Neither Voiceless Nor Unbelievable: Women Detectives & Rape Culture in Contemporary Italian TV

by: & Valentina Re , June 14, 2021

© Screenshot from Voiceless (Bella da Morire, Cattleya, 2020)


In 2020, Rai Fiction (the production branch of Italian public broadcaster Rai, the most relevant player in terms of investments in televisual production) and the production company Cattleya co-produced Voiceless (original title Bella da morire, Deadly Beautiful), a miniseries of 8 episodes centred on Eva Cantini, a police detective specialised in sex-based hate crimes, which in Italian are referred to as femminicidi (femicide): the killing of a woman, in particular by a man, on account of her gender.

Eva Cantini is part of a growing numbers of televisual female detectives in recent American and European productions who disrupt assumptions related not only to the manliness of the detective profession, but also to the discursive meanings regarding gender relations, representation of gender violence, and the female gaze. Well-known Nordic Noir examples, such The Bridge (2011-2018) and The Killing (2007-2012), present female investigators who are brilliant in their profession but dysfunctional in their private lives, incapable of having meaningful sentimental relations and a gratifying social life. This confirms Klein’s assumptions that the script labelled ‘detective’ in readers’ minds has no natural overlap, with the label ‘woman’. (Klein 1995: 4) Dresner expanded this perspective, suggesting how detective qualities are traditionally and culturally coded as masculine—either in the hyper-rationality of the intellectual detective, or the casual violence of the hardboiled detective. (Dresner 2007: 1-2)

In our analysis of Voiceless, we claim that the Italian miniseries complicates and problematises this narrative through the constructions of a female detective who—while reminiscent of the Nordic Noir type—is also adapted to the cultural context of Mediterranean Italy. Moreover, the representation of victims and survivors of gender violence in Voiceless is portrayed with a feminist sensibility that echoes the American miniseries Unbelievable. Indeed, this Netflix production has been widely praised for its respectful depiction of sexual violence survivors and the psychological complexity of their female investigator characters, also in respect to their personal and family lives.

Our aim is to provide a production and text-based analysis of Voiceless, combined with feminist media theories, for a critical reflection on the gender politics of the crime genre in contemporary Italy. Moreover, we will provide a comparative analysis of the depiction of gender violence in both Voiceless and Unbelievable, considering how the plot’s feminist premises of the two miniseries are developed in regards of the representation of victims and survivors of sexual assault.

The first two sections aim to retrace the context in which Voiceless was produced and received by Italian audiences. After providing a short overview of the main forms of the crime dramas that have circulated on Italian broadcast TV since the networks’ inceptions, section 1, ‘Voiceless and its context: crime drama on Italian TV’ examines the impact of original content produced by pay TV and SVOD platforms on the audiovisual sector, and focuses on the new production strategies developed by public broadcaster Rai to face the challenges represented by the increasingly relevant ‘complex’ narratives and ‘quality’ productions. The role of female characters in this renewed production framework is discussed in section 2, ‘Voiceless and its context: female investigators on Italian TV.’ Based on feminist cultural criticism of crime in literature, film, television, and popular culture, we discuss some significant examples of female investigators in TV crime dramas produced by the Italian PSB from 1965 to the present, and we argue that many contemporary female characters (including Eva Cantini) represent a challenging attempt to ‘re-locate’ and ‘translate’ international models (and especially the Nordic Noir tendency) into the Italian context.

The last three sections provide a close analysis of Voiceless through the lenses of feminist theory and gender studies. Section 3, ‘Representing gender violence,’ illustrates how Voiceless’ storyline thematises and elaborates key elements of feminist understandings of sexual violence on prime-time Italian mainstream TV. Section 2, ‘Difficult women: Eva Cantini and postfeminism’ provides an analysis of the interrelated themes of postfeminism and the depiction of difficult women in recent female centred TV series, exposing the ideological works of a postfeminist sensibility in the representation of female sexual agency. The last section, ‘Dismantling rape myths’ offers a comparative reading of both Voiceless and Unbelievable in terms of the representation of gender violence, claiming that both series consciously operate to dismantle the most pervasive rape myths circulating in Western societies.

Voiceless & its Context: Crime Drama on Italian TV

Voiceless centres on Eva Cantini’s investigation of the killing of Gioia, a young aspiring beauty pageant contestant, along with Eva’s battle against sexism in the workplace, and her relationship with her own dysfunctional family. The primetime TV show was broadcast on Rai 1, the most watched Italian public channel, from 15 March to 5 April 2020, and enjoyed good ratings, moving from 20,43% (5.584.000 viewers) to 20,5% (5.844.000) between the premiere and the finale. [1] The series is currently available on RaiPlay, the video-on-demand service provided by Rai.

In terms of audiovisual production for television, Rai is currently the leading player in Italy through Rai Fiction (established in 1997), offering 74% of the seasonal hours, compared to the 8% offered by Mediaset, the main competitor and commercial broadcaster, the 7%, of Sky (the main pay-TV service available in Italy) and 6% of Netflix (the SVOD service). (APA 2020) In the last few years, this leadership evolved into increasingly more dynamic and efficient relationships with independent production companies. [2] Furthermore, the alliance established in 2018 between the European PSBs Rai, France TV, and Zdf has promoted international, high-end co-productions, designed to compete in the global market pushed by global players such as streaming services.

Voiceless is one of the most recent results of a process of renewal of Rai Fiction production policies, the beginning of which can retrospectively be traced back to 2012, when Eleonora Andreatta became Head of the Production Department. [3]

Although Voiceless and other contemporary crime dramas are particularly relevant to understand the newest production tendencies of Rai, it should be stressed that crime has been an important genre since the inception of the Italian public broadcaster, both through original titles (Lieutenant Sheridan, 1959) and the adaptation of literary classics (Inspector Maigret, 1964). Over the years the genre has also been developed in its various sub-genres (noir, procedural, thriller, etc.), and since the end of the 1990s the commercial broadcaster Mediaset has produced increasingly successful crime dramas as well.

