The Emotional Detective: Gender, Violence and the Post-forensic TV Crime Drama

by: & Amy Boyle , June 14, 2021

© Screenshot from Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015-2019)

The second episode of Top of the Lake (2013, 2017) opens with Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) literally putting herself in the victim’s place, lowering herself into the cold and potentially deadly lake water, re-enacting a pregnant girl’s descent in the previous episode. In the first episode of Jessica Jones (2015-2019), the titular private investigator (played by Krysten Ritter) gets drunk and has sex with the man she is investigating, experiences flashbacks of her own trauma, and compromises her own safety in an attempt to prevent the further exploitation and abuse of young women. Marcella (2016-present) opens with Detective Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) bloody, distressed, bruised and naked in a bathtub; this is the audience’s introduction to the crime solving genius who is the anchor of the series. In Sharp Objects (2018) journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) relives her childhood sexual abuse and traumatic homelife, while investigating the brutal murder of young girls in her hometown. In Mare of Easttown (2021), Detective Sargent Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) is grieving her son’s suicide and is haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a local teen girl, when the body of another young local woman is found naked and dead in a local creek. In each of these recent television depictions of women investigating violence against young women, either as a detective, private investigator or journalist, the protagonist is deeply physically, psychically and emotionally affected by her work. Aesthetically, narratively, and thematically, Top of the Lake, Jessica Jones, Marcella, Sharp Objects and Mare of Easttown are distinct, employing different kinds of storytelling techniques and ways of rendering gendered violence, investigative labour and crime; but they are united in their centring of a truth and justice seeking female investigator who is emotionally invested in and traumatised by their work. We propose that characters such as Robin, Jessica, Marcella, Camille and Mare represent a different kind of female detective on TV: the emotional detective.

The emotional detective is perhaps best understood in terms of what she is not: the confident, capable, stylish, postfeminist-inflected female detective popularised by the likes of The Closer’s (2005-2012) Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick), Bron/Broen’s (2011-2018) Detective Saga Norén (Sofia Hellin) and The Fall’s (2013-2016) Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson). The rise and proliferation of this kind of self-possessed, aesthetically aspirational and highly effective female detective has been widely discussed and theorised as postfeminist, neoliberal, and as preferencing a glamorous professional femininity over a feminist ethics of care. (Jermyn 2017; Pool & Rank 2019) Whether it is Castle’s (2009-2015) Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), Detective Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) of Rizzoli & Isles (2010-2016), or those noted above, the exceedingly capable and heterosexually desirable female detective is a staple of contemporary TV crime drama. While the capable postfeminist detective at times exhibits traumatised emotional behaviour and is rendered physically vulnerable by her job, she is predominantly depicted as part of and invested in upholding the judicial industrial complex. Deborah Jermyn suggests the coolly confident postfeminist-inflected female investigator is a glaring oversight for the feminist credentials of women-centred crime drama, because the existence and proliferation of this character trope suggests a lack of focus on or care about the felt trauma of female victims of violence. (2017: 268) In contrast, the emotional detective makes apparent that the trauma of gender-based violence is not limited to the bodies, minds and psyches of the victims and survivors, but rather it ripples and resonates outwards to all those who investigate or are affected by violence.

In this article, we identify and examine a tendency in serialised TV crime drama whereby an emotional and traumatised female detective investigates gendered crimes relating to sexual assault and abuse, domestic violence and coercive control; often taking on the role of a surrogate and/or witness whereby they act as a thematic, narrative, and emotional stand-in for female victims and viewers. In this article, ‘female detective’ is broadly construed to include any women undertaking investigative labour in service of the solving of violent crimes on TV. Therefore, we also consider investigative journalists, private investigators, forensic scientists, medical examiners and police officers of various ranks as occupying the role of ‘detective’. The emotional detective is a particular subset of female detectives on TV who is volatile, fragile and unpredictable. Her coping mechanisms, such as alcohol abuse, self-harm and casual sex, are coded as unhealthy and self-destructive. Marcella experiences blackouts, Camille self-harms, and Jessica, who drinks profusely, experiences periods of insomnia. The emotional detective’s relationships with friends and family are fragile at best and abusive at worst. She is sometimes viewed as unhealthily invested in her cases to the point of destruction. Mare continues to investigate the murder of a local teen despite her suspension, and when she enters a suspect’s house unarmed, her partner is shot in the crossfire and dies. It is not a coincidence that the detectives we identify as ‘emotional’ are white. The privileges of whiteness are baked into this construction and are at the centre of its functionality, because this kind of fragility is not accessible to Black and Brown detectives without them coming under increased criticism for a lack of professionalism.

