There is something bizarrely compelling about watching something that you’ve been told you will disagree with. This is how I encountered Ripper Street which ended this week, apparently axed as a result of disappointing viewing figures when scheduled against the dependable I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here. From the very beginning, everything about Ripper Street signalled that feminists should dislike it: there is the name, of course. Drawing on the long mythology of the ‘Ripper’, the series reminds us of popular culture’s tendency to sexualise the murder of women. And then there is the opening scene: a group of Victorian Ripper tourists are led through the grimy streets of East London, only to encounter their own female body, displayed, as so often, in death for the inquisitive gaze of the viewer and detective. And obviously there is the whole pre-publicity which drew attention to the fact that this was a series about blokes fighting crime in a lawless London full of prostitutes… again.
Again. That’s perhaps the word that best describes my initial reaction to the series. Another series full of sexualised violence against women. Another series that casts women primarily in the roles of prostitutes and housewives. And another series that returns men into their ‘rightful’ place as patriarchal law makers.
So considering all of this, how come I mourn its end (on the BBC for now, there might be another series commissioned by Love Film)? This question has become quite an obsession and returns me to the beginning: there is something compelling about encountering that which superficially at least goes against all your deep-seated beliefs. Hence why there are regular Tory posters on The Guardian webpages, and left-leaning audiences reading The Daily Mail. At first sight this seems to go against ideas of the ‘echo chambers’ that supposedly structure our online consumption. However, by engaging with the exact opposite, all that happens is that our deep-seated beliefs find further ammunition, which is highly pleasurable precisely because it stirs our emotion. It is this moment of emotional charge that the TV industries are increasingly exploiting in order to attract attention in this media-cluttered world.
This is of course in no way a new trend. HBO has developed its brand identity around offering material that differentiates it from network material, as Cathy Johnson argues. Much of this material deliberately draws on the controversial that would get the American Right up into arms. As a result, I nearly missed Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2006), thinking it was just another TV drama that played on controversy in order to attract a particular clientele. Deadwood might use swearwords rather liberally, but underneath it is a deeply caring drama that returns me to difficult questions of ethics and morals. Much of these questions are proposed with rather conservative answers, but some are left more open and ambiguous. Such a strange mixture of offensive veneer, morally problematic and politically ambiguous deep structure also underlies Ripper Street.
As John Ellis points out, Ripper Street re-imagines our Victorian past through the lens of steampunk. It celebrates and is fascinated by Victorian ideas of progress as offered by science and at the same time unsure about the cultural and social implications of it. In the first ever episode, the series celebrates the invention of film whilst at the same time condemning the snuff genre that comes with its invention. As so often in audiovisual media, whilst condemning ‘snuff’ it shows the making of it in all its gruesome detail, and by doing so contributes to the continued sexualisation of women’s suffering.
But, as already indicated, Ripper Street is more complex than that. The sexualisation of violence against women is part of its offensive veneer. That doesn’t make it better, but it does complicate my relationship to it. Underneath this veneer, it actually critiques this – to quote Ellis again – not entirely Victorian culture in which women’s lives remain regulated by men, where women increasingly understand that they remain ‘men’s property’. A particularly insightful episode is ‘Become Man’ (season 2, episode 3) in which Susan, Jackson’s brothel-owning wife, is abducted by a group of radical Match Girls who try to get compensation for the horrible exploitation and suffering they had encountered. Susan soon starts to sympathise with them, and in particular their leader, and ends up realising that, rather than engaging in any form of power by being her own business woman, she colludes with and extends the power of men.
In a scene, shot beautifully as a love scene between the two women, Susan sows up one of the woman’s scars, while they talk about what it means to be a woman. The relationship is tender, and the camera frames the two women in constant relationship, close-up, registering every expression of emotion. It is an incredibly intimate scene in which both women confess to their vulnerabilities and their ultimate powerlessness. It invites the viewer in, not as the traditional voyeur who watches from the distance, unobserved, while fetishising the women’s bodies, but as someone close to these women, sharing in their experience. The closeness between the women is here clearly matched with a viewing position that similarly places the spectator in a position of sharing and confession. Rather than this being a maternal position, it is a one closer to that of a friend or indeed closer to that of the sympathetic witnesses of a second-wave consciousness raising group. Such a position clearly undermines the more traditional representations of women in the role of prostitute and feeds into the moral and political ambiguity of the series.
It is scenes like this that manage to transcend the blokey veneer and remind us of the other side; the experience of women. Such a scene also manages to critique the post-feminist discourses that claim women can gain empowerment through sex, and hence speak to feminist concerns. And yet, Ripper Street also displays the women’s bodies as sexually pleasurable. But it does so at the same time as reminding us of the conditions that make these images possible. And so, the pleasure of watching something that we are told is supposed to go against our deep-seated beliefs becomes the pleasure of hearing our echo yet again.
Elke Weissmann is Reader in Film and Television at Edge Hill University. Her books includeTransnational Television Drama (Palgrave) and the edited collection Renewing Feminisms (I.B.Tauris) with Helen Thornham. She is vice-chair of the ECREA TV Studies Section and sits on the board of editors for Critical Studies in Television. She migrated to the UK in 2002 after realising that German television was as bad as she remembered