Limiting the scope of our analysis to the last two decades, it can be observed that Italian televisual crime productions in the early 2000s followed two mainstream narrative models. On the one hand, Rai mainly referred to a male-based model, focusing on ‘stories about heroes and exemplary lives,’ ‘a blend of detective and comedy genres, with crimes taking place in an ideal province imbued with solid values and good feelings’. (Barra 2020: 179) Most popular productions included the TV adaptation of the literary character Salvo Montalbano (Inspector Montalbano, 1999-2021, co-produced with Palomar), a police inspector based in a fictional small town named Vigata, and created by the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, and Don Matteo (2000-), co-produced with Lux Vide, which presents a priest in the role of amateur detective.

On the other hand, Mediaset mainly referred to a team/action-based model inspired by US procedurals, telling stories of investigation teams belonging to Italian military forces: Distretto di polizia (Police District, 2000-2012), Carabinieri (2002-2008) and RIS (Crime Evidence, 2005-2009). [4]

Within this traditional and conservative scenario, the pay-TV player Sky has played a groundbreaking role. (Scaglioni & Barra 2013) In addition to distributing the most interesting products of ‘quality’ or ‘complex’ TV (Mittell 2015) developed abroad in Italy, especially by shows produced by HBO, since 2008 Sky started to produce original content (the premium-based model; see Scaglioni & Barra 2021) that reworked the genre both at a narrative and thematic level. These shows featured strong and innovative visual styles: ‘[t]he high production and promotion investments went hand in hand with a strong authorial perspective, distinctive visual and sound design, and perceived boldness.’ (Barra 2020: 181) Sky’s first two original productions were crime series: the hit Romanzo criminale (Boni 2013), based on Giancarlo De Cataldo’s novel of the same name (also the basis for Michele Placido’s 2005 film), which re-proposed the team-based model in a completely masculine iteration, and focused on criminals as anti-heroes; and Quo vadis, baby?, co-produced with Colorado Film and based on the books of Grazia Verasani, whose protagonist was Giorgia Cantini, an unconventional female private-eye. In 2005, before the series on Sky, Quo Vadis, baby? was adapted into a movie directed by Gabriele Salvatores.

In the following years, the prevailing model has been that of Romanzo criminale, as shown by the global success of Gomorrah (2014-ongoing), the family saga about the Neapolitan camorra based on the book by Roberto Saviano and the film by Matteo Garrone (Maiello 2016; Benvenuti 2017; Guerra, Martin, Rimini 2018; Renga 2019;), as well as that of Suburra, produced by Netflix (2017-2020), based on the book by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo and the film by Stefano Sollima. A strong crime component can be also found in the Netflix TV show Baby (2018-), which set aside the male-centred model, and focused on the female point of view of two teenage protagonists to tell a story in which the boundary between good and evil, victim and executioner, and moral and immoral, continues to be dangerously blurred and uncertain.

In response to premium fiction, Rai has progressively innovated and diversified its production strategies, and has offered interesting examples of balancing tradition and innovation while ‘translating’ international models to the national territory. Rai Fiction’s new productions strategies, emblematically titled ‘Nessuno escluso’ (Nobody excluded) [5], are particularly important to understand the context in which a show like Voiceless ought to be analyzed. More precisely, it is important to point out the following elements extrapolated from the new policies:

1. The need to consolidate the traditional broadcasting service, and to address a wide audience while gradually renewing the shows produced for the main channel, Rai 1, in order to ‘raise the quality of what is being offered to the general television audience.’

2. The need to consolidate the relationship of the broadcaster to national audiences while at the same time strengthening the ability to address an international audience.

3. The role and popularity of TV crime dramas, especially for their engaging plots and the hybridisation of social dramas and comedies.

4. The emphasis on the authenticity of the story, understood as ‘overcoming cultural stereotypes,’ a ‘truthful representation of society,’ the bond with recent Italian history, ‘multiple points of view,’ the ‘curiosity to discover the untold and the different’ and a ‘strong identity connotation’—this last point is also conceived as a fundamental key to the crossing of national borders.

With respect to this claim for authenticity, two further elements should be particularly stressed, especially for their role in Voiceless: the use of locations and the emphasis on female points of view and female characters, which frequently recur in the statements of Rai executives.

The diversification of locations plays an important role in Rai Fiction production strategies: ‘Rai Fiction wants to enhance the diversity of territories and territorial cultures, thus encouraging a process with a strong economic, and more importantly cultural, value. This process promotes inclusivity throughout the country and fosters an international perspective. In this sense, ‘local’ does not imply localism: rather, it refers to the accuracy of a reference point, and a setting that can become universal exactly because of its specificity’. [6] For Andreatta, the strategy to represent Italy is explicit: ‘[t]o us, talking about Italy means representing it in its territorial diversity. The setting is not an appendix or a background. It contextualises and gives substance to the plot … [i]n the last few years, we have been shooting in every region of Italy, telling the story of our country in all its cultural variety’. (Guarnaccia 2018: 19-20)

The second element to be stressed is the relevance of female narratives. For example, the TV show L’allieva, based on the popular novels by the Italian writer and medical examiner Alessia Gazzola, which recounts the emotional and professional life of Alice Allevi, a pretty girl in her twenties, and a resident in forensic medicine with a strong passion for detection. Commenting on this primetime series with respect to the importance of new stories told by female points of view, Andreatta claimed: ‘L’allieva is a new way to develop a key theme in Rai Fiction production policy, that of female narratives beyond stereotypes and clichés’. [7] As we will see in the following section, the detective story plays an important role in this strategy, and displays a very interesting mix between tradition and innovation in narrative structures and character development.

