A 2 Part Blog

Part One:  Which Genre?

In a recent article about the fiction of Angela Carter on Salon.com, Laura Miller discussed the importance of the imagination, fantasy, and fairy tales to Carter’s feminism and praised Carter’s audacity as a feminist of the 1970’s, since that was a period during which feminism was busy restricting itself to austere realism.  Miller’s recognition of what fantasy can mean to the depiction of women’s experience is a good starting place for this blog about the Australian television series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2011–).  MFMM explores a feminist vision through its heroine, Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis), a “lady detective,” who in 1920’s Melbourne, the time and place in which the series is set, is an anomaly.  The stories are detective stories, but MFMM can also be described as frankly and enthusiastically fantastic.  On that basis, those who still skew toward “austere realism” might consider the fantasy a contamination of the detective genre and discount MFMM as a subject for serious study.  But that would not be wise.

The better course would be to recognize the uniqueness of the hybridity of fantasy and the detective mode on MFMM and the ways in which the series exists as serious fun.  The fun is apparent immediately in the character of a lady detective who is also a flapper, an atypical amalgam of ego and id, “boop boopeedoop” insouciance  and an “elementary” precision,  a fantastic hybrid combination by its very nature.

Phryne and car

There is also an obviously playful aspect to the central relationship in the series, between the uncontrollable Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) of the city south station, a repressed man who does things by the book, a combination most police would consider fantastic, but it gets the job done handily on MFMM when there is a mystery to be solved.

Phryne and Jack

Then there’s the often voiced allusion to James Bond in describing Phryne Fisher, initiated by Kerry Greenwood, author of the novels on which the series is based, and picked up by the Australian press, summoning up yet another genre that is not to my taste but delights not only some fans, but also the creative team that makes the show.  What is to my taste is that what could have turned out to be a hodge podge mess is, in fact, a genre hybrid that pushes the series into the realm of Carter’s audacious engagement of female experience.

Series creators Deb Cox, head writer/producer, Fiona Eagger, producer, and their Every Cloud Productions are equally adventurous in the way they have adapted Greenwood’s characters for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  Even a casual glance at Greenwood’s much loved detective novels reveals that they are pretty true to genre while Cox and Eagger have put the detective stories onscreen as a wild amalgam of all the above mentioned genres, with a bit of the romantic comedy, the Busby Berkeley musical, and some archly witty Noel Coward dialogue thrown in for good measure.  Apart from the fun of inhaling this potpourris, I am fascinated by the series as a model of how mixed genres can break up old cliches about female characters and women’s experience in an unforeseen way.

There has been much speculation over the years, by those of us who take umbrage at the typical female character in the mass media, about what it takes to rescue the representation of women from patriarchal fantasies.  Many agree that to do so requires a rearrangement of the basic structure of storytelling.  Theories have ranged from arguments for the necessity to depart from grammatical sentences to stern harangues about the necessity to strip the mass media of their pleasures since, some claim, all pleasure in entertainment supports patriarchal dominance.  Angela Carter did neither.  She took a different route, through the pleasures of the imagination as she restructured fairy tales to get to an evolved form of enchantment.  Bouncing off Carter in my approach to the very pleasurable Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which has a fairy tale, fantasy aspect to it, I would also like to summon  Umberto Eco, who, in his essay on Casablanca attributed its enduring success and its seemingly eternal ability to give pleasure to audiences to the way it “mixes genres with wild abandon.”  The hybridity of MFMM presents another reason to speculate that mixing genres, as an alternative to smashing what we now call patriarchal conventions, is a way of cleansing the doors of perception through pleasure.  William Blake would be proud.

Others will be dubious.  Historically, and even today, for many, hybridity does not carry a positive charge.  Look in a dictionary and you will find that synonyms for hybrid are overwhelmingly negative, including words like “mongrel,” “mish-mash” and much worse.  But more recently, some hybrids have taken on a positive connotation.  Where “adulteration” of genre used to be frowned on, genre hybridization has become a fairly common occurrence on television, perhaps because on so many successful series after a few years the writers have felt the need to move into hybridity to invigorate their original premises.  After a while The X-Files produced episodes that strayed from the original sci-fi genre into horror and satire. Castle and Bones have made similar generic leaps.  MFMM takes this trend further by beginning as a hybrid and so casts light on what can happen when hybridity is the primary aesthetic of a series structure, what it can do and how it might function over the long haul.

