Miss Fisher and the Female Gaze

I’ve been re-watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which I like very much — it’s the perfect show to curl up with when you’re thoroughly tired of the modern world we’re living in. You get to go back to another world, equally complicated but in a different way. The show is clever, with twists and turns in every mystery, and has wonderful characters that are deftly developed over time. They have strong, solid, sometimes conflicted relationships. Overall, there’s a lot to like, and I put Miss Fisher in my pantheon of really fun, interesting detectives, up there with Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, and their ilk. But something particularly struck me, watching the series again. It’s that Miss Fisher is filmed for a female gaze.

I realized this while watching an episode called “Dead Man’s Chest,” in Season 2. The murder weapon, a knife, has been thrown from a pier, so of course someone must search in the water around that pier. We see Miss Fisher and her companion Dot standing on the beach. They are beautifully attired, with flowing dresses and summer hats, and both hold what look like delicious cones of vanilla ice cream in their hands. They are looking at the water, where Detective Inspector Jack Robinson and Constable Hugh Collins are bobbing up and down, rather like dolphins, looking for the murder weapon. Miss Fisher smiles and lowers her sunglasses, presumably to see better. Collins finds the knife, then both men walk out of the water, like in that famous James Bond bathing suit scene with Ursula Andress but in reverse. They are attired in the fetching two-piece men’s bathing suits of the 1920s, which are clinging to their bodies because they are, of course, wet. The camera focuses in a particularly appreciative way on Collins’ chest and arms, and because the top of his bathing suit is white, it becomes translucent when wet. (Don’t even tell me the costume designer didn’t do that on purpose.) Dot towels him off — she is the innocent young woman, not yet aware of what has happened, but Miss Fisher knows. You can tell by her smile, which is, well, knowing. She is perfectly aware of the sexual subtext of the scene, which she has in a sense set up — in the last scene, she asked, with a pointedly innocent look on her face, whether Collins brought his bathing suit. Jack Robinson is also sexualized, but not to the same extent: his bathing suit is dark, his body leaner, more spare. Collins is rather like the ice cream of the scene, in addition to the actual ice cream — he is a delicious dessert, and you realized that Dot has lucked out in a way she doesn’t yet appreciate. But Miss Fisher knows . . . Once out of the water, Collins hands the knife not to Robinson, but to Miss Fisher, who immediately starts analyzing it in the context of the case. End scene.

The perspective of this scene is that of Miss Fisher herself, the heterosexual woman appreciating male bodies. And I find that so interesting, because as I think is clear from years of aesthetic criticism, the heterosexual male gaze has been primary in our culture for a very long time. I’m not interested in abolishing gazes — there is no such thing as no gaze, or a neutral gaze. In art, in film, even in literature where what is seen is entirely imaginary, there is always someone gazing. What I am interested in, though, is the multiplication of gazes. That allows us to see things in different ways, and one reason for Miss Fisher‘s allure, especially among women, is that it allows them to participate in a female gaze (not the only female gaze, but one type).

This is a pattern in the series. In an earlier episode in Season 2, “Death Comes Knocking,” Miss Fisher is in bed with the handsome male assistant of a famous psychic. He is bare-chested — on his chest is a pattern of shrapnel wounds. Miss Fisher is dressed in a beautiful silk gown. The texture of her gown is as sensual, as attractive, as his bare chest. Again we are looking at the scene as though we were Miss Fisher herself — the show turns us all into Miss Fishers, figuring out mysteries, presented with attractive male romantic possibilities. Critics who have written about the show usually focus on its feminist implications, with its liberated female detective who is mature, smart, sexual. The show fairly consistently focuses on issues of women’s equality in the 1920s: driving, work, contraception. But its feminism is deeper than the issues it explores or Miss Fisher herself. It’s woven into every camera shot.

I have to admit, I find it refreshing to watch from the perspective of a female gaze. In the broad tradition of Western art and film, I’m usually watching from a heterosexual male gaze, and I’m used to that — but it does always involve a slight dislocation, as though before truly seeing a painting (of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, for example), I have to hop to the left. That dislocation can be good — Robert Mappelthorpe’s photographs of male nudes are controversial in part, I think, because they ask us to see from the perspective of a homosexual male gaze, in which the male body is desired in the way female bodies are desired in most of Western art. Western culture is not used to seeing from that perspective. It’s not used to seeing from Miss Fisher’s perspective either. Multiple gazes, as many gazes are we have identifies, which are multitudinous. Let us all learn to see in different ways.

But right now, I’m appreciating Miss Fisher’s gaze. And thinking about what a very clever show this is, to allow me to see in that way.

Essie Davis plays Phryne Fisher, a beautifully attired detective in 1920s Melbourne.

(The image comes from this interview on NPR, and is credited to Ben King/Acorn.TV.)