Voiceless & its Context: Female Investigators in Italian TV

The role of women in crime fiction and TV crime drama is a well-researched topic in feminist cultural criticism. Research in this field has discussed, on the one hand, the role of women as creators, characters and consumers of crime narratives. ‘Despite a perception that the television crime drama may be an inherently “masculine” genre,’ writes Turnbull (2014) on this subject, adding that, ‘women have played a key role in television crime drama right from the start, not just as the helpless victim or the untrustworthy femme fatale, but increasingly as a major player in the unfolding investigation and always as a potential member of the television audience at home from the 1950s to the present day.’ Similarly, in literature, ‘women have hardly been underrepresented as author, detective or reader in the field of detective fiction since at least the 1920s’. (Kim 2012: 3)

On the other hand, the crime genre has represented a privileged perspective for feminist media studies to observe changes of gender roles, both in society and fictional worlds. As Turnbull argues, ‘the portrayal of women in the crime drama series has served both as an index of women’s changing role in society while providing a catalyst for debate both in the popular press and in the field of feminist media studies.’ At a more general level, Hoffman (2016) claims that female characters in the crime genre allow an understanding of how gender and genre norms are questioned and re-negotiated within the wider social context.

As far as Italy is concerned, the study of female detectives on TV brings us back to the 1960s, when the country was going through remarkable processes of modernisation and female emancipation. The first female detective appeared on Italian public television in 1965, in the series Le avventure di Laura Storm (The Adventures of Laura Storm, 1965-1966, 2 seasons, each comprised of 4 episodes). (Galvagno 2020) An original production, the show featured Lauretta Masiero, who came from variety shows and vaudeville, in the role of the protagonist. Laura Storm exhibits some general trends with respect to both female detectives in crime fiction, and the Italian context more specifically.

Firstly, Laura Storm is not a professional detective, but a brilliant and independent journalist with a passion for crime and mysteries, and a complicated relationship with the police. As an amateur female sleuth, she corresponds to a trope that has been a staple of crime literature since the Nineteenth century: ‘[t]he professional female character is an exhilarating newcomer to a market long dominated by men’ (Mizejewski 2004: 2), as the professional female investigator did not rise to popularity until the1970s. As far as Italy is concerned, women were first allowed to become police inspectors in 1979, and to join the Carabinieri in 1999. As a result, shows featuring professional female investigators in more dramatic roles only really started in the 1990s. [8]

Secondly, Laura Storm was known at the time of its release as a ‘soft thriller,’ which means a blend of crime and comedy or romantic comedy (in Italy referred to as ‘giallo-rosa,’ Grasso 2019: 292). This hybridisation between crime and comedy is a distinctive and lasting feature of Italian narratives. Indeed, 50 years after Laura Storm, L’allieva (co-produced with Endemol Shine Italy), starring Alessandra Mastronardi in the role of Alice Allevi, presents similar traits. As a resident in forensic medicine, Alice cannot be considered a professional detective, and therefore seems closer to the traditional stereotype of the ‘naïve young woman:’ sensitive, clumsy but brilliant, a talented, yet still amateur detective, with ‘conventional’ good feminine intuition that helps police to solve complex cases.

This reference to the blending of crime story and romantic comedy is particularly interesting if we consider that studies in crime fiction have shown that, when referring to women, love and detection are traditionally considered to be mutually exclusive, and it seems that female detectives cannot be both ‘successful’ women and successful detectives. The idea of ‘successful woman’ is, of course, related to how being a woman is socially perceived at a given period. In this respect, professional female detectives tend to be single, divorced or widowed, because they are not able to find a balance between their professional career and the ‘socially prescribed but perceived as natural roles of wife and mother’. (Gates 2011: 15) As Reddy argues, ‘solitariness for a woman has far different meanings than does solitariness for a man, as historically women have been defined by their relationships with men … [s]olitariness of female detectives is not presented as a badge of honour but as a condition dictated by prevailing gender definitions’. (Reddy 2003: 197-198) Therefore, the lonely female investigator, without marriage and family, tends to be perceived—in common with her criminal counterparts—as an ‘unnatural,’ incomplete, or at least unusual woman.

Nordic Noir female investigators (Turnbull 2014; Creber 2015; Hansen & Wade 2017; Hill & Turnbull 2017) have popularised these traits, as both Sarah Lund (The Killing) and Saga Norén (The Bridge) are brilliant professionals who are emotionally distant, cold, and—particularly in the case of Saga Norén—lacking in basic social skills. The Nordic Noir’s model of the ill-dressed, emotionally restrained female detective is ambivalent and problematic in terms of a critique of gender representation since it seems to showcase a tension between the need to ‘masculinise’ female detectives in order to ‘fit’ the genre conventions, and the aim of criticising the ‘inherent’ masculinity of traits like rationality and coldness, thus redefining their values in society and for gender identities. On the one hand, both Sarah and Saga’s characters respond to stereotypes of female hyper-emotionality and openness with a masculinisation of their personality, based on a cold and hyper-rational demeanour that has been often considered a male trait, especially in detectives and police officers. On the other hand, both women are represented as dysfunctional in their private lives, incapable of having meaningful sentimental relationships or gratifying social lives, as if they are punished for their professional success with their inability to attain these goals.

In contrast to Nordic Noir models, L’allieva does not problematise the opposition between the script ‘woman’ and the script ‘detective’ (Klein 1995; Dresner 2007) by ascribing to the female detective qualities traditionally coded as ‘masculine’. Alice, though, could not be any more different from these Nordic Noir female investigators. Although in the professional field Alice, like her Nordic colleagues, is self-confident and aware of her abilities, she is definitely love-focused rather than job-oriented. She does not ‘neglect’ her appearance—where ‘negligence’ is of course what we tend to perceive based on prevailing social norms—as do Nordic noir female detectives: she has a fresh and natural beauty, and is completely at ease with her ‘feminine’ charm. However, similarly to her Nordic counterparts, Alice offers an ambivalent representation, because she is simultaneously progressive in the professional sphere, but conformist in the emotional one. Indeed, by endorsing the melodramatic ideal of romantic love, Alice conforms to social roles and expectations about gender that seem to remain deeply rooted in the Italian context—especially if we take into account the extraordinary female fan base of the show on Twitter. [9]

The ambivalence of Alice’s character can be extended to a number of female protagonists of contemporary crime narratives. As Dresner observes, in fact, ‘almost all female detective shows on TV are both progressive and regressive, both empowering and disempowering to women, portraying the female detective as both capable and incapable’. (Dresner 2007: 70) Given this ambivalence, they tend to provide ‘modern yet safe’ solutions to the divergences between the viewers’ expectations regarding the crime genre, and expectations of the representation of female identity, thus contributing to the broadening of reflections on, as well as the redefinition of, changing gender roles both in fiction and in society.

