Detecting Gender: Inspector Morse and Feminist Theory

morse

image credit: http://www.vpt.org/show/17619/404

In the Inspector Morse episode Day of the Devil, Morse periodically visits the psychiatrist of a serial rapist and murderer who has escaped prison. The psychiatrist, Dr. Esther Martin, is stationed at an Oxford hotel per the request of the killer. Morse periodically visits the doctor in order to gather more insight on the criminal, and to see if she is safe. A female police officer, W.P.C. Nora Curtis, accompanies Dr. Martin. During one of Morse’ s visits, he joins both women for a drink in the hotel cafe. They begin a conversation after Morse suggests that Constable Curtis may need a break to attend to her “living arrangement,” or her boyfriend, with whom she lives. The conversation begins as follows:

W.P.C. Curtis: I live with someone. He divides his time between me and the motorbike, but he’s alright.

Dr. Martin: (smiling) He’s got a motorbike?

W.P.C. Curtis: Yeah.

Dr. Martin: I had a motorbike once.

W.P.C. Curtis: (astonished) You? What was it?

Dr. Martin: A harley, actually. It belonged to my eldest brother, and the supposition was that it would pass on to the next male in the line.

Morse looks down as if ashamed or embarrassed.

Dr. Martin: But I challenged my other brothers to a speed trial, saw them both off and got to keep the bike.

W.P .C Curtis: (smiling, in awe) That’s wonderful. That’s fantastic, doctor.

Morse: Why should Dr. Martin’s success cause you such unbounded joy, Constable?

W.P.C. Curtis: Oh, no reason, sir.

Morse: Come on, you can barely contain yourself.

W.P.C. Curtis: (slowly) I was pleased because she’d beat them at what’s considered their own game. She pauses. That’s never easy for a woman as we don’t get to make the rules. Or, don’t you agree sir?

Morse: Yes, I do. But, in beating them at their own games, aren’t you in danger of losing something essential?

W.P .C. Curtis: (mockingly) Our cuddly qualities, sir?

Dr. Martin looks at her, sighs, and smiles gently.

Morse: If you mean a disinclination to violence, a greater capacity for fair-mindedness and compassion, then yes, your cuddly qualities.

W.P.C. Curtis’s eyes burn into him.

Morse: I’ve always seen femininity as a guarantor of civilization.

W.P.C. Curtis: You’ve rather an idealized view of us.

Morse: That may be, but, it is my view.

W.P.C. Curtis: I can sum up your idea of feminine qualities in one word: weakness. And it’s that weakness that sustains discrimination, inequality, and violence in all its forms, from the Saturday night slap in the mouth to the kind of things we get from this bastard we’re all chasing.

Dr. Martin: Are you sure you don’t want any coffee, chief inspector?

Morse: No thank you doctor, I appear to have upset Constable Curtis. That was inexcusable, even if it was unintentional.

Constable W.P.C. Curtis: Sir.

When Morse asks Constable Curtis if she (as a member of the female community, who identifies with Esther Martin’ s story of beating her brothers in a race), is “in danger of losing something essential,” he uses a word that both refers to something crucial and to what may be considered the essence or necessary quality of all women. The conversation that follows brings up a critical question for feminist thought: Is there always something wrong with saying there is an essence of women, or that this essence is femininity? What if that essence is a set of positive qualities such as those listed by Morse: an aversion to violence, a propensity toward fairness, compassion? If we accept the idealized view of women espoused by Morse (1), what happens to masculine women? In other words, what are the dangers of holding such a romantic view of all women?

In this case, it is, at least in part, Dr. Esther Martin’ s trust in women that leads her to danger. When Morse and Lewis interview her about how and why she had purposely assisted Barrie’s escape from prison, she described the first time she had met him: “I’d broken down on my motorbike. I thought they’d stopped to help. I could see the woman in the van, and thought I was safe (crying). ” The woman in the van was the wife of a second rapist, herself battered, and had joined the men rather than risk further endangerment. Dr. Martin, who sits between Morse and W.P.C. Curtis in the conversation described above, is accurately placed, for she believes not only in the ideal view of women, but in their ability to take on the masculine role as well. When Morse ends the conversation with an apology, it seems to be precisely because he understands the complex position of women, especially those who choose to move beyond traditionally feminine roles (2). Ride on her Harley as she might, she was reminded in the worst of ways which sex she was.

But is it the behavior of women that matters most in the case of crimes against them? According to W.P.C. Curtis’s impassioned speech, the woman’s behavior, especially if it is weak, actually allows the crime to occur. Her response to patriarchal norms, as a woman who joins the police force, is indeed to “beat them at their own game,” to carry and cock a gun. This view leaves in tact masculine dominance, whether its representatives be male or female.

Morse, on the other hand, describes femininity as a “guarantor” of civilization. He implies that women embody this femininity, but he never says so outright. In his daily life, he is no chief member of the masculine crew. Rather, he spends his idle time drinking wine and listening to female opera singers. He reads to such an extent that it endangers his reputation as a “copper” (3). If femininity is to guarantee civility, it must not be something that only women can access. In addition to taking on relatively humane hobbies, Morse consistently identifies with women. In Day of the Devil, for example, he makes no move to announce that Dr. Martin let Barrie out of prison, or that she intended to kill him. Both Morse and Dr. Martin, a man and a woman, identify with women in the end. At the end of the final interview with Dr. Martin, Morse asks her if she could have gone through with the murder. She picks up a ring from the examination table, which had belonged to another one of Barrie’s victims, and tells Morse that when he finds the owner of the ring, he is to look into the woman’ s eyes. Here, she says, he will find the answer to his question.

In seeking revenge against her rapist, Dr. Martin moves beyond an individualist quest to “beat men at their own game,” to an action that she sees as an act of solidarity with other women. It is precisely this identification with the other, whether male or female, that is the true “guarantor of civilization.” If women have traditionally been more able to identify with others, it is because, in order to become human agents themselves, they had to identify with that which is other from themselves – the masculine norm. If only men were human, it was the prerogative of women to show their likeness to men.

Inspector Morse’s brief speech on gender, along with the circumstances within which the speech takes place, reminds us of this basic quest for humanity. The turning of tables with regard to gender requires not the female assumption of male roles, but men’s capacity to see in themselves that which has thus far been considered “feminine. ”

 

 

 

 

1 Although the “peacefulness” of women is a widespread view that has existed and continues to exist, I would like to maintain the words used in this show in particular. It seems that while a general form of essentialist belief about women is consistent with sexist views of women as homemakers and mothers only, Morse expresses something very different.

2 This is one of many examples of Morse treating women more gently than he might a male colleague. Some might see this as condescending, but this behavior may also be read as that which results from empathy toward women in patriarchal society.

3 See Happy Families.

Stacie Vos, 2010

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