Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis International University (Deemed)
The element of trauma in works of crime fiction has been previously examined in the context of social histories and political events such as war. Such explorations of trauma have been confined within the bounds of either a masculinised or medicalised framework, which often tends to isolate aspects of emotionality or the personal experience of distress. Even the portrayal of gendered trauma has traditionally been centred towards the victim in the form of sexual violence and heavily focalised through the perspective of the male detective. Moving into the twenty-first century, however, the figure of the detective in popular consciousness comes to be represented as an ambiguous hero who is just as susceptible to shock, trauma and injury as the characters who do not bear the responsibility of restoring the social order of the world. The detective’s traumatic experience, therefore, becomes an integral component of their sense of self. With the increasing focus on the figure of the female detective in contemporary crime television, the question of how trauma operates from a gendered lens in works of this genre becomes pertinent. However, current literature examining this intersection is scarce. This article, therefore, explores how the element of gender-based trauma functions within the narratives of contemporary crime series and what role the traumatic experiences of female investigators play in informing the rationale with which they solve crimes. Moreover, the article highlights how public and personal trauma(s) are represented in such contexts. This is achieved through close reading and textual analysis of the recent television series Mare of Easttown (2021) and Marcella (2016-2021) in order to understand the framework and techniques through which the nexus of trauma and gender operate within crime fiction.
Keywords: Trauma, Female Detectives, Crime TV, Contemporary Fiction, Gender
“Well, maybe she would be a vain little snot, and you wouldn’t waste six minutes having a beer with her … A lot of talent came from those years on the street… Your alternative Mallory wouldn’t … have the makings of even a better cop than her old man … Oh, and the way she walks. You can see it all coming at you, the badge and the gun and all that power. If she’d gotten another life, she would be ordinary—or worse.” (Connell, 2007, p.94)
The quote above is from the penultimate novel of the long-running “Kathleen Mallory” series, when Kathleen’s friend Riker comments on her potential to live a ‘normal life’, suggesting how her experience as a survivor of trauma makes her more efficient at work as a detective. Tellingly, Kathleen Mallory represents a formulaic patchwork of peculiarities widely prevalent in detective figures of contemporary fiction: cold, calculative, distant — yet world-weary and palpably haunted by a traumatic past.
Detective fiction of the classic and hard-boiled tradition has employed trauma as a tool to explore the central figure’s disillusionment with the social world that they inhabit (Dodd, 2019). Much academic literature on this subject particularly seeks to examine trauma from a medicalised and masculinised framework; as a direct result of either war, shell shock, or both (Hamilton, 2020). In the hard-boiled narrative, gendered trauma is usually centred on the victim and presented as the aftermath of sexual violence (Kennedy, 2017). This particular narrative’s focalisation on the male detective, however leaves the broader socio-cultural implications of such kind of gendered trauma relatively unexplored.
Now, with the explosion of feminist sentiments in popular fiction, contemporary crime and detective narratives have slowly begun to shift their focus to the female detective and her social world. In these portrayals, the resolution of the crime is often tied to the resolution of the detective figure’s trauma, which tends to reveal truths about the moral codes of a socially sanctioned world just as much as the nature and arc of the crime investigation. This then raises interesting questions about how trauma lends itself to the logic and rationality of the female detective and, more importantly, why it serves this function.
This article, therefore, addresses the role gender-focused trauma plays in informing the narratives of contemporary detective TV series, using the figure of the female detective as the focal point. As a further exploration, the article examines how public and personal trauma take shape and are represented in such narratives. In order to do so, the article draws on textual analysis and close readings of two recent crime/detective TV dramas: Mare of Easttown (2021) and Marcella (2016-2021).
Mare of Easttown (2021) is set in a small town in Pennsylvania and revolves around a local detective sergeant, Mare Sheehan, who is investigating the murder of a teenage girl. Alongside this, Mare grapples with a string of personal tragedies and crises, which involve coming to terms with the suicide of her son, her broken marriage, and a custody battle for her four-year-old grandson. On the other hand, Marcella (2016-2021) is set in London’s cosmopolitan mega-city. The story follows a former police detective who decides to return to work after the dissolution of her marriage. As she solves the cases she is assigned, she slowly comes to uncover disturbing truths about her traumatic past. Marcella experiences violent blackouts and struggles to cope with the death of her baby daughter, all the while attempting to keep her dysfunctional family together.