Despite being in a position of relative power thanks to her employment and whiteness, the emotional detective is traumatised by the world because she is acutely aware of violence (physical, emotional and psychic) that can and does impact women. The impact of understanding, witnessing and experiencing violence is rendered in emotive bodily terms: stumbling, vomiting and crying at moments of intense distress or trauma. We argue that the emotional detective highlights that the emotional, psychic and psychological cost of traditional police and judicial responses to gendered violence is experienced primarily by women, whether as victims or investigators. While the postfeminist-inflected detective often affirms the judicial industrial complex, the emotional detective highlights its limits and makes apparent the messy, damaging and unfulfilling forms of justice that it offers. The emotional detective is unreliable due to trauma and post-traumatic stress, which frames and informs her perspective and that of the series. She is haunted by her past, her cases, and the world around her. As a victim-survivor, she often places herself in the victim’s circumstances and goes to great lengths to achieve justice for her victims, whether inside or outside the boundaries of the judicial system.

We understand the rise of the emotional detective at the nexus of three key generic, televisual, and cultural shifts: the push for serialisation in the post-network era (Klinger 2018; Mittell 2015; Turnbull 2014), the ‘post-forensic’ juncture (Balanzategui 2018; Jermyn 2013), and the increased demand for women characters and narratives in conversation with popular feminisms. (Bisson 2018: 8-10) We track the forensic turn and the post-forensic juncture in contemporary crime TV to situate the emotional female detective in relation to larger trends in crime TV. We consider the emotional detective as part of what Lisa Coulthard identifies as an ‘affective turn’ from ‘showing and telling’ to ‘thinking and feeling’ in how violence, trauma and investigation are represented in recent crime drama. (2018: 556) We unpack what makes the emotional detective ‘emotional’, and highlight how emotionality, emotional spectacle and emotional realism contribute to her construction. To do this, we offer an analysis of two key examples of the emotional detective in Top of the Lake’s Detective Robin Griffin and the titular private investigator in Jessica Jones.

Putting the Victim back into the Body of Crime Drama

The TV crime drama is almost as old as TV itself. As Jermyn argues, there can be nothing entirely ‘new’ in a genre so integral to television. (2012: 104) All crime dramas rely on the tropes of ‘broken bodies’ as the effects of crimes, and the ‘inquiring minds’ which investigate them to some extent. (Coulthard et al. 2018: 508) As Barbara Klinger describes, ‘crime stories often rely on discovering white female victims in gothic situations to launch their narratives’. (Klinger 2018: 517) The central paradox of women-centred crime TV is that while crime dramas that centre female victims offer commentary on gender-based violence, in order to do so they often feature highly stylised, increasingly graphic displays of violence against women that border on voyeuristic misogyny. In forensic crime series like Law & Order: SVU (1999-present), Criminal Minds (2005-2020) and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015), the white female victim became the central figure of the investigation (Parrott and Parrott 2015: 73), as did the detectives that investigated the abuse, exploitation, and often deaths of these victims. Procedural, systemic and forensic crime dramas of the 1990s and 2000s are part of what Lindsay Steenberg calls the ‘forensic turn,’ which refers to a cultural fascination with all things forensic that is not specific to a genre or medium. (2013: 1) Steenberg uses this term to identify how ‘a mediated version of forensic science has embedded itself in American culture’s foundational views about truth, criminality, professionalism and victimhood, and the contemporaneous surge in forensic entertainment’. (2013: 1)

Owing to the conventions of TV crime drama, victims are largely absent, except where they are rendered as a body and/or memory. In 1998, Charlotte Brunsdon identified crime TV’s shifting ‘tendency towards the spectacularisation of the body and site of crime’. (242) Many TV crime dramas, particularly those that focus on the investigation of gender-based violence in the pursuit of legal justice, such as Law & Order: SVU, Prime Suspect (1991-2006) or Criminal Minds, require the violence to be enacted on women’s bodies and displayed for audiences. In these series, the victims’ bodies become a site for violence, specularisation and interrogation. In the enactment of violence and in the process of investigation, the victim is rendered lifeless and powerless. As Joanne Clarke Dillman contends, contemporary crime media is preoccupied with dead women’s bodies who ‘echo and visually intensify a discourse that posits women as disposable and replaceable in the era of neoliberalism and globalization’. (2014: 2) The victim functions as what Klinger calls a ‘gateway body’ that, once discovered, ‘typically attracts less attention than lead detectives or serial killers’. (2018: 518) In the contemporary TV landscape, this tendency is often taken to an extreme, whereby the ‘site of crime’ is reduced to the physical site of wounding or the literal wound of the body. (Kahle 2013: 252; Steenberg 2013: 76-81) As both Klinger (2018: 521) and Steenberg (2013: 76-81) argue, the white female victim exists for the purposes of spectacle and autopsy, or metaphor and mourning. For this reason, Jermyn (2017: 262) and Steenberg (2013: 5) argue for the need to put the victim back into the body of crime drama, or in other words for there to be a closer focus on the victim and their experience beyond forensic and visual spectacle.