As we have noted with regard to L’allieva, it is specifically the genre hybridisation of comedy and romance that allows for the reworking and re-negotiation of gender representations and models of female detectives coming from abroad, thus trying to geo-localise the specificity of the crime story, for instance by removing the aspect of the ‘masculinisation’ of female protagonists.

Further interesting Italian cases in terms of ‘localisation’ are RAI’s primetime shows Imma Tataranni – Sostituto procuratore (co-produced with ITV Movies) and Le indagini di Lolita Lobosco (co-produced with Bibi Film TV and Zocotoco, 2021-), both broadcast on Rai 1, to very good ratings.

Le indagini di Lolita Lobosco stars Luisa Ranieri in the role of the deputy police chief Lolita Lobosco, who can be interpreted as another attempt to ‘translate’ the model of the ‘strong female lead’ in the Italian culture. The emotional independence and sensuality of Lolita, who in a still male-dominated work environment does not give up her high heels and the relationship with a younger man, is ‘mitigated’ by the solid emotional relationships established in her local community and her ‘matriarchal’ family—although the absent father is the figure who most influenced Lolita’s resolute personality.

Imma Tataranni – Sostituto procuratore stars Vanessa Scalera in the role of the deputy public prosecutor Imma Tataranni, a strong and incorruptible professional woman in her forties. Imma does not neglect her appearance as strong female detectives often do, nor does she passively follow fashion trends or traditionally ‘feminine’ accessories like high heels. She has a personal and eccentric style of dress, featuring kitsch pieces and unlikely combinations, which she wears coolly and confidently, showing her strong and determined personality. She has a nice family, a passionate relationship with her husband, and an intense conflicted relationship with her teenage daughter. In this respect, Imma seems to challenge the traditional incompatibility of the cultural categories of woman and detective. More interestingly, she is proud of both her professional career and the family she raised, while, at the same time, questioning the ‘natural’ correspondence between social institutions like family and marriage, and the complex sphere of women’s desires.

In contrast to L’allieva, Imma Tataranni goes further in questioning the role of parenting and caregiving in heterosexual family units: the female detective therefore disrupts assumptions related not only to the ‘manliness’ of the profession, but to the discursive meanings regarding gender relations in the personal sphere, especially as regards issues of female professionals’ ‘success’ in both work and personal life. [10] Despite being addressed to a mainstream audience, and their traditional Italian aesthetics, such as the Mediterranean setting and the hybridisation with comedy, Imma Tataranni and Lolita Lobosco are comparable to a show like Unbelievable (produced and released by Netflix in 2019) in their attempt to portray women whose strength does not necessarily derive from processes of ‘masculinisation’ and the dysfunctionality of personal relationships. [11] As Mariolina Venezia, the creator of the Imma Tataranni character, states:

[w]hen it comes to describe[ing] female characters in a novel and giv[ing] them roles that until a few years ago were exclusively given to male characters, there are two possible ways. One is ‘the men’s dream’ model: an attractive lady who is too young for the type of work she’s supposed to do, a single woman who has some dating problems, which is hard to believe, since she’s so young and pretty. Otherwise, the female character is represented as a male, a woman who moves and behaves like a man, having just a female name. By contrast, I wanted to portray a real woman acting like a woman, with the strengths of a woman, not the strengths of a man. Imma is a South-Italian woman with the problems of any South-Italian woman, a woman who wants to be a good professional in her field, but also a good mother and a good wife. She doesn’t always succeed, so she tries to get by, messing up things and creating troubles. This is very funny, and a great part of the comedy in Imma Tataranni comes from here. (Venezia 2020). [12]

Other Italian crime genre productions are more clearly influenced by the Nordic Noir, especially in the representation of Italian female detectives. Thou Shalt Not Kill (Non uccidere, co-produced with Freemantle, 2015-2018) and Voiceless are such cases. A brief comparative analysis of these shows’ female protagonists underlines how international influential models have been progressively elaborated and adapted into a different cultural context.

The protagonist of Thou Shalt Not Kill is Valeria Ferro, a thirtysomething female inspector in the homicide squad, portrayed by the actress and former Miss Italy Miriam Leone. In her role as Valeria Ferro, Leone masked her beauty and sensuality through lack of makeup, fashion negligence, and comfortable, ‘masculine’ clothing. Valeria’s loneliness and past traumas are focal points in the plot, and make Valeria a gloomy, tough and lonely character, while permeating the whole narrative with an oppressive and anguished atmosphere, further emphasised by the ‘Nordic’ urban setting (Turin, Northern Italy—while L’allieva, Imma Tataranni and Lolita Lobosco are respectively set in Rome, Matera and Bari, Southern Italy). Indeed, in the backstage materials and interviews, the actors and the crew make explicit references both to the ‘Nordic’ visual style of the show as a ‘disruptive’ element in the Italian scenario, and to the show’s relationship to Scandinavian narratives, featuring as they do strong and complex women in the role of leading detectives. The whole series engages with dark and problematic aspects of family relationships, and the first episode focuses on a case of femicide.

