a character with a composed demeanour, not only in her professional space, but her most private spaces as well. She exhibits control not just on her inner self, in the sense, her emotions, her thoughts, etc, but also on the situations around her. She actively claims power throughout the varying circumstances in the series. For instance, in her sexual encounter with DS James Olson (Bill Peel) not once does she allow herself to be driven. She places herself as the subject of the sexual act, the active performer per se, and the man, as the object, in the scene. The audience sees the explanation to this thought process in a later episode where she states:
“Man fucks woman. Subject, man. verb, fucks. Object, woman. That’s ok. Woman fucks man. Subject, woman, verb, fucks. Object man. That’s not comfortable for you, is it?”
Gibson is a character that is beyond superficial judgement, regardless of whether she is at the receiving end of it, or someone else. She is unbothered by the judgemental questions raised against her. When being questioned about whether or not she asked Olson whether or not he was married before having a one night stand she states that she wasn’t aware, “he didn’t think to tell me” she simply states.
The character of Gibson is not the woman that represents the lack of the phallus. She does not allow her biology to, in Mulvey’s words, produce the phallus as a symbolic presence. (30) On the contrary, it is the very biology patriarchy uses, to reduce the woman to the lack of a phallus, that Gibson uses to assert her own sexuality, her desires, her presence as a subject, not as an object. She claims the dynamic of power in the act of sex, to make her body the tool for her own pleasure, re-presenting the phallus as an object of sex.
“The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated women to give order and meaning to its world.” (Mulvey 30) Spector on the other hand is also driven by the same desire, the desire for power over his victims, however, the pleasure is not overtly sexual, but voyeuristic pleasure.
Voyeurism as a crucial element in the series is about power, and in relation to power pleasure.
Spector’s crimes are deeply rooted in voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia, and it is through these that he satisfies his ego, and makes his victims the object of his pleasure.
Fetishistic scopophilia is the building up of the physical beauty of the object, and transforming it into something satisfying in itself. Not only is Spector’s ritualistic pattern of murders, and the posing of the dead bodies in the aftermath highly reflexive of this, but it is also in the creation of his own pornography throuugh art and photographs that the audience is made to see this element.
Spector derives pleasure from seeing his victims dolled up, in positions that he leaves them after murdering them, he derives power from subjecting his victims to his sadistic gaze, to the way he wants to see them. Spector's pleasure comes from the sadistic compliance he subjects the victims to.
To say that his purely voyeuristic mechanism for pleasure is normative patriarchal conditioning is an understatement. The patriarchal notions of what is considered sexy in a woman, what kind of demeanour is considered pleasure inducing, sexually inciting is already always pre decided for women, not only through social institutions, but also through cinema and cinematic representation. Spector’s voyeuristic gaze towards his female victims dead or alive is a typical representation of the normative male gaze towards women.
Laura Mulvey dismantles the objectification of the woman’s body through voyeuristic cinematic representations of the same in her essay “Visual pleasure and Narrative cinema”. It is this pre decided and not to mention, mass produced objectification of the woman’s body that has become the norm. Interestingly so, the audience is never made to identify with Spector’s gaze in The Fall. They are only given the neutral lens through which they can get an outsider's point-of-view, thereby keeping them detached from the pleasure that is supposed to be typically induced in a scene that involves the naked body of a woman. It goes without saying that the murder of the woman also has a part to play here.
Biology and sexuality come closely together in The Fall, although in different forms. Spector’s uncontrollable addiction to his voyeuristic pleasure not only drives him to murder, but also to violate his victims.
Cubitt dismantles the notions of rape and violation through Spector. Violation becomes an act of transgression towards another, not overtly sexually, but sexual at the root nevertheless. It is one of the most impactful observations the show presents, one that seems to be obvious but alarmingly is not. The dialogue in which Gibson address Spector as a rapist given this context cuts deep the psychological conditioning of considering only penetration without consent as rape. The gaze then, also becomes a tool of power for Spector which he utilizes to violate his victims.
Gibson dismantles this power in the confrontation with Spector, slowly and steadily, but with impact. For the first time, Spector is evident seen feeling out of control. She dismantles his power play and the pride he associates with it, by showing him that he is driven by his desire for pleasure and he acts on force.
The Fall goes on to attack the age old perception of the female body as and only the lack of a phallus through a dialogue that Gibson delivers to perfection. “Maleness… is a kind of birth defect” she says on being asked why women are emotionally and spiritually stronger than men. The feminist discourse makes itself apparent in the show throughout such subtle encounters and conversations.
Tom Anderson (Collin Morgan) is fascinated by Spector as a criminal to which Gibson’s response captures the stark difference in the gendered perception of things. The scene is reflexive of a famous quote by Margaret Atwood. “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, and women are afraid that men will kill them.” The audience is made to face the harsh reality of the patriarchal culture. Women represent and signify castration due to the lack of the phallus in their biological structure, but men signify the true castration anxiety. Cubitt’s men represent the anxiety in relation to the loss of the significance of the phallus, the loss of power, the loss of dominance. Cubitt’s men in the series are hysterical, emotionally vulnerable, and not in a desirable way. They deliberately reflect the attributes that women are stereotypically associated with. Perhaps, it is the brutal, satirical representation of the vulnerable male ego.
While on the other hand, women in Cubitt’s writing are far more in power as compared to the men. They may seem emotionally distant, and are perceived so by other characters, but are actually emotionally composed, and aware. They are in full control of themselves and the circumstances they are in.
The Fall then, becomes a narrative of the conflict, pleasure and power, and a commentary on the patriarchal notions of sexuality in relation to a woman’s desires, the notions of objectification of a woman's body and the very normativisation of such an idea. It opens up the narrative of deviant behaviours to represent the discursive arguments revolving around the idea of the male gaze, the penetrating voyeurism as violence and the dynamics of power in sex and sexual assault.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”