These specific TV series have been identified and chosen as texts for analysis because each has a central female character as the figure of a disillusioned detective who has experienced a major traumatic event(s) either linearly or belatedly within the timeframe of the show. The plotlines of the two shows are motivated and driven by the backstories of these individual protagonists, connecting the nature of the crime(s) with the personal misfortunes of the detectives in deeply moving and complex ways. Moreover, the two examples have varied thematic similarities as well as structural and elemental differences in their narratives which could expose unique insights and ideas, adding to the scope of analysis. Given the global popularity of these shows, they are pivotal in the larger understanding of how the figure of the female detective comes to navigate both personal and public trauma. Reflecting a set of significant social meanings, Mare of Easttown and Marcella become part of the mass consciousness of audiences that consume contemporary works in this genre.
Dodd (2019) argues that authentic representations of traumatic pasts in crime fiction can equip large audiences with the empathetic knowledge of trauma while offering therapeutic outlets. The pervasiveness of audio-visual media and entertainment means that film and television hold power to influence perceptions of social phenomena. By and large, the understandings of gender and trauma in popular fiction have either been ignored, distorted, or are superficial in nature. For instance, Ford and Boyle (2021) note how the figure of the female investigator in popular crime TV dramas tends to be portrayed as one who is confident, pragmatic, and a paragon of heterosexual desirability. While this staple detective figure of contemporary television at times does falter between rationality and emotional vulnerability, most of her experiences of being enmeshed in trauma are showcased through physical violence so that its materiality is only sparsely exhibited, either through the body or the scant memories of the event. Shedding light onto the workings of this intersection as portrayed in one of the most ubiquitous genres of TV dramas would therefore hopefully pave the way for further research into how the function of such narratives can be deployed to elicit more sensitive and nuanced outlooks towards accounts and experiences of real-life gendered trauma.
Examining Trauma and Gender in Crime Fiction
Cathy Caruth (1991) identifies an overarching definition of emotional and psychological trauma: “[trauma] describes an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic events, in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (p. 181). Drawing from this well-cited definition, Whitehead (2004) discusses the importance of conceptualising trauma theory within fiction. She argues that the representation of trauma in fiction raises questions of politics, ethics and aesthetics, essentially shifting focus from an understanding of trauma as an individual phenomenon to that which constitutes a larger social experience. Contemporary fiction has been shaped by various historical instances of collective trauma, pushing trauma theorists to study and elaborate on the cultural and ethical implications of traumatic experiences in literature and film (Whitehead, 2004).
Crime and detective fiction critics have largely dismissed trauma theory even though it offers a useful frame of reference to examine many of the works in this genre (Hamilton, 2020). Existent research mostly uses the medical framework of post-traumatic stress disorder following war. For example, Trott (2016) creates this framework to extrapolate Raymond Chandler’s traumatic experience of trench warfare in World War II in order to examine the character of Philip Marlowe. Hamilton (2020), however, attempts to develop connections between trauma theory and detective fiction from a socio-political perspective, drawing attention away from the medical model and into the public framework of trauma in crime fiction.
Hamilton (2020) argues that a trauma framework “enables a nuanced examination of the politics implicit in the formula of detective fiction” (p. 318). The trauma framework confronts the perceived realism within which crime fiction operates, thus questioning the impact of the trauma experienced by the character(s) and the extent to which this can be communicated to the audience. Often, the detective who undergoes trauma achieves actualisation through healing and later re-asserting her agency. However, for Hamilton, the trauma survivor in crime fiction is not a patient or an individual victim but the agent for social change. She claims that the individualisation of trauma and its resolution through personal healing largely depoliticises the nature of trauma and ignores its social dimensions. The detective’s relationship with the status quo also becomes clear by making the political and subversive potentiality of trauma in crime fiction more apparent (p. 320).
A common impediment in the face of the authenticity and coherence of the survivor’s experience in detective fiction is the ‘mythologisation’ of traumatic events (Tali, 1996, as cited in Hamilton, 2020, p. 321). This means that trauma becomes codified and reduced to an archetypal narrative form because of the constant repetition and reproduction of traumatic events in fiction. This argument is also highlighted by Seltzer (1997), wherein he contends that the constant consumption and reproduction of trauma in crime and detective fiction renders it an object of fascination for the audience. Berger (1997) argues that the detective who undergoes trauma in this case comes to possess an air of enigma, having procured special knowledge and authority following the traumatic event. The need for the detective figure to then ‘set the world right’ is informed by this experience of personal trauma. The enactment of violence to restore the world’s order is thus also justified by the audience since these actions are attributed to the detective’s past traumatic experiences (Seltzer, 1997).
