Killing Eve’s murderous women break TV taboo

Deadly dames: Sandra Oh, who plays Eve (right), loves “the explosion, the rage, the catharsis” of Killing Eve.

Today, female characters can be bold, brave and strong — but what about violent? Killing Eve, which dominated the BAFTAs, is a story of complex women who are as bloodthirsty as any man.

A Russian assassin and an MI5 operative pursue each other across countries in a murderous game of cat and mouse. There is tension, intrigue and a lot of blood. It’s a familiar formula. But in Killing Eve, something is different: both the murderer and the spy are women.

On Sunday night, Jodie Comer won the best lead actress BAFTA award for her portrayal of Villanelle, a glamorous Russian psychopath with a taste for poisoned hair pins and big pink dresses.

Comer’s competition for the TV prize included her co-star Sandra Oh, who plays the eponymous MI5 agent Eve, Villanelle’s adversary.

As soon as it was released last year, critics hailed Killing Eve as thrilling, stylish and the future of television, while audiences delighted in watching women behaving badly. Now, with the second series due out in the UK next month, excitement is reaching fever pitch.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer of Killing Eve, has expressed frustration with “the cult of the strong woman character” on TV. She says it prevents women from being emotionally complicated on screen.

In contrast, Waller-Bridge’s female characters are celebrated for being selfish, twisted, complex and arrogant. For the writer, this also means showing women who are capable of great violence.

“I think people are slightly exhausted by seeing women being brutalised on screen,” Waller-Bridge explained in March. But “seeing women being violent […] is refreshing and oddly empowering”.

For decades, the ‘dead girl’ trope has been replayed on our screens. Elle Hunt, in The Guardian, reflects that women appear in crime dramas only to be victimised by predatory men and end up as beautiful corpses.

Most recently, Netflix’s new release Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has been accused of glamourising Ted Bundy, a charismatic serial killer who murdered dozens of women.

In her book, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, Alice Bolin argues that crime shows have “power to reinforce social order” by presenting women as victims.

In contrast, Killing Eve flips the formula of violence on its head, shocking audiences and subverting gender norms.

Breaking boundaries?

Is female violence on TV empowering for women? In pop culture, men are frequently violent and evil. Why does violence suddenly become unacceptable when it’s committed by women? Do we still expect females to be good, docile girls?

But can it really be empowering to watch women hurt and kill each other? Aren’t we past the days of presenting cold-hearted killers (like James Bond) as cool and stylish? Should female characters aim to challenge abusive, toxic masculinity on screen, rather than imitate it?

You Decide

  1. In your opinion, what was the best TV show of 2018?
  2. Is female violence on TV empowering?

Activities

  1. Write your own definition of the word “empowering”. Compare it with your classmates’.
  2. In pairs, write a script for a scene between Eve and Villanelle, then act it out.

Some People Say...

“Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
At Sunday’s TV BAFTAs, Killing Eve won best drama series; best supporting actress for Fiona Shaw, and best lead actress for Jodie Comer. The first series, which debuted on BBC America in 2018, is about an MI5 agent called Eve who becomes obsessed with catching a Russian assassin codenamed Villanelle. The second season has already been released in the USA, and is expected to air on the BBC in the UK next month.
What do we not know?
What the second season has in store for Eve and Villanelle — who we left in a perilous and ambiguous situation — or if the loss of Phoebe Waller-Bridge as lead writer will impact on the quality of the scripts. She has been replaced by her friend Emerald Fennell, after Waller-Bridge left to complete her other project, Fleabag.

Word Watch

Psychopath
A personality disorder characterised by a lack of empathy and remorse, with displays of egotism.
Eponymous
Whose name features in the title.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge
A TV writer and comedian who came to prominence with Fleabag, a BBC Three series adapted from her Edinburgh Fringe show. The second and final season of Fleabag ended earlier this year.
New release
Starring Zac Efron as American serial killer Ted Bundy.
Subverting
Challenging or undermining the established order of things.
Docile
Submissive, well-behaved.

Subjects