From Cagney & Lacey (1982-1988) to Law & Order: SVU to The Fall, whether in procedural cop dramas on broadcast TV or serialised prestige crime dramasthe female detective is a central figure in the contemporary TV landscape. As Jermyn highlights, the female detective operates as a key site ‘on which to debate the continued marketability, popular appeal and cultural significance of TV crime drama’. (2017: 261) The female investigator is central to the shift towards victim-focussed crime drama, as she emerges as an expert in the recognition, reading and translation of the female body. (Jermyn 2003; Jermyn 2013; Nunn & Biressi 2003; Pribram 2009) Perhaps the most notable example of this is Law and Order: SVU’s Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), who is an iconic figure in the genre, and is characterised by her ongoing commitment to victim advocacy. In season four of Law and Order: SVU this is verbalised when Detective Eliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) says to his partner, Olivia: ‘For long as I’ve known you … you’ve always identified with the victims. Maybe that’s because you’re a woman, I don’t know. I do know it’s one of the things that makes you a great cop. It’s also one of the things that makes this job torture sometimes’. (4.22)

In TV crime dramas, female detectives often become surrogates for the deceased or incapacitated victims, who are most often women. The female detective as already-traumatised, as demonstrating feminine competencies, or as being mirrored with and shown as identifying or empathising with the victim is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, this gendered trope appears in most crime dramas that centre around a female detective (Coulthard et al. 2018; Nunn & Birressi 2003; Pribram 2009; Steenberg 2013), or is otherwise signalled to in its lack. (McHugh 2019) This invites the audience to empathise with the emotional, psychological and traumatic realities of victims by situating the female detective as a surrogate. This is often achieved by drawing biographical, experiential, emotional and physical connections and similarities between the detective and the victims. For example, in the opening episode of Law & Order: SVU, Olivia explains that she deliberately chose to work with victims of sexually based offences because she was conceived as the result of rape. As both Alaine Martaus (2009: 75-6) and H. Rakes (2019: 86) write, rape acts as both character motivation and narrative content in women-centric detective TV series, and many women detectives who investigate sexual assault, rape and violence of which women are the primary victims, are themselves sexual assault survivors, for example Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), Robin Griffin and Jessica Jones. Mirroring the experiences of the female detective with those of the victim also serves as a feminist textual strategy to represent and understand the violence of the crime as continuing beyond the traumatic event. In other words, the detective is characterised and shown as still living with trauma. The female detective’s personal experience is often used to suggest that they are uniquely qualified to investigate these cases. It also means they can function as a surrogate when the actual victim is either not present or unable to articulate their ‘unspeakable’ wounding. (Herman 1992: 8) Although not new, we suggest that the trope of the emotional detective has intensified due to the proliferation of serialised crime drama and an attempt to move beyond or complicate the forensic. We contend that TV crime dramas like Top of the Lake and Jessica Jones that feature an emotional detective, deviate from the forensic fascination at the physical site of wounding to a concern for the emotional and psychic wounding.

Emotionality, Emotional Realism and Emotional Spectacle in TV Crime Drama

In a genre that traditionally prioritises the rational, the emotional detective redresses the mounting spectacle of violence against women by foregrounding the emotional complexities of gender-based violence and representing the related crimes, victims and justice required in introspective and emotionally resonant ways. The ‘emotion’ of the emotional detective is multifaceted and encompasses depictions of post-traumatic stress, the detective’s emotionality, emotive and emotional responses to violence, and the undertaking of emotional labour in service of victims and survivors. Top of the Lake, Jessica Jones, Marcella, Sharp Objects and Mare of Easttown incorporate moments of emotional spectacle, which refers to arresting, extravagant depictions of emotion and feeling. Displays of emotional excess, or what Laura Grindstaff and Susan Murray call the ‘emotional money shot’ (2015: 111), are trademarks of TV aimed at women, for example melodramas and reality TV. Jessica Ford distinguishes emotional spectacle from production-based spectacle, to highlight the difference between ‘cinematic’ and ‘indie’ TV. (2019: 937) However, we use emotional spectacle to describe how the emotional detective is depicted on screen through physical bodily displays of trauma such as crying, convulsing, vomiting, trembling and screaming. In TV crime drama, emotional spectacle operates as counter to the spectacle of violence and the tendency to specularise women’s bodies as the site of the crime, resulting in what Shannon Kahle calls the dangerous tendency to ‘conflate persons with bodies’ and privilege the ‘visual’ and ‘the visual mediation of the body as a way of knowing’. (2013: 241) In contrast, depictions of the emotional detective specularise feelings of victimisation and the experience of being enmeshed in violence, rather than the bodies of lifeless victims.

The emotional detective’s emotionality is rendered through what Ien Ang calls emotional realism. Ang describes emotional realism as connotative rather than denotative, employing a sense of emotional authenticity to invite viewer involvement through personal identification and empathy, even if some character and narrative elements seem otherwise removed from reality. (1982: 41-50) Emotional realism is achieved through functions of characterisation, serial storytelling and aesthetic and aural techniques, such as the use of close-up shots to emphasise emotions, affective music and performance. (Ang 1982: 51-85) TV has the capacity to render invisible, internal and introspective experiences of emotions on screen through affective audio-visual devices, such as close-ups on faces (particularly eyes and breathing), stillness in both frame composition, and camera movement and emotive music. As in Ang’s conception, we interpret the TV crime drama’s turn towards emotional realism to be intimately connected to gender, because employment of emotional realism has important thematic, narrative and aesthetic consequences. Namely, this allows some recent series to emerge as victim-centred and trauma-informed.