For those not in the know, Phryne Fisher is a talented detective without portfolio who consistently helps the 1920’s Melbourne police force, which doesn’t hire women as detectives, to solve their cases.  In featuring as her closest female allies a lesbian doctor named Elizabeth “Mac” MacMillan (Tammy McIntosh) and her maid/companion named Dorothy “Dot” Williams (Ashleigh Cummings), a very conventionally feminine, Catholic, as the Kerry novels do, the series takes a somewhat feminist tack, but doesn’t thereby break convention.  Since 1930, Nancy Drew has been keeping the same kind of company.  Nancy’s best friends include a girl named George rather similar to Mac and a sweet, ultra femme friend named Bess, not unlike Dot.  Phryne’s age in the series is, however, quite unconventional.  She is a mature woman, not a girl like Nancy Drew and the Phryne of the novels, but not mature enough to be asexual, like Miss Marple; the two most popular cliches for fictional women detectives.  Yes, that’s innovative feminism at work.

This mature detective is an elegant, rich, doll-like seductress with a Louise Brooks bob.   And although there is a fairly well established albeit newish tradition established by Scully and Mulder in The X-Files of couples that blunder toward the mystery of intimacy as they solve cases, Miss Fisher enjoys a very unusual relationship with handsome Jack Robinson, indeed like that of no other television duo of which I am aware.  Like S & M, they have no sex with each other for years—the show is now entering its third season—while the audience becomes increasingly desperate for them to consummate their obvious mad mutual attraction.  The MFMM twist is that, at the same time, Phryne continues to indulge in brief casual sexual interludes onscreen with a number of other men who crop up as they solve cases.  Even as in Season 3, as Jack and Phryne are turning toward romance with each other, Phryne continues to have no sex with Jack as she dallies with others.  This odd wrinkle in their relationship, in an off beat way, justifies the comparison with James Bond, as does some of her dashing ability to master the technology of the time with panache.  In a candid e-mail correspondence with me, Deb Cox touched on the idea of Phryne as a female Bond:  “I have some mixed feelings about Phryne’s gun and her martial arts and her use of her daggers, etc. but, justify this to myself because she’s a heightened, cartoon-like character– and would never torture or torment anyone and does avoid actually trying to kill people….Personally, I like the James Bond analogy because it highlights the double standard applied to men’s and women’s sexual behavior.”

Phryne with gun

In her e-mail correspondence with me, Eagger indicated that she is even more on board with the James Bond image,  “I find perplexing…how Phryne’s sexual activity is judged . Originally this was a big issue with our network, the question being, was Phryne allowed to have no-strings attached sex? And how would audiences judge her if she had casual sex?  I do not believe male characters would be put under the same scrutiny. Before we were commissioned, we had to do a ‘Phryne sexual manifesto’ — justifying her sexual choices.”

A “Phryne sexual manifesto”!  Mmmm.  I take their points, but have mixed feelings too.  If Phryne were to any significant degree James Bond in a bra, I would experience her as little more than just another boring female action figure aspiring to “be like a man.”  If the Phryne who shows up on screen, however, freely indulges her sexual whims, she is also a distinctively womanly presence; an adventurer in a different voice, so to speak.  And Deb Cox has that in mind too.  She told me, “It wasn’t our only aim but part and parcel of a broader decision making process.  We were not necessarily being politically correct about promoting a feminist lead character, but wanted a female protagonist who could serve as a morally sound role model—and for us, having sound feminist credentials had to be a part of our central character’s make up!” This is hybridity with teeth:  Bond’s immorality, Cox’s desire to create a morally sound role model, the detective genre, and the international espionage genre.  But because of the simultaneous presence of the fantasy genre the series has developed a fantasy logic of its own.

Here’s what I mean.  All storytelling onscreen ratchets up the visceral and sensory aspects of audience experience (as opposed to the print medium of the novel); and the way Cox and Eagger have depicted their heroine, what might have been the more realistic elements of the series’ detective stories have been raised into the terrain of the fantastic because of the spectacular presentation of Phryne’s sexuality and her body. The word-based novels highlight Phryne’s rational inner life, which is much more logically compatible with the conventions of the detective story than the technicolor physical/ sexual presence of Essie Davis as Miss Fisher through the timbre and come hither cadences of Davis’s voice, the sensual energy of her body, and her many splendored wardrobe.  Phryne on television, emerging from a mixture of genres, in a highly visceral medium is not just a free wheeling woman for the reader to think about, but a felt, disorienting combination of a self-liberated sex bomb and a rigorous intelligence.

The meeting of Phryne’s fantasy female body, atypical for the detective in a detective genre, with Jack’s unconventional appreciation of its presence in the phallic world of crime solving draws the audience into the realm of the metaphors of mental and potentially physical orgasms, metaphors that are not to be found in purer forms of the detective genre.  The hybridization cross fertilizes the elements of the series and, like a “hypodermic to the unconscious,” to borrow Amy Taubin’s phrase describing David Lynch’s work, changes the gender dynamics of the series detective stories on a deep level.  Fantasy speaks very powerfully to our most primal feelings. It doesn’t do well at sending messages, but it has an enormous effect on audience response, and can either further entrench old automatic responses, or break them up.  And here may be MFMM’s true relationship to James Bond.  The series turns on its head the entrenched woman-erasing fantasies of Western culture in Bond’s phallic wonderland.   Feminism without dogma.  Entertainment with a female fantasy kick.