Thou Shalt Not Kill stands out as the most experimental primetime TV show produced by Rai, thanks to its pervasive references to Nordic Noir: its visual style, use of locations, its gloomy atmosphere and its ‘masculine’ female protagonist, combined with the refusal to use comedy insertions. Despite not being successful in Italy, the show was quite successful abroad—in France (Squadra criminale), Germany (Die Toten von Turin), and through the VOD service Walter Presents. [13]

Five years after the experience of Non uccidere, Voiceless represents a further and perhaps more balanced attempt to ‘translate’ the European ‘quality model’ of Nordic Noir into the Italian context. International TV crime dramas such as The Killing, Top of the Lake (2013-2017), The Fall (2013-2016), and Happy Valley (2014-) are explicitly recalled by creators as reference models for the show. Locations, femininity and family relations were the main elements on which the ‘translation’ process focused.

The story is set in the fictional small town of Lagonero (literally ‘Dark Lake’), where the protagonist was born, and to which she returns at the beginning of the series. In contrast to the original ideas developed during the writing process, in which the story was set in Northern Italy, somewhere near Lake Como, the final locations chosen were the lakes of Albano and Bracciano, which are closer to Rome—a more Mediterranean location—but far from consolidated visual stereotypes. Moreover, the cinematography chooses to lessen the natural light of the location, and makes it darker than the settings we are used to in shows like Montalbano or Imma Tataranni.

As to the female protagonist, the press book [14] introduces Eva as ‘an iron woman, emancipated and sometimes very rough; she is fully committed to her job and believes that doing her best is the only way to be trusted by her colleagues. Crazy, competent, obsessive, a real pain in the ass: this is how her colleagues describe her.’ Despite the apparent similarities with the character of Valeria Ferro in Thou Shalt Not Kill, the specific background of star Cristiana Capotondi’s roles in teen movies (a factor which will be examined more in detail later in this paper) contributes to the smoothing of Eva’s character and makes her transgressive traits more acceptable to the Italian general audience. Finally, it is important to stress that family is the reason why Eva returns to her hometown at the beginning of the story. Initially presented as dysfunctional, Eva’s family evolves throughout the narrative, thus allowing the family members to reconcile and strengthen their relationships. [15]

Representing Gender Violence

Voiceless introduced the topic of sexual and gender violence into prime-time public broadcasting TV, showcasing many references to today’s cultural climate, from the international #metoo movement to the Italian media campaigns to stop violence against women. Voiceless’ original Italian title is Bella da morire, which can be translated as ‘drop-dead gorgeous,’ but can also interpreted as referring to someone who is killed because of her beauty. The title is thus a direct reference to the series’ overarching theme of violence towards women as a consequence of men’s hyper-sexualisation of female bodies.

Filippo Gravino, the series’ head writer, acknowledged that the original idea was to centre the story on the crisis of the male, touching upon issues such as toxic masculinity, violence and sexual assaults, but also gender imbalance in the workplace, and gender stereotypes in Italian society. To expose the workings of patriarchy and misogyny still present in Italian society, Gravino and his team chose to construct the main character Eva Cantini as an openly feminist female detective specialising in crimes against women, who battles gender discrimination at work and at home. As the series progresses, however, so does the complexity of its gender representations. Eva Cantini and Marco Corvi, for instance, are deeply flawed characters in terms of their relationships with the opposite sex. Eva Cantini has an open distrust for men that often clouds her judgment, which is due to the violence she has witnessed in her work as a police inspector. While investigating Gioia’s death she quickly jumps to the wrong conclusions, and accuses Gioia’s former boyfriend and agent Ivano without any reliable proof, out of her disgust at Ivano’s macho and sexist behaviour. As for Marco Corvi, he is the only one who openly supports and helps Eva in her investigations, but turns controlling and possessive when Eva becomes his love interest. Within the constraints of primetime TV, Voiceless attempts to eschew Manichean divisions and simplifications, and to underline today’s complicated dynamics between men and women, in a time of changes, progression and backward reactions in gender relations.

In addition to depicting flawed characters, Voiceless’ success raises questions about the series’ ability to introduce the topic of gender-based violence into the Italian prime-time arena through the gaze of a female detective, who is reminiscent of tough and unemotional female Nordic Noir protagonists, but needs also to be a relatable and sympathetic character for Italian viewership.

In the first episode of the series, Eva’s superior accuses her of being a man-hater, due to her single-minded commitment to the investigation of gender-related crimes. Eva quickly replies with numbers and statistics about rapes and violence against women, and concludes saying that: ‘It’s not me who has a problem with men. It’s men who have problems with women.’ Later on, when her male colleague questions Eva’s investigation into Gioia’s disappearance and wants to dismiss it as a case of voluntary departure, Eva retorts: ‘Women don’t just run away. They are killed’. Moreover, Eva chooses to work with two other smart, successful female professionals, public prosecutor Giuditta Doria and legal coroner Anita Mancuso, who are as committed as Eva to investigate Gioia’s disappearance.

While the series openly declares its feminist stance in the first episode, the question is whether this prospective is sustained through the series, not only through dialogue but also, and especially, through the mise-en-scène and narrative arc. How does Voiceless thematise questions of gender inequality for a primetime, public TV audience? What forms of feminism does a broadcast focused on sexual violence enable?

In order to answer these questions, we will employ a text-based feminist media critique (Harvey 2020: 39) to demonstrate how Voiceless’ storyline thematises and elaborates key elements of feminist understandings of sexual violence on prime-time Italian mainstream TV, a bold and unusual choice for Rai 1 that was nevertheless rewarded by high ratings for all episodes. In using the concept of female understandings of sexual violence, we refer to the series’ problematisation of familiar gendered tropes in the crime genre, such as the masculinisation of the female detective, the powerless female victim, the eroticised abused female body, and the blaming of the rape survivor, along with the series’ discussion of gender violence as a question of unequal power relations.