In contrast to recent male-centric crime TV that employs masculine logics of psychological realism and surrealism (Balanzategui 2018: 670), crime dramas that trade in emotional realism tend to skew feminine with both gendered and feminist ramifications. The turn towards emotional realism brings with it a shift away from what Jason Jacobs calls ‘body trauma TV’. (2003:1-2) Jacobs’ work considers the body trauma depicted on medical dramas (2003: 2-3), but due to genre crossovers between medical and crime drama in the 21st Century, the term has been taken up to describe the rise of forensics associated aesthetics, narratives and themes in crime drama. (Glynn & Kim 2009: 105; Ridgman 2012: 3) While body trauma TV focuses on the violent acts leading towards physical injury or death, the emotional detective focuses on the emotional and psychological trauma experienced by the victims, survivors, and investigators of gender-based violence. For instance, in Sharp Objects Camille is haunted by the ghosts of young women she has lost. Her sister Marian (Lulu Wilson), who died when they were both young teens, is always at the edge of Camille’s psyche, and she appears in glimpses within the frame and in reflective surfaces. In focusing not only on the violent instigating event, but the aftermath of violence, crime and trauma for the victim and/or survivors, emotional detective series employ an emotionally resonant and trauma-informed mode of storytelling.

The emotional detective highlights the emotional toll of investigative work on the detectives, as evidenced in how the emotional bleeds across and between the personal and professional, leaving little, if any, distance between the two. The emotional detective is often depicted as lacking sufficient emotional support, both at work and in the domestic sphere. Arlie Russell Hochschild describes emotional labour as work in which the worker manages feelings and expressions for the institutional, cultural and economic benefit of their employer. (2012 [1983]: 7) In the case of detectives, the emotional labour is undertaken in service of the victims and the judicial system. This of course is not the same as justice, because the emotional detective is part of a judicial industrial complex that perpetuates incarceration in its name. Furthermore, detectives are embedded in the state’s most violent arms (policing and incarceration), and the norms and values of heteropatriarchy. More than ‘managing emotion’, the emotional detective is involved and invested in their cases, but more importantly in the victim and/or survivor. They are doing therapeutic, care work with and for the victim (and sometimes the perpetrator), which is typically beyond the boundaries of a professional investigation. For instance, in Mare of Easttown, Mare bears witness to and holds space for the grief of community members, including Dawn (Enid Graham), whose daughter is missing, and Beth (Chinasa Obguagu) whose brother is suffering from addiction. While ‘emotionality’ in the workplace is traditionally framed as a feminised weakness, in the context of serialised crime dramas and their focus on the violence experienced by women, it is often situated as a strength, even if it is sometimes framed as an ‘unhealthy’ personal investment.

We suggest that the ‘post-forensic’ juncture (Balanzategui 2018; Jermyn 2013) and the post-network push toward serialisation in recent crime dramas (Klinger 2018; Turnbull 2014) enable series to trade in emotionality and emotional realism. Jessica Balanzategui uses the term ‘post-forensic’ juncture to highlight the difference between crime TV of the 1990s and early 2000s like CSI, NCIS (2005-present) and their numerous spinoffs, and the rise of the serialised ‘quality’ crime dramas of the 2010s like Hannibal (2013-2015) and True Detective (2014-present), which disrupt forensic and scientific logics by employing ‘highly stylized, surreal aesthetics and avant-garde formal devices’. (2018: 658) Similarly, serialised ‘quality’ crime dramas like Top of the Lake, Marcella, and Mare of Easttown complicate the role of the female detective, the female victim, and justice in the genre in ways that are not apparent in series that feature the coolly confident postfeminist inflected detective of much forensic crime drama. In season one of Marcella, the eponymous character is haunted by the unsolved Grove Park murders from years earlier. While Marcella can see the connections between her earlier unsolved case and a recent spate of similar murders, her fellow (mostly male) detectives consistently question her methods, instincts and convictions. In Jessica Jones, the overly-emotional, and at times unstable, Jessica is placed in stark contrast to the conniving manipulative lawyer—and Jessica’s employer—Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss).

The post-forensic juncture in crime TV could also be considered as part of what Coulthard calls the ‘affective turn’. Coulthard’s analysis of Top of the Lake, Marcella and From Darkness (2015), considers how ‘music in recent crime series exposes the gendered and generically rooted tropes of crime’s obsession with ‘showing and telling’, and reorients these terms along acoustic lines of affective listening’. (2018: 555) While Coulthard ties this affective turn to the series’ deployment of ‘thinking-feeling music’ (2018: 555), we consider how emotionality is rendered in visual and narrative terms through emotional spectacle and emotional realism. As our case studies Top of the Lake and Jessica Jones highlight, the emotional detective is an affective, aesthetic and narrative construction that makes apparent the impact and trauma of gendered violence on victim-survivors, their families, and the women who investigate this perpetual violence.

