Saturday, March 25, 2017

Too far go, Fargo?

So I loved Fargo the film, not least because the female lead (Frances McDormand) was a heavily pregnant super sleuth - a pregnant Sherlock Holmes, if you will - who solved the bizarre crime riddle and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her troubles. The script, by her husband Joel Cohen and brother Ethan, was hilarious, and the surreal snow setting of a deep mid-winter Minnesota was the sweet, almost literal icing on the cake.

The TV series inspired by the film has the same setting and general story-line of a bumbling salesman who gets himself embroiled in a darkly absurd crime saga to be solved by a somewhat unlikely female detective who is married to a less than macho man.

However the first series, made in 2014, which for some reason we didn't get around to watching till now, makes one small but significant plot change. Instead of the salesman arranging for his insipid, but otherwise unoffensive wife to be kidnapped in order to pay off his debts - and it all goes horribly wrong from there and she winds up dead - he brutally murders his wife with a hammer - an obvious symbol of masculinity - a woman who is characterised as the ultimate 'nagging wife' who tells him constantly he's not a proper man and goads him to kill her by saying 'what are you going to do about it? Nothing'

The blood spatter on this poster is hers. He is right and she is wrong, presumably, men's justification for domestic violence and homicide throughout the ages.

I almost couldn't breath after this brutal scene played out, as our sympathies had very much been with this guy up until then and the way it was done was as if the writers were justifying the graphic, cold-blooded murder of a woman with a hammer repeatedly struck to her head because she was such an emasculating nag.

Fargo: Season One cast and writers - winner of Best TV Miniseries
I almost got M to turn it off at that point but, like I said, I could hardly breathe, and I think I needed to know where it went from there to see if they did anything to redeem the misogyny.

And they did - some. But was it enough? Could it ever be enough to counter the suggestion that if you think your wife is a nag and you can't get her to stop any other way, you are justified in killing her? No, of course not. There's a thing called divorce that decent people do if they don't get on with their wives/husbands.

Of course that wouldn't make for a black comedy, which this is, and one of the best, in every other respect. But is it worth it to cross that line and effectively promote domestic homicide in a world where so many men every year, in every country on earth, do beat and murder their wives and are more often than not excused murder convictions based on her so-called 'provocation'? Definitely not.

And looking at this cast and writer lineup for the series it is not that hard to see why this sort of entertainment at the expense of womankind continues to get made. However my feeling is that this line crossed dates the series and that since as recently as 2016, we are seeing a much greater reluctance to cross the misogyny line - as well as a greater willingness to have more gender-balanced casts for films and TV shows (see previous blog).

We haven't finished watching the first series yet but I am hopeful that if not the second series (2015) then the third series being made now will do better on this front than the first, even if the first won all sorts of awards. It is very good, clever and funny, but that really is no excuse, in my mind (this is my doctoral research area), for sending the message to the millions who watch these things that killing 'the nagging wife' is in any way justified, much less for purposes of entertainment.

Postscript: Having finished the first series now I'd still say the writers were wrong to replace an accidental wife killing in the original story-line with a more or less deliberate and brutal wife murder for 'nagging', a man-made concept and stereotype for which there is no hard evidence, even though it has many times been accepted in law as provocation for domestic homicide to reduce a charge of murder against a man with a history of violence against his wife to manslaughter.

However, the perpetrator does finally get his comeuppance, after he sets his second wife up to be killed, and she is beyond blame, a telling contrast to show how low the man has sunk, and it is very well done, with a satisfying sense of closure in the rest of the story-line too.

That said, he effectively got away with the first murder and was living the high life, winning salesman of the year having found his manly mojo. It was only his pride that tripped him up, not the law, which could still send the message that if you keep your cool, you can get away with murder and have it all.

The less than macho husband figure of the female detective (Colin Hanks: traffic cop then postman), who painted stamps in the first Fargo, finds his manly mojo too in the end by killing the hired assassin and getting a commendation for bravery for it. It is well done and satisfying that this nice guy, who was duped by the decidedly not-nice assassin, got to make good from bad - the little guy beating the big guy in the end. But still, it did smack a bit of the male writers wanting to amend what they saw as an uncomfortable gender imbalance in the original husband and wife story: the savvy and fearless detective wife and the mild-mannered stamp-painting husband.

I loved that relationship, one that was, moreover, based in reality, a reality we almost never see on our screens, no doubt because men don't want to believe that, in reality, women are strong, stronger than they are in many respects - though it's not a competition. That's where we've gone wrong in the past.

But at least the writers are thinking about gender constructs in somewhat critical ways rather than assuming the sexist stereotypes are true and timeless. There's a ways to go yet - women make great detectives and I'm pretty sure men can and do paint - even small things, like stamps - so let's embrace that kind of pairing and every other version of it.

Men don't have to kill to be men and we women are very good at taking care of ourselves, we just need men to support us more than they have done, and support each other too, in exposing, punishing, rehabilitating and ultimately eradicating truly violent men.

The first series of Fargo both helps and hinders this aim.  


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