Difficult Women: Eva Cantini & Feminism

Difficult characters and complex storytelling, along with ongoing continuity, serialisation, and high-quality visual style are now consolidated elements in cable TV and streaming productions, such as those of HBO, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. (Mittell 2015)

According to Pinedo, a new wave of feminist politics has been at the forefront of the last decade of television shows centred on difficult women, a term that evoked Brett Martin’s ‘difficult men,’ used to describe the anti-hero protagonists of recent complex televisual narratives. (Pinedo 2019: 2)

However, the difficult women of recent cable and streaming TV, while populating different genres, from crime to drama to comedy—such as The Killing, The Bridge, Orange Is The New Black (2013-2019), Fleabag (2016-2019), Russian Doll (2019) The Queen’s Gambit (2020), and so on—rarely rise to the extreme bad behaviour of their male counterparts—for instance, the drug dealing and murder in Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and Dexter (2006–2013). Often, the attributes associated with being a difficult woman, such as not smiling, having a cold demeanour, brusque manners, straightforwardness, and an active sex life, would barely register as bad in a male. (Pinedo 2019: 2) However, in a woman these are considered abnormalities or pathologies, and often justified as consequences of trauma, mental illness, or even neurological disorders (Schwartz and Kaplan, 2018), such as Saga Norén’s autism (The Bridge) or Valeria Ferro’s family trauma (Thou Shalt Not Kill).

Labelling female characters ‘difficult’ and ‘unlikable’ is often a postfeminist strategy aimed at engaging with feminist ideas while simultaneously disavowing them. (Tasker & Negra 2007: 4) Postfeminism is, according to Rosalind Gill’s well-known definition, a ‘sensibility’ (Gill 2007) that works to ‘incorporate, assume, or naturalise aspects of feminism’ (Tasker & Negra 2007: 2) and emerges in the intersections of mainstream media, consumer culture, neo-liberal politics, postmodern theory and feminism. (Genz & Brabon 2009: 5) It is therefore inherently contradictory, characterised by a ‘double discourse’ that works to construct feminism as a thing of the past, and thus no longer needed, while commodifying feminist principles in pre-packaged media products, suggesting that it was the very success of feminism that has made it irrelevant today. (Tasker & Negra 2007: 8)

This ‘double address’ is particularly evident in Eva Cantini’s depiction as a ‘difficult’ feminist woman, a recurrent motif through the miniseries, according to current postfeminist sensibilities. Eva is confrontational, especially towards male figures such as her male colleague, her superior, and her father. She does not want to please, and she is often considered too aggressive for being a woman. Her brutal honesty and lack of pretence make her unlikable, a term that Roxanne Gay attributes to complicated female characters in literature and media, and which underlines their refusal to ‘play the part’ of the nice girl. (Gay 2014: 94) While Eva devotes herself to bringing justice to victims of gender violence, and is often very vocal about fighting gender inequality at work and at home, the emphasis on her difficult personality reminds the viewer of what Tasker and Negra call the postfeminist ‘othering’ of feminism, which depicts feminist women as ‘extreme, difficult, and unpleasurable’ (Tasker and Negra 2007: 4), thus undermining their social and political activism.

The unlikeability of the character was a serious concern for Cristiana Capotondi, the actress who plays Eva. She is well known in Italy for her girl-next-door, sweetheart persona, with breakthrough roles as a romantic girl in the televisual series Orgoglio (2004-2006) and in the teen movies Notte prima degli esami (2006, dir. Fausto Brizzi) and Come tu mi vuoi (2007, dir. Volfango Di Biasi). In Voiceless she was cast against type, a challenge acknowledged by both the director and the casting director during our interviews. However, the challenge was a productive one, as Cristiana Capotondi’s star persona brings a certain douceur to the otherwise edgy Eva, further complicating the character’s arc.

Eva Cantini is thus constructed as a liminal subject that incorporates both feminist instances and postfeminist readings of feminism. Eva is impulsive, prone to swearing, and has an active sex life based on occasional online encounters without any emotional attachments, a characteristic that she shares with other recent female detectives, both Italian and foreign—for example, Bar Lume’s Vittoria Fusco (2013), Petra (from the 2020’s eponymous series) and Stella Gibson in The Fall. Indeed, Voiceless producer Cotta Ramosino said that the inspiration for Eva was precisely The Fall’s sexually assertive detective played by Gillian Anderson, adapted to the more conservative Italian context.

Sexual freedom has often been a problematic feature in female characters, who are more subjected to morality judgments than are men (for instance, the Madonna-whore dichotomy of the melodrama genre, and Film Noir’s femme fatale). Of late, an active, non-monogamous sex life and an aversion to romance seem to be constant characteristics of contemporary postfeminist anti-heroines, even outside the crime genre—from the 90s Manhattanites of Sex and the City (1998-2004) to the contemporary anti-heroines of Fleabag and Russian Doll.

According to feminist scholars, sexual freedom is one of the characteristics of a postfeminist sensibility, an analytical category that engages with feminist ideas while simultaneously disavowing them. (Gill 2007) For instance, the rhetoric of empowerment and choice used to justify women’s newfound sexual freedom and its media representations depoliticises a feminist critique of the sexual double standard used to judge men and women’s sex lives. This ‘double entanglement’ (McRobbie 2004) is particularly evident in contemporary female-centred crime series. The female protagonists’ sexual promiscuity is seen both as a marker of their liberated selves, but also as a sign of pathology and trauma, as they are incapable of having a stable emotional and family life. In Voiceless, this narrative is complicated by the relationship between Eva and Marco, her colleague: Eva, who prides herself on putting violent men in jail, willingly enters in a relationship with his colleague Marco, knowing that he has a past as an abuser. As the series progresses, Eva experiences Marco’s rage and jealousy, and their relationship soon turns abusive, forcing her to face her own vulnerability to male violence.

In Hardboiled and High Heeled, Linda Mizejewski marks a distinction between noir and female detective fiction: in noir, the productive narrative relationship is between a male detective and a femme fatale. In female detective fiction it is between a woman detective and a homme fatal. In analysing the symbolic meaning of rape in these narratives, the author points out that while the male detective’s danger in his involvement with the femme fatale evokes a Freudian symbolic castration, the female detective’s involvement with a dangerous man can lead to actual rape, even though it is often suggested but not acted upon. (2004: 134) Rape exposes women’s vulnerability to male violence, which is often sustained by an environment in which sexual violence against women is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture: this is defined as rape culture. What does it mean when it is a woman who investigates a rape? Does the perspective change, and move from female victimisation to male accountability? In order to answer these questions, it may be useful to compare Voiceless to the American drama television miniseries Unbelievable, produced by Netflix and released in 2019.