Robin Griffin: Taking the Corpse Home

Top of the Lake has been lauded as a uniquely victim-centred crime drama, owing both to the characterisation of its protagonist Detective Robin Griffin, and to the foregrounding of trauma survivors. (Deshler 2020; Wielgus 2019) Created by Jane Campion and Gareth Davies, Top of the Lake consists of two seasons which operate as miniseries, with season two subtitled China Girl (2017). The first season, which aired in 2013, is set in the fictional New Zealand town of Lake Top. Robin is visiting her sick mother when she is drawn into a local police investigation. Owing to Robin’s expertise in sexual and gendered violence, she is called in to consult when a pregnant 12-year-old girl disappears. Season two, China Girl takes place in Sydney, Australia, four years after the events of the first season. China Girl follows Robin’s investigation of the murder of a young Asian woman whose body washes up inside a suitcase on Bondi Beach. Unlike Castle’s Kate Beckett or The Fall’s Stella Gibson, Robin is not professional or composed. Instead, she is fragile, volatile, emotional and unpredictable. The casting of Elisabeth Moss as Robin is central to her characterisation as emotional, as Moss is known for being a very expressive actress whose every emotion is apparent on her face. Robin makes no attempt to feign work-life balance or form meaningful relationships with friends, family or co-workers. For Robin, her job as a detective is her life, her life is a job, and it is all traumatic. She wears the trauma of her life on her face, in the tremor of her lips, the translucency of her skin and the unkemptness of her hair. In season two there is a brief but telling scene between protagonist Robin and paternal figure and forensic pathologist Ray (Geoff Morrell) that clearly positions Robin as an emotional detective. When Ray invites Robin to have dinner with him, she simply replies ‘I’ve got a case, it’s at a vital stage’. (2.02) Ray pushes her to stay, but again she repeats: ‘I’ve got a case and I care what happens’. (2.02) Ray sees and verbalises the trauma embodied in Robin, saying ‘My angel, you are enlivened by dead matter … I care, I don’t take the corpse home with me’. (2.02) This is not a romanticised depiction of a neoliberal dedication to work, but rather a meditation on the two-fold trauma of gendered violence whereby women are both victims and investigators.

Robin not only exists in a violent hetero-patriarchal world, but she is also a product of that world. From the first scene in the Lake Top police station, it is evident that Robin is immensely experienced and knowledgeable about sexual assault and abuse. Even if the other police officers are not respectful of her expertise, she is confident in her ability and capacity to communicate and connect with Tui. In addition to working the case, Robin also contends with consistent dismissiveness from her fellow officers. She sees the value in building trust with Tui, whereas other detectives do not. Later in the first season, after confessing to witnessing Robin’s rape and not being able to prevent it, Robin’s high school boyfriend Johnno (Tom Wright) physically assaults one of her rapists, threatening him with ongoing violence if he does not leave town. This is one of several incidents in which men take justice into their own hands, seeking to avenge the past through physical violence. Johnno takes this action without Robin’s instruction, without her consent, without her permission, and without asking. This kind of vigilante violent ‘justice’ is not accessible or available to Robin or the women who experience violence. The solution to violence is not more violence, but emotion and witnessing.

Not only is the emotional detective rendered in terms of emotionality and emotional realism, the labour of detection is also innately emotional. In Top of the Lake, detective work is depicted as slow, monotonous and almost never straightforward, because much of the work of investigation is listening, asking questions and witnessing. Robin follows her emotions, lets them guide her through the investigative process, and mobilises emotion in service of the investigation. In season one, when one of Tui’s friends is brought into the police station for shoplifting, Robin appeals to him emotionally, calling on him to consider the ramifications of Tui having her baby in the bush. This appeal is direct, heartfelt, and most importantly emotive; however, it is also dismissed by the other officers. She even uses emotions as a tool in order to exact revenge or justice, such as in China Girl when Robin corners Alexander (David Decik) in the kitchen and with a gun to his head says that she believes that Mary (Alice Englert) does not love him and that she is only scared of him. As Alexander cowers in the corner, Robin stands over him with a gun to his head, tears rolling down her face.

Robin is positioned as distinctly more volatile and irrational than the detectives around her. Lake Top’s Detective Sargent Al Parker (David Wenham) is represented as having perspective and balance, while Robin is unbalanced and unreliable. This plays to the audience’s generic assumptions of the male detective as the balanced, rational figure in contrast with Robin’s instability and irrationality. In season two, the inexperienced police officer that Robin is partnered with, Constable Miranda Hilmarson (Gwendolyn Christie), assumes a similar role to Al. In many ways Miranda is the opposite of Robin: she is open and vulnerable and earnest, and willing to believe the best in people. After meeting with a potential suspect, Miranda and Robin have lunch and discuss the case. Miranda is convinced that the suspect is guilty, but Robin is not. While Miranda is following the logic in the clues, Robin is more invested in her intuition about how she feels. When Miranda asks what she is missing, Robin vaguely replies ‘there are some things that are bothering me’. (2.04)