This tendency to locate the detective figures’ motivations and actions in their belated experience of trauma is characteristic of the more recent examples and works of detective fiction. Makinen (2015) discusses how the detective figures of classic crime fiction are regarded as ‘emblems of analytical genius’; they are rational yet eccentric characters who become the sole protectors of the justice system, responsible for its temporary yet complete restoration. In contemporary crime fiction, however, this mirage of the genius detective is often shattered. The figure of the detective is no longer above shock, trauma, or injury, but very much susceptible to these. As a result of their traumatic experiences, these characters are found continually negotiating their status as detectives and, more importantly, as protectors and upholders of justice.
Extending from this, Kennedy (2017) draws on the gendered implications of trauma in detective fiction. She discusses how the key moments that shape the detective’s core sense of justice occur sometime in the duration of her lived traumatic experience. Kennedy claims that the female detective’s reaction to her trauma follows her attempt to maintain and aspire to the identity of the ‘family woman’. While the female detectives in contemporary fiction have a “hard edge” (p. 54), their appeal lies in the internal and external conflict between pursuing individual success and the desire for deeper family and community ties. The female detective’s transgression from a patriarchal set of values then results in the lack or fragmentation of such ties, thus setting a precedent for traumatic experiences. As survivors of trauma, the logic of the narrative then also witnesses these characters possessing cultural knowledge to deconstruct the causes of violence against other women (p. 55), followed by resolution and healing.
These discussions then pave the way for further exploration into how trauma centred around the female detective functions in contemporary crime fiction and what role it plays in informing the narrative. Considering existing literature on the subject, there is sufficient scope to explore what revelations about the rationale of the female detective can a trauma theory framework help uncover. Following Hamilton’s discussion on public trauma, it is also useful to understand how social and personal trauma operate from a gendered perspective in detective fiction.
Sites of Trauma: Space and Location as motifs for traumatic experiences
In most renderings of the detective fiction genre, spatiality and landscape serve as significant loci for the characters’ individual as well as collective memories (Wells, 2004). Urban spaces in particular, are developed and perceived as inextricably linked to the nature of the crime or the crime itself, within the narrative frame of this genre (Worthington, 2011, as cited in Phillips, 2017). Dodd (2019) discusses the importance of place and location in developing a more profound understanding of traumatic event(s) as they occur within the crime fiction narrative. Spaces used as character motifs can also help audiences access traumatic experiences from a unique vantage point since the setting takes on a life of its own (Dodd, 2019).
For example, in the pilot episode of Mare of Easttown (2021), we see this recurring use of location to foreground public trauma that runs deep in the small town where the series is set. Both the opening and ending sequences in this episode not only foreshadow the grim events which follow later in the show but also create a tense atmosphere reflecting the detective figure’s inner world, along with that of the troubled residents of Easttown. In the opening sequence, the first few establishing shots pan different areas around the small Pennsylvanian town; zoomed-out shots of an industrial complex, a lone house in the middle of a dried-out, foreboding forest, a cemetery and then at last, a cluster of suburban homes in the early hours of morning.
In the depiction of these locations through jump cuts before the camera shifts its focalisation towards Mare, the narrative attempts to give ambiguous yet eerie spatial identities to these lonely territories. The establishment of this ghostly essence of Easttown then lays the ground for something more unsettling since what this spatial identity exactly denotes begins to unfold later in the timeline of the show — when it becomes clear that the town is tainted by the trauma of the abductions and killings of several teenage girls, and more specifically the violence against teenage mothers trying to make ends meet. Later sections of the article will also explore how this public trauma is juxtaposed against Mare’s personal trauma of losing her son to substance abuse and suicide. The recurring theme of such violence against women is foreshadowed in the opening sequence. The initial shots build to a moment where a woman is heard screaming, following which light in a distant window gets switched on, and the town awakes from its slumber. These first few shots are also accompanied by tense, melodramatic music, which seems almost incomplete; however, a more complete version of the same music also underscores the final scene of Mare’s murder investigation, where she uncovers the true killer of the young mother, Erin McMenamin.
By contrast, in Marcella (2016), the first shot of the opening sequence itself begins with the focalisation of the central figure of the titular detective. There is no outright sense of setting or location here. However, by opening the scene with the shot of Marcella bloodied, wounded, and shocked, the narrative establishes her as a figure who is not in control at the outset. The shot opens with Marcella waking up and sitting hunched in a bathtub. At first, the camera focuses on her back as she sits upright, and then on her face and the rest of the space that she occupies through a dirty mirror.