Both Voiceless and Unbelievable centre on female detectives who investigate crimes against women: a sexual assault turned into homicide in Voiceless, and a serial rapist in Unbelievable. Both series have incorporated feminist insights into the depiction of sexual assaults; in particular, they move away from a stereotypical depiction of rape victims to more complex, multifaceted representations of the crime, the perpetrators, and especially the survivors.

Dismantling Rape Myths

Both Voiceless and Unbelievable aim to address and critique media representations of ‘rape myths,’ According to Khalor and Eastin, rape myths refer to ‘false but persistent beliefs and stereotypes regarding forced sexual intercourse, and the victims and perpetrators of such acts’. (2011: 216) Rape myths suggest that women fabricate rape, that the sex is consensual, or that they are promiscuous, have bad reputations, and dress provocatively. In brief: they ask for it. Khalor and Eastin’s research suggests that the persistence of rape myths in society at large may be facilitated by the prevalence of rape myths on television. Through a close reading of Voiceless, paired with a comparison to Unbelievable, we aim to demonstrate how the Italian miniseries introduces elements of a feminist understanding of sexual assault into the area of prime-time entertainment.

Voiceless’ main plot revolves around the killing of beauty pageant contestant Gioia Scuderi after a failed rape attempt. Despite being killed before the series’ opening scenes, Gioia is a powerful presence throughout the narrative. The series’ aim to focus on ‘listening’ and ‘giving back’ agency and voice to the victim is already present in the international title, Voiceless, which also echoes Unbelievable in highlighting the attention paid to the victims and survivors of gender violence. Cattleya’s producer Cotta Ramosino indeed argued that the idea of the victim as a fully-fledged character was central to the pitching of Voiceless to Rai. Narratively, Gioia’s life and personality is reconstructed by Eva through past-mediated memories, such as home movies, recorded interviews, and friends and family’s recollections of her life. In doing so, her character is not merely a victim, but a young woman with dreams, personality, and agency.

In their analysis of the American primetime show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Cuklanz and Moorti underline how often crime series’ storylines point out factors such as pornography, beauty pageants, and sexual objectification of women as factors that promote or cause rape culture. (2006: 310) However, both Unbelievable and Voiceless portray a more complex relationship between gender-based crime and gender imbalance in society. Unbelievable, for instance, makes a point of showing that the serial rapist targets different kinds of women, not always just the young or beautiful, reinforcing the idea that no woman is ‘asking for it’ because anyone can become a rape victim. (Chaney 2019)

In Voiceless, Gioia’s status as an aspiring velina (showgirl) and beauty queen is never used to justify or eroticise her death. The respectful treatment of Gioia, and the refusal to blame her profession or her looks for what happened to her is a powerful critique of what Danielle Hipkins calls the ‘beauty trade-off’: the idea that the possession of beauty automatically makes a woman stupid, bad, or a whore, thus reversing the blame from the perpetrator of the violence to the victim. [16]

Representing rape on screen is often a risk, insofar as the graphic attention to violent details may lead to an eroticisation of sexual violence against women, even in female detective-centred crime dramas, a Jermyn points out in her poignant critique of The Fall. (Jermyn 2017)

On the contrary, neither Voiceless nor Unbelievable include graphic depictions of rape, and nor do they objectify sexual assault victims, providing a female gaze which is defined ‘by what it does not linger on—namely gratuitous visual depictions of rape and other forms of violence against women.’ (Blake 2017)

Moreover, in Voiceless and Unbelievable the raped women are not mere plot decoys but are presented as survivors with agency. In Unbelievable, there is a striking contrast, for instance, between how the male policemen and the female detectives conduct their interrogation of sexual assault victims. While rape survivor Marie Adler is rudely and insensitively questioned by male policemen and subjected to a cold, mechanical medical examination, detective Karen Duvall’s approach is respectful and empathetic; for instance, she starts every interview with a request for consent, a subtle way of reminding the rape survivors that the man who raped them did not rob them of control. (Chaney 2019)

Voiceless’ narrative structure pairs Eva’s investigation of Gioia’s murder with a subplot that deals with sexual violence: the rape of Eva’s sister Rachele ten years before the start of the series’ events, a crime that Rachele never denounced to protect her son Matteo, born out of the rape.

Rachele is at first presented as an irresponsible single mother, who goes out at night leaving her school age child alone at home, drinks too much, and cannot keep a job. After confiding in Eva about the sexual assault and facing her rapist, who is now a married man, Rachele still blames herself for what happened, as she was drunk that night, and infatuated with him. Rachele’s own internalised rape myth is eventually dismantled both by Eva’s trust in her judgment, and by her father’s recollection of that fatal night. He admits that Rachele came home aware of having been sexually assaulted, but that he convinced her not to press charges for fear of judgment and recriminations. Thus, Rachele’s narrative journey involves not only coming to terms with her sexual assault, but also acknowledging and dismantling pervasive rape myths, often internalised, that blame the victim and not the perpetrator.

Voiceless inscribes the presence of sexual assault in all spaces, often perpetrated by members of the family, as in Gioia’s case, or friends, as in Rachele’s case. The perpetrators are depicted as family men and trusted members of the community, as opposed to strangers or criminals. Voiceless thus simultaneously highlights and dismantles rape myths: it reiterates feminism’s claim that toxic, violent masculinity should not be relegated to the realm of devious, outcast subjects, but is rather facilitated by society at large. Moreover, it depicts the power imbalances of the sexual assaults and the struggles of women who are often blamed for the crime they are subjected to.


In the last decade, original content produced by pay and VOD players (particularly Sky and Netflix), as well as the increasingly relevant circulation of ‘complex’ international TV shows in Italy, have encouraged processes of innovation and diversification in the production strategies of the public Italian broadcaster Rai. TV crime dramas, which have been produced by Italian television since its inception, have played a key role in these processes, while also depicting increasingly complex and multi-faceted female characters, especially female investigators.