Top of the Lake represents violence as intimate, and in doing so the series invites us to empathise with emotional, psychological and traumatic realities of victims through the surrogacy of the female detective, affective techniques and emotional spectacle. Beyond being just a surrogate, Robin merges herself with the victim and at times literally places herself in their situation. In the first season, Robin is mirrored with the missing child sexual assault victim Tui. Robin’s empathic connection with Tui and other marginalised members of the community allows the depth of Lake Top’s corruption to be exposed. Tanya Horeck highlights Robin’s emotional connection with Tui, stating that ‘the empathetic female detective forges a strong affective connection with the ‘lost girl’ via new media devices’. (2018: 579) In addition to submerging herself in the freezing lake water like Tui, Robin also holds up a photo of herself on the night she was raped, alongside that of the younger girl. The comparison between Robin’s experiences and those of the young victims are not subtly rendered, nor is the series’ investment in emotionality. When visiting the memorial site of a local young woman who has died, Robin inadvertently puts herself in the position of the deceased, wandering out onto the road as a car swerves barely missing hitting her. The emotional detective is not the mediator of clues like the coolly confident postfeminist detective, but rather she is a mediator of felt emotional and psychological trauma, with an understanding of the need for support and healing. In Top of the Lake, where gender-based violence is not only sanctioned but organised by Lake Top’s law enforcement, Robin’s personal experience means she is uniquely qualified to investigate Tui’s case. Robin operates as a surrogate victim when the victim is either not present or unable to articulate their ‘unspeakable’ wounding. (Herman 1992: 8) For example, Robin is able to interpret Tui’s cryptic, trauma-clouded ‘no one’ note, in answer to who it was that raped her, based on her own experience as survivor of organised, multiple-perpetrated sexual assault.

In the end, Robin’s capacity to intuit connections that no one else can enables her to solve the mystery of the series and find out who is responsible for Tui’s abuse; but ultimately, there is little narrative resolution. At the end of season one it is unclear what will happen to Tui, her baby, or Robin. Tui is now a child who has survived a number of traumas and has a child herself. We do not see any judicial justice enacted, or anything that could constitute closure for the characters or narrative. The same can be said of China Girl, which also lacks a clean, satisfying resolution. This lack of narrative resolution is typical of quality TV dramas, but not of crime TV. The appeal of crime TV hinges on the catharsis of justice, which is denied by Top of the Lake. While Top of the Lake stems out of prestige television drama and Nordic noir tendencies, our second example of the emotional detective—Jessica Jones—comes from a wholly different aesthetic, narrative and thematic space: comic books and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Jessica Jones: ‘Occasionally I Give a Damn’

Jessica Jones is based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s Marvel comic book series Alias (2001-2004), and was adapted for Netflix by Melissa Rosenberg. Jessica Jones began airing in 2015 and was the second in a suite of Marvel series designed to culminate in The Defenders (2017) and speak to the larger film franchise. We contend that, despite its setting within a superpowered world, Jessica Jones is more typical of contemporary serialised quality post-forensic TV crime dramas than superhero comic book adaptations. Superhero narratives, which thus far have been dominated by male-centric depictions, predominantly centre the traumatic origin story of their hero. However, as a female superhero, Jessica Jones requires a surrogate that she can employ her superpowers in service of, and in doing so Jessica occupies the role of both saviour and surrogate. Jessica is not traditionally feminine; she is deadpan, confrontational and morally ambiguous. Like the casting of Moss in Top of the Lake, the casting of Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones contributes to her characterisation. At the time of casting Ritter was well-known to TV audiences for her appearance in Breaking Bad (2008-2013) as a struggling, vulnerable drug addict who dies at the hands of the series’ anti-hero Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Like Ritter’s Breaking Bad characterJessica is described by other characters as volatile, erratic and unpredictable. At the same time, Jessica recognises the power and potential of her own emotionality, stating: ‘My greatest weakness is that occasionally I give a damn, and Kilgrave knows it’. (1.02) While Jessica may contend that emotionality is a vulnerability, it is also her power, and it shapes how she moves through the world.

Despite Jessica Jones’ aesthetic and narrative differences to Top of the Lake and Sharp Objects, like the detectives of these series Jessica is emotional, invested in emotionality, and rendered through emotional realism. Using close ups, handheld cameras and framing, Jessica Jones locates the audience in the same emotional headspace as its titular private investigator. Like many other female detectives on TV, Jessica has endured a traumatic past, losing her family when she was a child, only to be picked up by an abusive adoptive mother who adopted her for publicity. In adulthood, she is forced to relive memories of her family in her childhood home, revisiting the pain of having lost them. Prior to the series’ first episode, Jessica was held captive, abused and raped under the superhuman mind-control of Kilgrave (David Tennant). When the series begins, Jessica is recovering from having been under Kilgrave’s control, having been forced into a romantic and sexual relationship, and made to kill on his behalf.