The use of mirrors or other reflective surfaces is quite prevalent throughout Marcella when the focus on the space and body is more private or intimate. Usually, Marcella and the space around her are depicted through a mirror during moments of deep internal anguish or when she relives a traumatic experience. Shetley & Ferguson (2001) argue that mirrors function as mise-en-abyme [visual portrayal of an image within an image to suggest a recurring theme or sequence within the larger narrative (Oxford Reference, n.d.)] so that viewers can access the depicted scene and certain thematic and visual elements within it in a way that they would not be able to otherwise. The mirror reproduces space in Marcella such that it appears broken and fragmented. Marcella’s constant blackouts as a result of dissociation and trauma mean that she experiences a reality that is fragmented and disrupted by gaps in her memory. Therefore, such a representation of space becomes symbolic of this fractured sense of reality and the self, which come to be associated with the recall of traumatic events (Dodd, 2019).
The scene then cuts backwards in time to twelve days earlier, with a zoomed-in shot of a car window. The camera later pans over to a distraught-looking Marcella sitting in the back of the same car. Until this point, the exact geographical location of where the narrative of this series is set is unclear. However, the next scene cuts to the car arriving at a destination, and this is the first time the viewers get a glimpse of the outside world. The car is presumably a black cab, one of the most significant markers of the urban space of London. Later in the same sequence, a scene depicts a wide shot of a city street with a double-decker red bus turning a corner (again, a mode of transport that has come to be widely associated with the city of London).
The sole focus on the central character and her fraught relationship with the private space of the bathroom in the first shot establishes that personal trauma takes precedence over public trauma in this series to some extent. Since viewers share Marcella’s point of view right at the beginning, they are aligned with her distressed inner consciousness. Even the later depiction of the large, bustling urban space of London as the plot’s setting has an almost alienating effect on the viewers — so this space becomes just the right backdrop for Marcella’s aggravating personal trauma. As opposed to the choice of focus in Marcella, Mare of Easttown initially draws attention to location, in effect centralising the small, quiet, yet troubled town of Delaware County. The idea of public trauma here then becomes more or just as significant as the personal trauma experienced by the central figure. Since the township where the narrative is set sustains closer community ties, the lines between collective and individual trauma often tend to get blurred within the narrative frame.
Of Motherhood and Family: Characterising Gendered Trauma
Contemporary crime fiction is characterised by a revision and distortion of old gender and genre roles (Soler, 2019). What emerges out of this is a set of notable features unique to newer works of crime fiction across all mediums. In recent times, there has been a tendency for popular detective fiction to give more attention to social and familial bonds, which come to be positioned at the core of the central figure’s characterisation. For female investigators in particular, this means a shift away from the classical lone figure of the male detective, as well as from that of the independent female sleuth found more habitually across film, TV, and literature at the turn of the 20th century (Soler, 2019). These new, transitional female characters then come to be defined by their social and familial ties. More popularly, it is the female detective’s status as a mother or a daughter that becomes central to the construction of both the character and the plotline (Wilton, 2018).
In Mare of Easttown, the foundation of motherhood and family becomes pivotal to understanding the characterisation of Mare Sheehan, as well as the nature of the crime being investigated. Wilton (2018) notes that in fiction as well as in real life, mothers often become the objects of moral and social scrutiny. Mare’s profession as a local detective sergeant requires her to maintain and enforce the social order of the community. Thus, her identity as both a mother and a detective subjects her to a dual burden — one of maintaining social norms and the other of being responsible for the upkeep of a functional family.
This weight is morphed into a sense of duty, and its impact on her is consequently reflected through mise-en-scène elements such as costume and make-up. Her loose flannels, mostly dishevelled hair, and a vape that she pulls out of her jacket pocket ever so often uniquely mark her presence on screen. While on the surface, these elements might work towards accentuating her rugged personality, they also represent her sense of disillusionment that occurs as a result of personal tragedies and perceived failure to preserve social order when she is unable to solve a missing persons case for a year. Mare is also a physically worn-down figure as she carries the heaviness of this dual burden. In the pilot episode itself, viewers watch her trip over a wired fence as she chases after Beth Hanlon’s brother, Freddie. The subsequent injury then causes her to limp throughout most of the other episodes in the season.