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11 Responses to Miss Fisher and the Female Gaze

  1. In nearly episode she admires handsome men and openly flirts with them. It’s hard to miss, actually. I am curious about one particular line in your blog: “I’m usually watching from a heterosexual male gaze”. Perhaps this is a typo and male should read female. I cannot imagine that a woman fully understands the heterosexual male gaze. Neither would I be able to fully understand the heterosexual female gaze. The male and female brain are wired (very) differently. In case of doubt, watch Mark Gungor’s hilarious “Tale of 2 Brains” on YouTube.

    • No, it’s not a typo. And it’s not a matter of understanding the gaze. In Western art and film, the work of art itself is usually created for a male gaze, and constructs the way we see it so that we have to look from the perspective of that gaze. As I mentioned, for me personally, as a heterosexual woman, there’s a moment of dislocation because I’m not looking from my own position — there’s a sense of dislocation as I shift into another way of looking. But most women in our culture are so used to this that we barely notice. I’m talking about gaze not as a natural phenomenon but as something constructed, in part by the work of art itself. For example, when I look at The Birth of Venus, the work itself asks me to see Venus as sexually desirable, which has nothing to do with whether I see a female body as sexually desirable–it’s presented that way by the work of art. We can see from others’ gazes/perspectives–literature asks us to do that all the time. As does film through camera angles, etc.

    • I’m reminded of a (female) author who was accused by a (male) reader of writing ‘homosexual fiction’ – what she had done was write men and women the way a heterosexual woman sees them. The reader, clearly not used to fiction that was not written for him and his point of view, was immediately outraged with added homophobia.

      The heterosexual male gaze is taken as the default universal gaze and everyone who is not a heterosexual male is still subjected to an overwhelming wave of it in everything we read and see, from crass character descriptions to sexualised female images. We understand it very well, thank you, because unless we go out of our way it is all we see whether we want to or not, whether it is what we prefer or not.

      There are exceptions in, for example, queer film – but don’t take ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ for anything but a film with lesbians in it made for straight men to view; see my point? It is heartening that this series and films like the new Ghostbusters are breaking that monopoly in the mainstream.

      • Paul M. Feeney says:

        I love the new Ghostbusters film; I’ve watched it three times, now, and will watch it again. What strikes me most about it is, it’s a film as much about friendship as it is about four ‘outsiders’ (women/scientists/geeks; groups which generally face condescension by the general mainstream) proving themselves. This can be seen even more in the outtakes. It’s one area which definitely surpasses the original, and it’s refreshing for me to see, tired as I am of the overwhelming presence of the male gaze in almost everything I read and watch.

  2. Jim says:

    Perhaps that is one of the reasons I enjoy the Miss Fisher’s Mysteries so much. It is good for people to get to see the world from viewpoints (gazes) other than their own. I agree that we may never fully understand other viewpoints, but the more we try, the more rich and equal the world becomes.

  3. Will Shetterly says:

    My wife and I are both fans of the show. I think its creators understand viscerally and perhaps intellectually something many people miss: Properly, the “gaze” is a matter of point of view. But when directors don’t understand this, just as when writers don’t understand point of view, the gaze is only the director’s.

  4. Thank you for this, I have the first book in the series and I’ve heard nothing but lovely things about the show itself! Yay, I have a new show to binge on and a new series to follow! 🙂

  5. Amanda says:

    Thank you for an interesting post. I have to add to it that the same goes for the books and not just the TV show. I see it as a twist to the normal clichés of pop-culture. The show makes quite a lot of those through the 3 seasons that has been made.

  6. Davide Mana says:

    Very interesting post, thank you.
    Miss Fisher has quite a large fanbase among (mostly male) fans of hard-boiled and espionage fiction, and is often described as “a female James Bond”. Which is limited and hasty, but worth considering, I think: your post made me aware of the fact that it is not just the attitude and behavior of the main character, but the whole esthetics that is actually translated. The Dr No examle is a case in point.
    Also, everybody seems taken with the way the series _looks_ (in terms of costumes, locations etc.), but quite probably they feel, but probably don’t realize consciously, the way the series _looks at_ those costumes and locations etc., which is one of its strengths.
    I don’t know if this makes sense (it’s very late at night as I am writing this).

  7. This is one of my favorite shows. Everything is perfect, from the casting to the costumes. It reminds me a bit of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, it has the same attention to detail. And it is nice to see something thru my own “eyes” for a change.

    And for any that haven’t tried them, the books are very good also, though quite a bit different. SLIGHT SPOILERS: The show aged Miss Fisher up and Detective Robinson down to add a sexual tension that is not in books. She has two adopted daughters not one, and Mr. Butler has a Mrs. Butler. Also, I love Aunt Prudence, but alas she was a delightful invention of the show and not in the books at all, but we do get to meet a sister and her lover.

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