A soft-boiled detective: rethinking gender in Ripper Street

by Chris Fieldus , September 11, 2013Leave a comment

Ripper Street


Ripper Street is the latest hit crime drama to reach Channel Ten, debuting on the Australian network in June of this year. One of two period police procedurals produced by BBC America in 2012, Ripper Street shifts our attention from Downton Abbey and the early twentieth century, refurbishing the modern CSI format with nineteenth-century style.

Invoking the name of Jack the Ripper, whose brutal murders and accompanying media sensation shaped our modern conception of the serial killer, series creator Richard Warlow seeks to ‘tell stories about the streets down which he walked and committed his crimes in the wake of those terrible murders.’ Constructed within a popular format, and reflecting a twenty-first century social consciousness, Warlow’s investigation of his bewildering legacy has reached an eager audience.

In the opening scene of episode one, a tour guide leads a group into the degenerate streets of Whitechapel. Throughout the first season, the H Division police explore everything from the Jewish orphanage to fetish pornography rings, opening a dialogue with a wealth of moral and intellectual tensions in their relentless pursuit of social justice. Placing his audience in the position of historical voyeur, Warlow glamorises East London’s late Victorian landscape, evoking Dickens, Gaskell, Conan Doyle, and Henry James as we discover the Ripper’s haunts.

Head of the division, and the man who led the hunt for Jack in 1888, Ripper Street finds a fictional Inspector Reid six months after the killer’s disappearance. Under pressure on all fronts, and faced with an inevitable failure to close the case, the police force find their authority dramatically weakened, leading its heroes to engage with modern themes of masculinity-in-crisis.

Inspector Reid and Sgt. Drake Bennet, along with ‘Pinkerton’ and forensics specialist Homer Jackson demonstrate a commitment to, and care for, the communities they protect – in particular, the women of the Tenter Street brothel, run by Madame ‘Long’ Susan Hart.

An American, Jackson accesses ‘the transatlantic conversation of the late Victorian age.’ Indulging in olde worlde drugs and debauchery, he brings more than cutting edge forensic techniques to the team. Indeed, in our first encounter with Jackson, we catch him between the legs of Rose Erskine, one of Long Susan’s girls, who swoons ‘this is all topsy-turvy, I’m sure!’

Bringing the conventional historical narrative in line with contemporary trends in television, of more positive, diverse and balanced gender representation, Warlow skews the action of the men in blue. By virtue of the period aesthetic, recreated with an attention to style and fine detail traditionally ascribed to femininity, the gritty police procedural naturally assumes an air of period melodrama.

In defense of his precinct, the historical Edmund Reid reveals himself as ‘a very free thinking, forward-looking kind of man, not a sort of jaded seen it all copper.’ In Warlow’s fiction, his character incorporates a domestic throughline, granting our protagonist a complexity and emotional depth uncharacteristic of the conventional hard-boiled detective, as he struggles to maintain a relationship with his wife after the tragic loss of their daughter.

In ‘Tournament of Shadows,’ his hysterical outburst, ’I need you! Could you consider that once, just once before your shelter and your church!’ is met with stern jaw clenching and the wordless exit of his estranged partner, leaving him alone in their gloomy sitting room.

And moments of domestic melodrama aren’t confined to the home. In ‘The Weight of One Man’s Heart’ we find a similar scene with Bennet and Reid, as a man-to-man discussion of money becomes a vindictive spat between the two. Bennet’s request for a raise becomes an argument over the virtue of Rose Erskine’s intent in pursuing a romance with the sergeant, as Reid warns ‘beware the kitten’s claws.’ The scene ends with Bennet scorned, on the verge of tears, slamming the door on his way out of the Inspector’s office.

Most telling in Bennet’s relationship with Rose is the way in which a woman who, as a sex worker, would have conventionally been portrayed as either a helpless victim or evil harpy, is finally given a voice, and conviction. Later in the episode, she is the one to reject the offer of his ‘whole heart, for always, for when I look upon you I feel a mercy I thought lost to me,’ telling him ‘there is a life I had in mind for myself’: this exchange evokes the Gothic romance of Emily Brontë and Ann Radcliffe, while placing the detective in a typically female role.

In the late Victorian setting, Richard Warlow discovers traces of a progressive sensibility, and a sense of hope in the wake of unspeakable violence. Beyond postmodern pastiche, Ripper Street breathes life into tired archetypes, allowing the comfortable blend of period melodrama and police procedural to shape an alternative portrayal of traditional masculinity.

Christopher Fieldus is Editorial Assistant at Kill Your Darlings. He’s not great with bio lines, but his commentary and reviews have been published in Farrago, on Same Same and Killings.


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