In the washed-out blue-grey colour palette of the series, Mare’s world-weariness becomes foregrounded. However, in a flashback scene in episode 4 (‘Poor Sisyphus’), the lighting suddenly gets warm. Usually, warm lighting is used in scenes that represent moments of comfort or joy. Yet, this flashback scene makes for one of the most unsettling sequences in the series. Here, the viewers get a first glimpse at the relationship dynamic between Mare and her son, Kevin. He breaks into Mare’s house with his partner Carrie to steal money for drugs and has a violent outburst of rage where he screams and curses at Mare. The juxtaposition of warm lighting against this dismal context, therefore, makes the scene appear more disturbing.
The way the scene transitions from the present to a moment in the past becomes significant as well. In this scene, Mare is in a bedroom, going over Erin’s social media profile as part of her murder investigation. She clicks on a video of Erin talking about her experience of mothering a one-year-old baby. Appearing overwrought behind the screen, Erin says, “Some nights I feel like a terrible mother. I want him to have a great life, and I’m trying to give that to him, I just want so bad to give him everything…” till her voice fades into a distant echo and the camera centres on Mare’s face. Then all of a sudden, an out-of-focus bathroom door slams shut, and Mare, along with the viewers, is transported to a time in the past. The motif of dysfunctional families and motherhood connects the sergeant to the crimes all along. However, it is in this scene that viewers witness this connection directly. The focus on Erin’s struggle as a mother shifts seamlessly to reflect Mare’s trauma that stemmed from the fraught relationship she shared with her own son.
In the flashback, Kevin and Carrie lock Mare out of her bathroom as they steal money from her purse. When Mare attempts to enter the bathroom and stop Kevin and Carrie from stealing her money, Kevin straddles and pushes her towards a corner of the bathroom. During this brief physical struggle, the composition and framing of the shot become shaky and haphazard, adding to the sense of disconcertment. To an extent, the scene is a revelation of sorts. It is in the following episode (‘Illusions’) that Mare discloses that Kevin was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and mood disorders when he was young, thereby suggesting that such violent episodes were frequent. For the first half of the show, this information is kept concealed from the viewers. Therefore, the element of shock is more prevalent than the sense of distress here since the viewers comprehend and bear witness to the extent of Mare’s trauma for the first time. This technique of cutting the linear narrative frame with a flashback (used only once in the series) allows us to witness the simulation of traumatic recall of the event as Mare would have experienced it herself.
Another such technique of disrupting the linear narrative is also apparent in Marcella. Midway through the pilot episode, Marcella’s ex-husband Jason visits the house to pack his clothes and move out of the home he used to share with her. As the couple briefly quarrels, they are never completely positioned in the same frame together, thereby indicating the discord between them. Even as Marcella attempts to hug him later, the camera is focused only on her body and shifts to Jason’s as he breaks away from her. When Jason confesses that he does not love Marcella, an unpleasant noise in the background builds to a pitch and then stops completely. Marcella then punches Jason, and the scene transitions to silent, hasty jump cuts of her attempting to push him down the stairs. The screen then fades to black, and moments later, the camera focuses on Marcella as she stands alone in the stairway of her house. Similar to analepsis (flashback) as seen in Mare of Easttown, this technique used in Marcella (prolepsis, or flashforward) also interrupts the narrative’s linear flow of time. The episode reveals brief snippets of Marcella and Jason’s physical fight before flashing forward in time when Marcella is alone. According to Dodd (2019), analepsis and prolepsis are both commonly used narrative strategies used in trauma fiction. The series uses the technique of prolepsis quite similarly each time Marcella’s blackouts occur.
In season two of the series, both of these techniques are employed heavily while exploring Marcella as a mother figure in spaces of domesticity. By shedding light on the traumatic events and memories of Marcella’s past, this season delves deeper into unearthing the reason behind her violent blackouts. In episode two, for instance, Marcella visits her psychiatrist following an argument with Jason, who threatens to take away the sole custody of her children. And then, in a moment that perhaps defines one of the most crucial social dilemmas that the series attempts to shed light on, Jason tells Marcella that she “should maybe try being more of a mother and less of a detective”. Marcella, in this sense, posits its central figure as someone who occupies the position of the female investigator and of the mother as two mutually exclusive identities.
Steenberg (2013) elaborates on this idea of motherhood and professionalism as two disparate categories in her examination of female investigators in contemporary crime television. She notes that while female detectives work under the guise of independent, working women, they often become subject to immense psychological distress, which invalidates their authority and bases their value on the performance of ‘womanhood’ as much as on their forensic and analytical abilities. In the case of Marcella, this becomes increasingly apparent throughout the arc of its second season. The first season leaves the mystery behind the death of Marcella’s baby daughter, Juliet, unresolved. However, throughout the second season, her daughter’s death is alluded to through flashbacks (analepsis) and flashforwards (prolepsis), which display a series of jarring yet obscure events before finally unmasking Marcella herself as the killer.
