In her BBC drama, Gillian Anderson is fearless and groundbreaking in her portrayal of what a smart, strong, sexy woman can be.
During one of my psychiatry residency interviews, a noted psychoanalyst asked me, “Who is your favorite role model?” Feeling intimidated, I went for the safe beauty pageant answer, “My mom.” But what I really wanted to and should have said was “Scully from the ‘X-Files.’”
I had always loved her cool-under-pressure demeanor, her mix of intelligence and beauty, her logic and unflappability even in the face of weird monsters and aliens and her smoking-hot partner Mulder’s offbeat spirituality. She was a doctor too; I even copied her simple medium-length bob as a hairdo.
Fast-forward 15 years, after a frustrating immersion into the career world, I’ve struggled to remember or even adhere to my old vision of Scullyness. I’ve been worn out by years of microaggressions, gaslighting, and constant questioning both external and internal of my authority and identity as a female professional. Was it really possible to always be as steely and emotionless as Scully in the face of suffering patients and constant demands and pressures from many sides? Was that even the ideal anymore?
Enter the recent BBC-Netflix collaboration, “The Fall.” Gillian Anderson is back in an amazing detective role that echoes Scully, but with arguably greater nuance and complexity in the character of Stella Gibson. In some ways, Gibson is Scully on steroids and ice cubes, more brazen and confident in her mid-life sexuality but also highly controlled, methodical, poised. Her mature look is even different, with softer, blonder locks and a penchant for silk blouses (although the super-high heels for the petite Anderson remain the same.)
The show seems like it initially might follow the stereotypical route of unconsciously glorifying the exploitative serial killer who objectifies and devalues women with horrific sadism. But with the luxury of a miniseries focusing on one killer alone, there is time to explore his pursuer in depth as well, and the interesting dynamics of the department Gibson works for.
Accordingly, there are refreshing moments of honesty peppered throughout the series that I have never really heard in any shows about women in the workplace, especially a male-dominated one like the police force. Gibson asks someone not to put “innocent victims” (who all happen to be professional careerwomen) in a press release about the killer’s crimes, given the potential double standards or indifference if future victims happen to be prostitutes. When a junior female officer expresses emotion and guilt after an error, Gibson treats her with sisterly compassion instead of what could’ve been cold admonishment. When Gibson brazenly initiates a one-night-stand with a sexy cop, she is well aware again of the potential double standards and discomfort that ensue when the issue becomes public due to an ensuing investigation.
She even keenly scrutinizes how her appearance will be interpreted when during a conference one of the buttons on her blouse accidentally pops open to reveal cleavage (disgusting the killer who calls her “English bi#$%”) and when during another key meeting she decides to arrive in a full old-school police uniform. This resonates as so true in an era when Hillary Clinton’s momentary cleavage during a press conference led to viral scrutiny, and when I was once reprimanded as an attending psychiatrist for wearing open-toed shoes.
Gibson is savvy in the ways she projects authority but unabashed in her expression of her femininity at the same time. It’s a tricky balance, but she surprisingly succeeds despite some snafus (like having to bust her whiny colleague’s nose after he makes unwanted drunken advances.)
Interestingly, my male companion watching the show worried that she was “too serious” in her role; that her iciness perhaps wasn’t realistic or maybe overdone. But I think that is how Anderson’s seminal characters operate; they are intense, obsessive professionals who analyze instead of indulging in idle gossip or chatter. It makes me wonder, is it too “masculine” to be focused on the task at hand in lieu of smiling and servicing everyone’s emotional needs? Like the forced constant smile of Miss USA contestants? And importantly, Gibson isn’t emotionless; she cries at key moments in the show, and isn’t afraid to show vulnerability at times, although she is certainly aware that she cannot afford to show such moments too often in this deliberate chess game.
When Gibson brings up the famous Margaret Atwood quote about men being most terrified of being laughed at by a woman, and women being most terrified of being killed, the show again reveals refreshing empathy for the female point of view in a world where the narrative is largely dominated by men. Gibson’s hatred for the killer mirrors mine as I watch, literally cursing at him for his perverted misogyny. It feels good to know someone like her is on our side and is right on this psychopath’s trail.
Here’s to future shows and movies that openly and realistically portray gender dynamics and help all viewers empathize with the struggles of women and minorities and LGBT people who must negotiate structures that still mainly cater to the white hetero cis-male way of life. And thanks to the brilliant acting of Gillian Anderson, who is fearless and groundbreaking in her portrayal of what a smart, strong, sexy woman can be.
Jean Kim is a psychiatrist and writer working in Washington, DC. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University and received her M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins. She is a blogger for Psychology Today and has written for The Washington Post, In These Times, The Rumpus, and other publications. Her website is jeankimmd.blogspot.com.