Despite the series’ employment of film noir tropes, Jessica is not as hardboiled as she seems. She struggles with the basic tasks of everyday life, she cannot sleep due to the guilt of having killed while under Kilgrave’s control, and is depicted as experiencing various forms of post-traumatic stress. She attempts to prevent panic attacks with a technique learned from a psychologist, whereby she repeats a mantra of street addresses from the area around her childhood home. Jessica claims that she prefers to be a freelance investigator, because ‘no ties’. (1.01) While Jessica’s voiceover gives the illusion that she has productive emotional boundaries, saying ‘in my line of work, you’ve got to know when to walk away from the job’ (1.01), it quickly becomes clear that she has trouble separating, creating and maintaining boundaries, often getting entangled with clients, perpetrators, victims and confidants. Jessica is not straightforwardly heroic. When we meet Jessica in season one, she is fragile and volatile in her interactions with the world and her loved ones, in particular her adopted sister Trish (Rachael Taylor). The rendering of detective work on screen in terms of emotional realism makes apparent the trauma of gender-based violence and its many affective forms.

The emotional detective functions not only as an interpreter and translator of victims and the crimes they suffer, but also as an echo of them, because she is also a victim of similar previous violence. In Top of the Lake and Sharp Objects, the perpetrator under investigation has strong resonances and similarities with their perpetrators, but in Jessica Jones, Jessica is investigating her own perpetrator for crimes he committed against a new victim—Hope Schlottman (Erin Moriarty). As result, Jessica relives Hope’s experience of walking down a hotel hall towards the bedroom where she was raped, because Jessica also survived this exact experience, right down to the hotel room number. Therefore, Jessica (perhaps inadvertently) performs trauma-informed care work in the aftermath of Hope’s abuse. She reassures Hope that the trauma and shame is to be expected, and Jessica is able to understand what Hope cannot say about her experiences of being controlled by Kilgrave, as seen in how Jessica has Hope repeat: ‘this is not my fault.’ (1.01) In addition to these aesthetic, narrative and dialogue choices,  Jessica Jones invites us to further empathise with the victim’s experience of rape and coercive control through the surreal, in that Kilgrave literally has mind-control powers; as she says: ‘you violated every cell in my god damn body’. (1.08)

Emotional labour is central to both the role of the emotional detective and the labour of detection in crime TV. Nevertheless, Jessica points out the difficulty of managing emotion for and on behalf of others when under personal psychological strain, which highlights the personal and professional work involved in emotional labour. At times, Jessica attempts to delegate emotion work to others, but ultimately, as the emotional detective and narrative centre of the series, the labour falls to her. The relationship between emotionality and detective work is not always straightforward, as the expectation that Jessica should perform emotional labour is sometimes depicted as an impediment to the investigation. For example, while others are preoccupied with how and why Kilgrave is violent and abusive, Jessica contends ‘it doesn’t matter how he does it, it matters where so I can catch him’. (1.06) While Jessica does not always see the value of emotions to her work, the series does. Jessica’s capacity to undertake emotional labour differentiates her from Kilgrave, whose villainy is tied to his inability to empathise. Kilgrave is unable or unwilling to read and understand what others are feeling and as such he can only make demands and coerce his victims, rather than listen and empathise.

Unlike other TV crime dramas, Jessica Jones challenges the traditional judicial institutions that crime narratives largely valorise, such as policing, courts and incarceration. Jessica uses unconventional investigatory ‘methods’ and delivers on jobs that no one else can. She works both within and outside of the boundaries of regular judicial and police procedures. She resists the traditional pathways to justice, in one episode saying: ‘No police. I will handle it. You’re not going to make her feel safe Sargent, go home’. (1.04) While Jessica Jones employs the characterisation typical of the detective-centric serialised TV crime drama, it is not bound by the same pro-police logics. As a superpowered private investigator, rather than a detective, Jessica operates outside the judicial industrial complex. When Trish suggests calling the police to help Hope, who is at that moment being held captive physically and psychically by Kilgrave, Jessica responds: ‘They can’t help, Trish. You know what he can do. You know what he made me do’. (1.01) Like Hope, Jessica doubts the capacity of the justice system to help victims of crime, particularly that of gendered violence. Thus, rather than falling into the patterns of a neoliberal, post-feminist rape-revenge plot, the series more often renders as a critique of the corporate state. Jessica is frustrated by the fact that she, an individual, has to do this justice work, and is keenly aware that it should not be this way. She continually critiques the police (particularly Will Simpson, played by Wil Traval) and lawyers (particularly Jeri Hogarth) for being individualistic and self-serving, and for not doing their jobs in service of the victims. Resisting neoliberal logics, the series is critical of how care work is often neglected, and that it is women (such as Jessica and Trish) and minorities (such as Malcolm, played by Eka Darville) who have to bear the burden of this, both as victims lacking support, and as persons to whom the emotional labour often falls. Jessica knows that this work has to be done, but is also reluctant to do it as it comes at great personal cost.