For instance, while Marcella visits her psychiatrist, (season 2, episode 2) the scene oscillates between their conversation in the present and Marcella back at her house in the hours following the session, taking Juliet’s cots and toys out of the store room and assembling them in her old, empty bedroom. This back-and-forth sequence becomes significant in the narrative frame of the series since, along with the audience, Marcella is also unaware that she killed her daughter in a moment of unwitting frenzy. The trauma of committing this act leaves Marcella with repressed memories of Juliet’s death, and it is later suggested that this repression is the cause for her frequent blackouts.
While this fact is revealed to Marcella and the audience simultaneously in the last episode of the season, this particular sequence in episode two foreshadows that final moment of revelation. When Marcella’s psychiatrist asks her what she remembers from the evening of Juliet’s death, the action jumps ahead in time, showing Marcella standing over Juliet’s old cot that she just re-assembled. As opposed to the shallow space shot used during the scene with Marcella’s conversation with her psychiatrist, this sequence uses a deep space shot as she looks down grimly at the cot. This use of contrasting space in the mise-en-scène foregrounds Marcella’s spatial and sensory disorientation during her frequent periods of oblivion, thus suggesting that Juliet’s death may have a role to play in causing such traumatic blackouts. The visual style in this sequence is then also emphasised using chiaroscuro lighting. This lighting scheme emphasises the contrast between shadow and light, essentially creating an uncanny atmosphere which denotes an underlying tension in the mood or setting of a visual piece of work (Glitre, 2009). In Marcella, chiaroscuro lighting is often used in scenes that attempt to underscore the psychological turmoil or imprisonment of the characters. An explanation for the use of visual elements such as lighting instead of verbal dialogue to bring attention to Marcella’s psychological distress can be found in one of the central tenets of Rutherford’s trauma theory (2013): “A pivotal aspect of major trauma is the ‘unspeakability’ of it; the survivor has either conscious or repressed knowledge about something no one should know—a knowledge that potentially tears at the social fabric” (p. 81).
In this sense, the subsequent trauma that accompanies the knowledge of Marcella killing her daughter pushes against the limitations of conceptual vocabulary (Rutherford, 2013). The sequences, which therefore show Marcella struggling to recollect her traumatic memories are devoid of any audible dialogue, thus foreshadowing the ‘unspeakability’ of the traumatic event. It is in the process of killing Juliet and repressing the memories around this act that the social contract upon which the conventional principles of motherhood rest is abolished.
In both Mare of Easttown and Marcella, the anxieties surrounding the roles of the female detectives are explored extensively through a critical lens. The navigation of what Greer (2017) calls the “mother-as-martyr and woman-as-professional” (p. 333) spectrum raises questions about how transgressions from the ascribed gender roles and ideals of motherhood manifest into social punishment. The punishment of not fulfilling such ideals is meted out as trauma which is then rendered as the personal failure of the female investigators.
Vicarious Trauma(s): The place of the personal in the public
In the most perfunctory sense, the difference between personal and public trauma is characterised by the scale of emotional wound and/or shock incurred (Leys, 2000). Public trauma is said to shake the foundation of a collective group and call into question its sense of identity and belonging, whereas individual trauma is relegated as the outcome of rare, one-off occurrences; events too intimate and domestic to make any ripples in the larger social order of the world (Eyerman, 2013).
In many contemporary works of crime fiction, however, the portrayal of personal trauma comes to reinforce the allusive collective trauma (Wilton, 2018). In Mare of Easttown, for instance, the centrality of personal trauma is made complex with the haphazard social order of the small-town community. Rife with an opioid crisis, abductions of young girls, and the moral depravity of men, the trauma that runs deep in Easttown mirrors the personal trauma that Mare experiences when she loses her son to substance abuse and then eventually, to suicide. The anxieties of motherhood and caregiving are therefore reflected publicly — in that the failure to do so is presented as a threat to civilisation and its moral fabric.
