Nov 5, 2014

Fun With Miss Fisher

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries logo
Fun With Miss Fisher
I started watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries largely thanks to this post at By Singing Light: Maureen listed it as her number one favourite TV series, and as numbers two and three were series I also love, it made for a persuasive argument as to why I should give it a try. Also, a feminist mystery series set in the 1920s? Instantly sold.

For those unfamiliar with it (or with the Kerry Greenwood mysteries it’s based on), Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is set in 1920s Melbourne and follows a private investigator, Miss Phryne Fisher, as she solves cases in collaboration with Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (an unusual set-up to which I’ll return later). I fell head over heels for Miss Fisher: she’s a smart, lively, independent woman with a clear feminist sensibility, who lives her life on her own terms and is completely unapologetic about her sexuality. How could I possibly not love her?

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Miss Fisher and Mac
Miss Fisher’s wardrobe is half the fun.

When I started watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, I thought that perhaps I wouldn’t have enough to say to justify a blog post: while immensely enjoyable, the series didn’t seem to lend itself to the same sort of detailed dissection as, say, My Mad Fat Diary or Friday Night Lights. My main thoughts about it, to begin with, were that watching it was soothing and that it cheered me up — all enough to recommend it, of course, but not, perhaps, to justify writing a thousand words. However, the more I thought about it the more I realised that the ways in which watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was restful were far from meaningless and were actually worth talking about.

This brings me, once again, to Ann Leckie’s post about the value of fiction that doesn’t “punch you in the face”. Watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries feels like a respite because, to a viewer like me, this is a series devoid of constant reminders that women aren’t allowed to do or be certain things. It’s an effortlessly feminist series whose core assumptions are a source of immense comfort to me, and that’s certainly worthy of note.

Here are a few of the things, then, that Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries takes for granted (in the best possible sense) and that made it so enjoyable to watch:

  • Women get to enjoy their sexuality if they’re so inclined: Phryne Fisher sleeps with several men over the course of the series, and not only is she not one bit sorry, but there’s also no narrative punishment awaiting her. She says on multiple occasions that she doesn’t want a long-term relationship, and so far the story hasn’t undermined her or fallen into the common pitfall of portraying women who feel this way as wrong, misguided, or simply just waiting for The One to come along to show them the error of their ways. Miss Fisher enjoys her sexuality in ways that narratives usually assume are the prerogative of men, and that was brilliant to see.

    Also, it’s true that Miss Fisher’s money and social standing shield her from social censure in ways that are not available to everyone, but time and again we see her fight on other women’s behalf. For example, in the episode where Dot’s sister is revealed to be a sex worker, she provides a counterpoint to Dot’s assumptions about her sister’s life and tells her that she “most certainly would” think less of a man who dared think less of her for it.

    Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Miss Fisher and Dot

  • Women get to be the centre of their stories: not only is this a series about a daring and efficient lady detective (as she herself puts it), but the cases Miss Fisher investigates often touch on themes like contraception and reproductive rights, the lives of women factory workers, sexuality and social double standards, disenfranchisement, women pushing for more equal legislation, etc. There are also, as is common in stories set in the 1920’s, a lot of cases with ties to WW1, and these often give us insight into Miss Fisher’s experiences as a war nurse, as a nude model in Paris after the war, etc.

  • Ties between women matter: Phryne is surrounded by other women — her companion Dot, her amazing surgeon friend Mac, her ward Jane, her vast network of acquaintances, the women she meets over the course of her investigation and whose causes she champions, etc. It’s a relief to see that the series never presents women as being in competition with one another; and also that, when a woman turns out to be guilty of the crime Phryne is investigating, this is not explained in terms of her gender or in stereotypical ways. Additionally, the story shows us time and again that Phryne Fisher’s relationships with other women are central to her life. Also, there are moments such as this that made my heart grow three sizes.

    Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Miss Fisher and Mac

  • Women can be respected for their talent: as I said in my introduction, Miss Fisher works in partnership rather than in competition with the local police inspector, Jack Robinson. Their relationship is tense for the first half of season one or so, but Jack quickly goes from resenting Miss Fisher’s interference to relying on her skills, treating her as the intellectual equal she obviously is, and collaborating with her to uncover the truth. He obviously takes her seriously, and although a Veronica Mars-like dynamic in which a competent female sleuth constantly bests patronising policemen has its own appeal, I like the alternative model Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries presents. There’s no shortage of episodes in which we do get to see Miss Fisher teach a lesson to dismissive men, so it was nice that her relationship with the one man who is in every episode was one of mutual support and clear intellectual respect.