Most critics would agree that the purely phallic Bond is the natural outgrowth of a culture dominated by men’s desires, not a conscious plot by men to demean women.  Fish don’t know they’re swimming in water; it’s their natural environment.  Thinking about the “water” is usually left to women in the industry whose natural environment is the much less often circulated fantasies of female desire.  Within the confines of the Every Cloud preserve, an unusual amount of womanly influence makes this possible.  In Eagger’s words:  “I often feel Miss Fisher is a collective of strong women’s voices. Kerry Greenwood is the author of the books and there is a lot of her in Phryne.  Carole Sklan, who has been the Head of Drama at the ABC while the show has been commissioned, is a great and intelligent supporter of the show – not always on the same page in terms of tone and humour, but none the less a great contributor. Jo Bell, the script development manager for the ABC, loves the murder mystery genre and has been a great contributor to the crime plotting. And then there is Essie herself, who always has strong and intelligent views on her character. So many passionate and committed women involved. Often this can dilute a series, but in our instance, I do believe it has been to the show’s benefit. Saying that, Deb and I have a pretty clear vision for the show.  I would also like to note that we always make sure we have women writers and directors as part of the team. And on series 3 we had more women on the crew than men. I wouldn’t say we adopt a positive discrimination hiring policy, it is just the way things have worked out.”  What arises naturally within this enclave is conventional plot with a subtext imbued strongly with women’s fantasy, and it isn’t all about sex by any means.  Moreover, the primal affect fantasy has on the audience is matched by the primal role it has in the process of the creators.  I hope I am not too presumptuous in saying that where the fantasy genre is strong, it wells up from somewhere deep of the creators’ sensibilities, not always a place of complete awareness.  It’s likely that not all of the female vocabulary in MFMM is conscious.

For example.  In the first season, there is a running discussion from episode to episode about the long ago disappearance of Phryne’s younger sister, Jane, and Phryne’s anguished desire to know what happened to her,  In the last three episodes of the season, Phryne discovers Jane’s fate, at the hands of  the villainous Murdoch Foyle (Nicholas Bell).  There are some obvious female issues on the surface of this story.  But behind the story, I see a more generalized female sorrow that would be unlikely to be present in a fiction generated by the usual, predominantly male team.

Phryne’s determination to unravel the mystery of Jane reveals a subtext of survivor guilt that many, many successful women grow to realize is part of their lives.  All women who have made their way in a man’s world have left behind some of their mothers and sisters, in the specific and the general sense.  We gather that as a little girl, Phryne was bedazzled by a male magician at a show and while she was distracted Murdoch Foyle abducted Jane in order to further his own fantasies.  In fantasy speak, this is a world of male power and female naivete that speaks on a subconscious level to what threatens to distract us in patriarchy and to our sense that we can’t always save “our sisters” from male hallucinations which both enchant and enthrall us.   Did Cox and Eagger have this in mind?  I don’t know, but it’s there.

And here, I believe, lies the secret at the heart of the almost aphrodisiac appeal for the male and female fans of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.  That primal energy of fantasy again.   On a very deep level the co-presence of the phallic male and the distinctively feminine emerges as an essential part of the mystery of life:  the dangers of phallic power, and the attraction of male-female bonding.  Through Jack and Phryne, there is particular interest in the issue of whether a man can function in partnership with a woman.  This question breaks through the surface explicitly in one of the series’ most crucial episodes, “Blood at the Wheel,” in which Jack is almost paralyzed with grief when he thinks Phryne has been killed in a car accident.  When he discovers that she is alive, his first response to try to cut her out of his life so that he can continue to function.  On the simple, obvious level of the detective story, the audience is drawn back to very conventional fears about a woman in a man’s world.  But in MFMM, those fears are uniquely answered on both a detective story and fantasy level.

To be continued.  Part Two:  Whose Show?


Martha P. Nochimson 26 year career as a University Professor of film and literature is only part of her story. In addition to the pleasure she has taken at being in the classroom at Mercy College and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she has worked as an editor for Cineaste magazine, written for American television, and has had the privilege of being in long running conversations with both David Lynch (25 years and counting) and David Chase (ten years and counting).  She has published six books and is about to start work on Inner Tube:  Television Beyond Formula for the University of Texas Press.