At the beginning of episode three (‘Enter Number Two’), for example, Mare looks wistfully at her grandson, Drew, pondering the outcome of a potentially long-drawn custody battle between Drew’s mother and her. The scene then cuts to an outdoor setting, and a car moves along a bend in the road. In the distance, a traffic-sign-like board reads “Watch Our Children”, almost like a warning. The arrangement of these two scenes, one after the other, foregrounds the significant motif of women’s trauma as caregivers. This trauma is then represented as social, as much as it is rendered individual—the dimensions of collective trauma feed into personal trauma, in essence, doubling the shock and losses experienced by the central figure, as well as the community at large. For Mare, therefore, the need to fulfil her duty as the tough yet righteous detective and to ‘set things right’ in the public world is tied to her need to attain a sense of adequacy as a caregiver.
The blurring of individual and collective trauma is also evident in how closely the detective figures in the two series are involved with the crimes. Marcella investigates the murder of her estranged husband’s partner, Grace Gibson, in season one and is also the last person to see her before her death. In Mare of Easttown, the people implicated in the murder of Erin McMenamin are family members of Mare’s best friend. The high personal stakes for Mare and Marcella in investigating these crimes disrupt the fundamental assumption that the domestic world of the detective is separate from the corrupt, grisly world of crime and murders. Ford and Boyle (2021) argues that this conflation of the private and public worlds of the detective in TV crime dramas is a gendered phenomenon central to plots involving a female investigator as the protagonist. The trauma-informed narratives of such TV dramas therefore make it clear that violence is not only inflicted upon the bodies of the victims but is also dispersed outwards, imprinting psychological wounds upon the consciousness of those investigating the crime (Seltzer, 1997). This fulfils a ‘feminist textual strategy’ that represents the violence of a crime beyond a singular traumatic event, as in the context of the two dramas being examined, the dual status of both Mare and Marcella as victim-detectives makes them profoundly aware of the emotional and physical violence against the victims of the crimes they investigate. Therefore, the investigative work performed by these characters is also a form of tacit emotional labour that deepens the extent and intensity of trauma experienced beforehand (Ford & Boyle, 2021). In keeping with such representations of trauma, the two TV shows emphasise the detectives’ inner thoughts and emotions rather than the action taking place in the outer, public world. This shift is also characterised by prioritising the emotional behaviours and trauma of the detective figures over cold, unattached logic and rationality. This becomes central to the idea of the feminist textual strategy that Ford and Boyle (2021) discusses.
Visually, this pervasive sense of interiority and emotional introspection is showcased through what Ine Ang (1985) calls ‘emotional realism’. This refers to a representational quality in audio-visual narratives which involves creating a sense of emotional authenticity through aesthetic and aural techniques (Emotional Realism, 1954). For instance, Coulthard (2018) argues that Marcella uses its musical score and other sound effects to punctuate the psychological turmoil and other emotional states that accompany her process of solving the case (p. 563). Recurring sound effects such as mechanical whirs and rapid heartbeats gradually grow deafeningly loud before suddenly coming to a screeching halt. This juxtaposition of almost intolerable noise with prolonged periods of complete silence creates a sense of unease and turbulence, construing Marcella’s thought patterns as disturbed and unsettled and, therefore, inseparable from her trauma. Emotional realism in Marcella is also constructed through recurring point-of-view and close-up shots, one after the other, during moments of shock or revelation. In episode three of season one, Marcella comes to terms with the fact that she moved Grace Gibson’s dead body from her house to the woods during one of her blackouts. This leads to Marcella’s terror at the thought that she could have potentially murdered Grace and could be the prime suspect in the case that she is investigating herself. The scene under discussion shows Marcella in a disoriented state, just minutes after recovering from a blackout. The camera zooms into her face as she darts her eyes around the room and eventually opens a laptop to web-search Grace. During this sequence, the camera orientation constantly shifts between a close-up shot of Marcella’s eyes and the laptop screen from her perspective. This oscillation between Marcella’s frantic viewpoint and close-ups of her tense expression allows for the creation of a point of identification for the viewers, which is instrumental in representing what Ang (1985) calls a ‘true-to-life’ emotional state (p. 50).
Similar techniques are also employed in Mare of Easttown, where zoomed-in shots of Mare’s face or eyes give a visual presence to her inner thoughts and feelings. However, the use of space also becomes essential in locating Mare’s internal emotional distress and personal trauma against the town’s public trauma. At the end of episode three, Chief Carter puts Mare on administrative leave from her detective duties upon finding out that she planted drugs in Carrie’s car (Drew’s mother, who is a recovering addict) in order to prevent her from getting Drew’s custody. After confronting Mare and confiscating her gun and badge, Chief Carter leaves in his car and the point of focalisation shifts outward and away from Mare. As the car drives away, the camera gets positioned to show Mare as a lonely, diminishing figure against the background of the less-than idyllic suburbs. The space around her gets enlarged as the camera grows distant from Mare.
