A Feminist Guide to The Killing (US)

by | October 4, 2014
filed under Pop Culture

the-killing667The Killing is one of those shows that I had tons of people recommend to me but I never could seem to get around watching it until the whole American version was finally up on Netflix this year.

A few people have written in-depth feminist analysis of the lead, Detective Sarah Linden, played with incredible passion by Mireille Enos, and I could definitely spend an entire article on her. But if you’re a feminist who is just getting into or considering watching The Killing, here’s what I think you should keep an eye out for, staying as far away from spoilers as possible.

The Cons:

The Killing is set in Seattle and filmed largely in Vancouver, Canada According to the City of Seattle website, people of colour make up 34% of Seattle’s population. But there’s a serious lack of racial diversity in The Killing, except in cases where the character’s race is part of the plot (for example, a first season character of Arabic descent whose racial identity contributes to some people’s suspicions about him). There’s no good reason that at least one of the main characters and way more of the background characters like police officers couldn’t have been people of colour.

In Season 2, we do get a fair number of scenes featuring Native American characters. However, as with the Arabic character, their identity as Native Americans is always important to the plot, and there are some serious issues with how they’re portrayed.

First, many of the actors cast to play Native Americans are actually non-natives. For example, Claudia Ferri, who portrays the main Native American character, Chief Nicole Jackson, is a Canadian of Italian and Arabic descent. I’m not faulting non-Native actors of colour for taking these roles – there weren’t a whole lot of other roles for people of colour in The Killing, and it’s certainly not an issue unique to this show.

But it’s a classic example of how many mainstream media creators are still defaulting characters’ races to white and feel they need a reason to change it, other than the very legitimate reason that the whole world is not white and people of all colours have interesting stories to be told. When white is the default, everything else becomes the “other,” which is what lets TV shows and movies cast people of colour to “play” a race that they aren’t. It’s basically proclaiming that the target audience is white, and hopefully they can’t tell the difference between a First Nations actor playing a character or an Italian or Asian actor playing a Native American character.

Second, the Native American characters in The Killing reinforce negative racial stereotypes like that of the “Casino Indian”. Particularly, Chief Nicole Jackson is portrayed as corrupt, eager to take an unfair share of her nation’s casino profits while her people go without adequate food and housing. Other than a really, really short scene where one housekeeper from the casino blows the whistle to police, the other Native American characters are basically heavies ready to do Chief Jackson’s bidding.

Just look at the Season 2 episode titles and start to cringe when you read titles like “Off the Reservation” and “Sayonara, Hiawatha.”

To Consider:

In Em and Lo’s slightly tongue-in-cheek review of The Killing, they say, “Okay, if you can get past the fact that the entire series revolves around the brutal murders of pretty young girls, “The Killing”…is actually a great feminist television show.”

There’s no getting around the violence against women, and particularly against girls, in The Killing. The first two seasons revolve around finding who killed a middle-class white teen named Rosie Larsen. The main character, Detective Sarah Linden, is haunted by a case from her past that involved the brutal murder of a sex worker, and season three is about tracking down the “Pied Piper,” a killer who preys on homeless girls. Season four involves an entire family that has been murdered, and the six-year-old girl is the most visible victim.

I would not fault you for saying, “I can’t watch that.” I had to take a break from crime shows, especially those that dealt with violence against women, for over two years because I just didn’t feel like I could handle them emotionally.

Even now, there were times when I felt like The Killing showed me more than I needed to see of dead girls’ body parts, or scenes of their final moments of terror. But I don’t think you could say the show glamorized violence against women. If anything, the way it’s shown invites shock and disgust, not complacency. None of the victims is shown as oversimplified or unrealistically angelic,  and plenty of time is spent showing us the sense of loss their deaths cause their friends and relatives.

Homeless teens Callie, Twitch, Lyric and Bullet, from Season 3 of The Killing

Homeless teens Callie, Twitch, Lyric and Bullet, from Season 3 of The Killing

I was particularly drawn to the “Pied Piper” storyline in Season 3 because of its similarities to the Pickton case. In the past I’ve been critical of media that has drawn inspiration from Pickton and the disappearances and murders of women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. But The Killing comes the closest I’ve seen to getting at some of the systemic issues around that case. Characters in the show frequently mention that the “Pied Piper” preyed on homeless girls, particularly sex workers, because their relative invisibility to the rest of society made them less likely to be looked for.