Like the emotional detectives that both preceded and came after her, Jessica is not a straightforward hero: she is still grappling with the violence she has experienced, and the broader threat that Kilgrave and others like him continue to represent. Nevertheless, she performs great amounts of emotional labour and unpaid work in service of Hope, so much so that she puts off paying cases to do it. Notably, her investment does not ‘pay off’ until much later. At the end of season one, Jessica is offered more paying cases thanks to the publicity generated by Hope’s case, but by this time, she does not have the energy to take on this work and she deletes the rolling voicemail messages, as she is not ready to answer these calls for help. Throughout season one Jessica is uncomfortable with the idea of killing Kilgrave, and when she does, she is deeply regretful and conflicted, and the second season opens with her still living with trauma. With the exception of Kilgrave’s death, there is no real narrative closure, which aligns Jessica Jones with the lack of cathartic conclusion offered by other series featuring emotional detectives, such as Top of the Lake, Marcella and Sharp Objects.

Untidy Conclusions

The emotional detective’s ‘emotionality’ is not a wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ trait, but rather the natural response to the sum total of violence she has experienced and witnessed. While the emotional detective may enact messy investigations, which end in unclear resolutions, this allows her to read the ‘larger picture’ of violence and trauma, and to understand crime and justice as larger than a single perpetrator and/or victim. In eschewing postfeminist and neoliberal logic, she does not offer a neatly packaged version of postfeminist femininity and/or popular feminist empowerment, nor overtly feminist solutions for dealing with crime, justice or trauma. The emotional detective does not feature in stories where surrogacy, emotional labour and feeling are channelled towards traditional narratives of judicial justice and resolution. She does not offer any easy solutions, because the series and the emotional detective reside in their own ambiguous, messy worlds that resist the simplistic justice narratives favoured by forensic crime dramas in the style of Law & Order: SVU. Instead, the emotional detective’s messiness reveals a complexity when it comes to gender, justice and feminism. In contrast to the incarceration logics of the judicial industrial complex, the emotional detective is empathetic towards the victim, and understands justice as being for the victim-survivors, rather than something that a perpetrator is brought to.

The emotionality, emotional spectacle and emotional realism of Top of the Lake, Jessica Jones, Marcella, Sharp Objects and Mare of Easttown do not serve straightforwardly gendered or feminist ends. The series’ approach to women, emotions, violence and investigative labour is sometimes gendered, at times postfeminist and at others feminist, but usually ambivalent. Given the gendered history of women detectives being doubled with victims and positioned as responsible for the performance of emotion and care work, these tropes are taken up neither unproblematically, nor unknowingly. Recent TV crime dramas that feature the emotional detective repeatedly suggest that emotion and care work are essential and need to be allocated as a communal responsibility, not just to one person. The emotional detective takes this on as necessary work, but this is not without ambivalence or consequence. She is aware of, and frustrated by, the fact that this work is underpaid and undervalued, and she often undertakes it in the absence of others who will. As Coulthard has argued, emotional detectives could be seen to gender and pathologise female knowledge as fundamentally emotional, even irrational (2018: 564), but as we suggest, the emotional detective serves to highlight the limits of traditional judicial systems and forensic procedures. The ‘emotion’ of the emotional detective should not be misconstrued as some kind of pathological superpower that allows her to solve crimes, nor should it be linked to a personal lack (either psychological or emotional) that means they are unprofessional, unstable or mentally ill. The ‘emotion’ of the emotional detective is a natural extension of the continued trauma of being in the vicinity of gendered violence and its effects. The emotional detective is not an aberration or a heroic figure, but rather she is a symptom of the violence enacted upon women, and the women who are tasked with investigating that violence.


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TV Series

Breaking Bad (2008-2013), created by Vince Gilligan (5 seasons).

Bron/Broen (2011-2018), created by Hans Rosenfeldt (3 seasons).

Cagney and Lacey (1982-1988), created by Barbara Avedon (7 seasons).

Castle (2009-2016), created by Andrew W. Marlowe (8 seasons).

The Closer (2005-2012), created by James Duff, Michael M. Robin & Greer Shephard (7 seasons).

Criminal Minds (2005-2020), created by Jeff Davis (15 seasons).

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015), created by Anthony E. Zuiker (seasons 15).

The Defenders (2017), created by Douglas Petrie & Marco Ramirez (mini-series).

The Fall (2013-2016), created by Alan Cubitt (3 seasons).

From Darkness (2015), created by Kate Bazendale (miniseries).

Hannibal (2013-2015), created by Bryan Fuller (3 seasons).

Jessica Jones (2015-2019), created by Melissa Rosenberg (3 seasons).

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-present), created by Dick Wolf (22 seasons).

Marcella (2016-present), created by Hans Rosenfeldt & Nicola Larder (3 seasons).

Mare of Easttown (2021), created by Brad Ingelsby (mini-series).

NCIS (2005-present), created by Donald P. Bellisario & Don McGill (18 seasons).

Prime Suspect (1991-2006), created by Lynda La Plante (7 seasons).

Rizzoli & Isles (2010-2016), created by Janet Tamaro (7 seasons).

Sharp Objects (2018), created by Marti Noxon (mini-series).

Top of the Lake (2013, 2017), created by Jane Campion & Gareth Davies (2 seasons).

True Detective (2014-present), created by Nic Pizzolato (3 seasons).

Veronica Mars (2004-2007, 2019), created by Rob Thomas (4 seasons).

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