  • Women know their own minds: as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries progresses, the sexual tension between Phryne and Jack becomes increasingly obvious. While I enjoy their dynamics and their less than subtle flirtation, I’m actually not hoping for a fully-fledged romance between the two. If we do turn out to get one (which, knowing how stories tend to go, I suspect might be the case), I hope we get some Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey-like negotiation and complexity; and above all I hope that the series won’t frame Phryne’s change of heart about the kind of life she wants to live in terms of her having been wrong or “missing out” before. I love that so far the series acknowledges that it’s perfectly possible for a single woman to lead a rich, fulfilling life without secretly pining for conventional couplehood and without being wrong about her choices and priorities; if Jack and Phryne do get together, I hope it’s in a way that doesn’t erase that.

    Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: full cast

    There’s an element of fantasy to the series, particularly in regards to Miss Fisher’s relationship with her household staff: they’re all shown to be delighted to serve her, and any potential class complications are by and large overlooked. Don’t expect a Raven Cycle-esque level of insight into class, power differentials, and interpersonal tensions is what I’m getting at. But I’m willing to forgive this and embrace the fantasy in the name of everything else Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries gets right.

    The series is very much episodic in nature: the first season included an attempt at an ongoing plotline in the form of a common noir trope — a lingering mystery from Phryne’s own past and the threat of the man who kidnapped and murdered her sister. Unfortunately I didn’t think this story arc worked, and it resulted in a somewhat convoluted season finale. Season two stuck to a one case per episode format, which is fine by me: the relationships between the characters see plenty of development over time, and that’s more than enough to keep me happy.

    Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has been renewed for a third season, which is meant to air next year. I can’t wait. In the meantime, should I read the Kerry Greenwood novels?

    Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood Dead Man's Chest by Kerry Greenwood Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood
  • 12 comments:

    1. Absolutely read them. They are my perfect summer read. Fun, thoughtful, interesting and easy to read. Whenever feel like I can't find something to read, I grab the next Phryne and away I go. Some of her relationship are fleshed out more in the books.

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    2. I'm so happy you loved them! But not at all surprised.

      One of the things I really value is that though Phryne is obviously the heroine, other ways of being a woman are also shown without judgement. Dot is a conventionally feminine young woman with (mostly) conventionally feminine interests, and yet she's not condemned for it or seen as lesser. A+++, show.

      I agree with you as far as Jack and Phryne go (and was not a fan of the episode or two in the second season when Jack was a grumpy pants because Phryne puts herself in daaaanger), but I do have hope that if they're written into a relationship, it'll be one founded on mutual respect.

      Also, I just want all the clothes.

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    3. Cherrytree: I'll try to get my hands on the first one asap :D

      Maureen: Agree so much about Dot. And I KNOW - I spent those two episodes muttering at Jack to just get over himself already. Luckily it didn't take him that long in the end.

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    4. PS: Thanks again for recommending this to me - it made me so happy :D

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    5. Wherever do you find all these awesome shows?!! Another I've never heard of, but just popped over to netflix and was delighted to find they have it! Thank you, Ana--my life is ever so much richer in so many ways thanks to you! :D I think I may just start this tonight!

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    6. Goodness, I'm going to have to pencil this in. This is probably 100% up my mother's alley, though, so let the feminist fun commence when I visit her for the holidays!

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    7. >>>I hope we get some Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey-like negotiation and complexity.

      YES YES YES YES. I've never watched this show but I am already on board for this relationship to happen conditional on there being Vane/Wimsey-style negotiation. It is on Netflix and I shall watch it!

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    8. I adore this series! I really wish PBS would air it in the US so I wouldn't have to wait for the library to get the DVDs.

      As for the books, Phryne is even more SO 1920s in the books than she is in the show, but I had difficulty connecting to her story because the pacing of the book was uneven and her motivation wasn't clear. But you should definitely give them a try! A know lots of people who love them.

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    9. I have never heard of this but I must check it out. You have never led me astray with tv series before!

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    10. I had never herd of this but just finished watching the first episode and OMG it's SOOOOO GOOD! So much wonderful goodness--everything you said x1000! Thank you!

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    11. Ooh, the first season is on Netflix! I know what i'll be doing staying in this weekend :-)

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    12. So glad this show seems to be hitting everyone's radar now. I first heard about it on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and watched the first season/series on Netflix last December. And ha ha - I just looked at my blog post about it from March of this year, and you had commented saying you would add Miss Fisher to your list. :)

      Anyway, my friend and I are going to marathon the second series this weekend since it appeared on Netflix just recently. Very excited!

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    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.