As widely discussed in feminist cultural criticism of crime in literature, film, television, and popular culture, women as detectives continue to represent a great challenge to the norms and conventions of the crime genre, as well as an important key to interpreting how gender identities are socially re-negotiated, especially regarding the relationship between professional and private life.

Our case study, Voiceless, proves to be particularly interesting since it can be interpreted as a mature result of these innovation processes, and an attempt to ‘relocate’ international models (especially the Nordic Noir model) in the Italian context. Indeed, Voiceless experiments with new ways to balance tradition and innovation in productions addressed to the mainstream audiences of broadcast TV. First, the harshest traits of the Nordic female detective are smoothed, without the character losing independence and complexity; second, the family and the sentimental spheres, although problematic, remain reference points; and finally, locations are diversified while trying to maintain a connection with Mediterranean culture and imagery.

Moreover, Voiceless presents a conscious effort to avoid clichés of victimisation and eroticisation in the depiction of gender violence, in line with the most recent and innovative international crime productions that focus on female detectives and rape culture. Analysis of Voiceless and Unbelievable indicates that the two miniseries, albeit different in terms of production (national broadcasting versus private streaming company), audience, and geographical location, shared a similar sensibility in representing victims and survivors of sexual assault. Their narratives and aesthetics focused on female solidarity and survivors’ empowerment offers a feminist understanding of sexual assault, and counterbalances the vilification and exploitation of female victims so often presented in crime genre productions. In doing so, both Unbelievable and Voiceless critique and innovate the traditional association of crime with masculinity, thanks to ‘difficult,’ complex female characters, and a respectful depiction of rape victims and survivors.



Special thanks to Karen Hassan and Giada Giannecchini from Cattleya, who allowed us to conduct (even in the challenging times of the Covid-19 outbreak) some essential interviews in the preparation of this article. In particular, with respect to Voiceless, we have done the following in-depth interviews: Filippo Gravino, screenwriter, 24 November 2020; Claudia Marotti, casting direction, 4 and 8 December 2020; Andrea Molaioli, director, 8 December 2020; Laura Cotta Ramosino, producer, 15 December 2020.

Valentina Re would also like to thank the whole team of ‘DETECt – Detecting Transcultural Identity in European Popular Crime Narratives,’ a project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program(Grant Agreement No. 770151), and particularly Luca Barra and Massimiliano Coviello.



[1] For a comparative evaluation, the first episodes of the first seasons of the Italian primetime series L’allieva (2016-2020) and Imma Tataranni—Sostituto procuratore (2019-)—also co-produced by Rai Fiction and featuring a female protagonist in the role of investigator—were watched by 20,07% (5.162.000) and 23,3% (5.118.000) of the viewers on the same channel.

[2] In this new phase, as Luca Barra effectively summarises, ‘production companies and broadcasters collaborate as a team on financing, creative and production management, sharing risks and benefits. The producer takes a share of the business risk, develops ideas, submits them to its partners, acquires intellectual properties and collaborates with top authors, showrunners, head writers, directors and actors. The broadcaster relinquishes part of the control and acts as project and team leader. Instead of focusing on a single market, multiple sources of income are combined’. (Barra 2020: 186) All translations from texts or other sources in Italian are done by the authors.

[3] In summer 2020, Andreatta moved to Netflix to work on original Italian content.

[4] On the subject of the team-based model, it is also worth mentioning La piovra (1984-2001) and La squadra (2000-2007), produced by Rai.

[5] ‘Nessuno escluso,’ (last accessed 12 February 2021).

[6] ‘Nessuno escluso,’ (last accessed 12 February 2021).

[7] ‘Alessandra Mastronardi, io ‘Allieva’ geniale e pasticciona,’ (last accessed 12 February 2021).

[8] See for instance, Linda e il brigadiere (1997-2000), Donna detective (2007 and 2010) or policewomen in police procedurals (La squadra, 2000-2007). For an overview of Italian TV policewomen and the role of female characters in the team-based model see Buonanno 2012, and especially chapter 6, ‘Le ragazze con la pistola’.

[9] ‘La rivolta dei fan su Twitter che reclamano l’Allieva 3,’ (last accessed 12 February 2021).

[10] And differently from previous productions like Provaci ancora Prof! (2005-2017) and Donna detective, in which the protagonists Camilla Baudino and Lisa Milani struggle to reconcile professional and family life, without a rethinking of the division of roles in the family being considered conceivable.

[11] It is also worth noting that the first episode of Imma Tataranni revolves around the themes of rape and exploitation of illegal immigration.

[12] Mariolina Venezia is the author of Imma Tataranni book series. The English translation is taken from the DETECt’s MOOC Euro Noir: Transcultural Identities in European Popular Crime Narratives, see (last accessed 15 April 2021).

[13] The first season (12 episodes) aired on Rai 3, the most sophisticated public channel, from September to October 2015 (first part) and then from January to February 2016 (second part). The first part of the second season (24 episodes) was initially released on RaiPlay in June 2017 and then aired on Rai 2 from June to July 2017. Ratings were very low compared to similar Italian TV shows broadcast by the channel, and the second part (after the release on RaiPlay in December 2018) was then relocated on the niche channel Rai Premium from January to February 2019.

[14] Courtesy of Cattleya.

[15] Although the scope of this article is limited to the productions of the Italian public broadcaster Rai, it is important to underline that the commercial broadcaster Mediaset and the pay-TV Sky have also recently produced several noteworthy crime dramas featuring a female detective as the protagonist, respectively Il processo (2019) and Petra (2020- ).

[16] Hipkins analyses the perception and public discourses around the mediated figure of the Italian velina (showgirl), her connection to Berlusconi’s sexual scandals, and the consequent slippage between the term velina and that of mignotta (prostitute) in the Italian press. (Hipkins 2011)


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