The shift in focalisation and the utilisation of deep space following a close-up shot showcase Mare as an alienated figure within her community. Over the entire series, Mare’s trauma becomes central to her sense of self as well as to her work in the professional space. Her moral transgression by attempting to disenfranchise Carrie also stems from her trauma of having already lost a son. This sequence, therefore, becomes significant in eventually establishing Mare as someone who is not integrated with her town and its people since her personal trauma takes precedence over set moral conventions.
Moreover, it is worth noting that when Mare removes her gun and badge from a drawer to hand them over to Chief Carter, the camera briefly pans over two photographs of a police sergeant and a child in the same drawer. From information revealed in the previous episodes, the audience is able to recognise the photographs as that of Mare’s father and Mare herself as a child. Despite the arc of the series positioning Mare as a redemptive hero-like figure of her town, this sequence possibly indicates that her own internal sense of failure is felt to a greater extent in the domestic space of her family than in the larger community.
In a genre that regularly produces and underscores an ethos of rationality, crime fiction dramas such as Mare of Easttown and Marcella construct trauma-informed narratives that function as conduits for expressing gendered and other social frustrations. The figure of the female detective in both of these TV series is constantly negotiating her role in the domestic spaces of family and home, as well as in the professional space as a detective, and therefore also as a harbinger of justice in the social world she inhabits. The traumatic experiences of these characters are then located in the confluence of these two realities that become central to their identities.
This article has examined how traumatic frameworks based on gendered subtexts function within the narratives of the two TV series. As a result, what has emerged from the textual analysis is an understanding of how trauma, both personal and public, operates in multiform—as motifs as well as themes. As detailed in the first section of the analysis, elements such as location, space and setting become significant in characterising the nature of trauma that forms the premise of these stories. Trauma theorists such as Dodd (2019) and Caruth (1991) have also proposed arguments which suggest that the motif of location in crime fiction can be useful in constructing a vantage point through which viewers can access the traumatic memories of the characters.
Furthermore, the insights in this article also touch upon how overarching themes of motherhood and family play a role in characterising gendered trauma. The mise-en-scène elements such as affective music, lighting and the use of space, along with techniques such as fragmentation and analepsis visually foreground the themes of trauma and gender throughout the running period of the two shows. Drawing from this, the article also discusses how the merging of the public and personal worlds of the female detective is, by extension, symbolic of the blurring of individual and collective trauma as represented in the narratives. In the two series examined, this is achieved through emotional realism, which uses aesthetic techniques to bring to focus the characters’ inner turmoil and emotional experiences. The question of how the intersection of trauma and gender is understood within the ambit of the crime fiction genre becomes relevant to the contemporary context in which such works are produced. With an increasing number of literary works, films, and television shows centred around the female detective, the crime fiction genre has undergone several thematic shifts which involve the depiction of embodied elements such as emotional distress and trauma. In this sense, it becomes important to examine the research questions posed in this article since the representation of traumatised female detectives essentially reveals a set of social sensibilities of the contemporary world.
While this article only closely examines two television shows, the insights gained from the analysis recur across several other contemporary films and shows. For example, in recent years, crime series such as Top of The Lake (2013-2017), From Darkness (2015) and Sharp Objects (2018) reflect similar trends of representing the female investigator at the centre, with her traumatic experiences and emotional distress guiding both the narrative and the logic with which she solves the crime. The pervasiveness of such trends in present-day crime television dramas underscores the need to further elaborate on the insights gathered.
The narrative, aesthetic and thematic features that embody representations of trauma in these crime series can possibly function as cathartic or therapeutic outlets for its massive audiences. In these dramas, violence, emotional distress or trauma experienced by the female detective is turned inward, away from the excessively romanticised or masculinised frameworks within which they were previously characterised. This article posits that it may therefore be important to establish links between gendered trauma in its authentic portrayals and the generic elements of crime fiction at large.
I am deeply indebted to Ananya Parikh for her mentorship and guidance throughout the process of conceptualising and writing this paper. I am also grateful to Ria Iyer and Bhoomika Mhatre for providing me with the gift of their friendship and unending support both in and outside the seminar sessions last year. Finally, I would like to thank the board of editors and reviewers for their invaluable feedback and edits on this paper.
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