What’s missing is any understanding of racism/colonialism as a factor, and that’s a huge missed opportunity. You can’t begin to understand the Pickton case without understanding how racism and a legacy of colonialism played into the number of Aboriginal victims and the fact that their friends and family were initially not taken seriously by law enforcement when reporting disappearances. We do see police in The Killing refusing to listen based on assumptions about the girls’ moral character, due to their social class and the fact they were engaging in sex work, but race is basically left out of the discussion. Most of the victims we see, and all the ones we get to know, are white.

The Pros:

Executive producer, writer, and showrunner Veena Sud was mentored by Cold Case showrunner Meredith Stiehm and says that in shows run by women:

“The female leads are very human and very real and very flawed, yet are good cops. Maybe that’s the difference: women are interested in creating real female leads.”

You can certainly see that come through in the role of Detective Sarah Linden. Women also held several key production roles  and 16 of the 44 episodes were directed by women – more than a third is significantly better than the 14% average for TV overall.

In Season 3 a subplot involving a man condemned for murder and his prison guards shows the pitfalls for men trying to conform to dominant yet toxic ideals of masculinity. In particular one of the guards, Francis, feels particularly pressured to prove his masculinity to his son after his wife has an affair. By setting an example for his son that manhood is proven through violence, he ends up seeing his entire family devastated. Rosie Larsen’s father, Stan, is another father who has to grapple with what being a man and provider means to him. On the other hand, the male protagonist, Linden’s partner Detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman), shows an alternative model of masculinity that is defined through a sense of responsibility for oneself and support for, not dominance over, loved ones.

The way LGBT characters are written in The Killing works a lot better than the characters of colour. They’re tough, nuanced, independent, and non-stereotypical. Linden’s social worker Regi isn’t written as a lesbian because they felt that was necessary for the plot; she just is. We get to see Reggie in different capacities, including marrying her same-sex partner later in the series. In Season 3, we meet genderfluid street youth Bullet (pictured at right in the group above, played by Bex Taylor-Klaus). Bullet cultivates an androgynous/slightly masculine appearance, talks tough, picks fights, and has a crush on a girl, Lyric. Bullet is also a devoted friend and super smart, and I think really the highlight of Season 3, guest character-wise.

I feel like that doesn’t even state it strongly enough. There are so many outstandingly rich women characters in The Killing. 

Of course, we can start with Sarah Linden, our “very real and very flawed” protagonist. Linden is an amazing detective who finds it impossible not to pursue the truth and justice, even though she’s deeply wounded by childhood trauma and an adulthood full of trying to discern who true “bad guys” are in a world of flawed people.

Linden is also mostly shown in comfortable, often baggy clothes with everyday hair and minimal makeup. She’s not stereotypically feminine but nor is she “one of the guys.” She gets to have sex (like women do) but she’s not sexualized for the viewer…*cough* Olivia Benson *cough*.

Linden is a single mother who tries very hard to balance her job with her responsibilities to her son, Jack, but seems often to come up short on the mom front. As someone who doesn’t want kids I find it really refreshing to watch a mom on TV who’s shown as being far from perfect without being villified.

Two other flawed mothers that we’re still invited to empathize with are Mitch Larsen, the grieving mother of Rosie Larsen, played heartbreakingly well by Michelle Forbes; and Danette Leeds, the mother of one of the homeless teens in Season 3, played by Amy Seimetz.

I’ll leave you to discover exactly what makes other women in The Killing such great characters and will just let you know to keep an eye out for Kristin Lehman as political aide Gwen Eaton (Seasons 1 and 2), Jamie Anne Allman as Rosie’s aunt/Mitch’s sister, and Joan Allen as a Colonel heading up a boys’ military school (Season 4).

The Killing has been hailed as “one of the most feminist shows on TV”  but I can’t go quite that far, because of what I think are significant issues around the portrayals of Native Americans and a general lack of people of colour on the show. But there is a lot for feminists to appreciate, and I’m interested to hear what your thoughts are! Comment below.


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