Iona Sharma revels in the feminist joy of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a lush confection: an Australian detective drama set in 1920s Melbourne, with meticulously envisaged period detail and glorious outfits.
It stars Essie Davis as the Honourable Phryne Fisher, “lady detective”, together with an ensemble cast, including Miriam Margolyes, playing her self-assembled household and some long-suffering members of the Melbourne police force.
With their assistance, Phryne (rhymes with tiny) runs around the city, chasing criminals with a pearl-handled pistol. She is magnificently dressed at all times, even when pursuing murderers across rooftops or inspecting bodies in the morgue.
The resulting show is a delight; the murders themselves are solidly predictable affairs, taken seriously but not overly gritty or dark, while the dialogue is sharp and funny. Plus, there is a certain pleasure in taking in Phryne’s fabulous lifestyle, making it perfectly possible to simply sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
So why not just leave it there? Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is lovely, easy-to-watch fun and, amid the bright colours and rollicking adventures in its 26 episodes across two seasons, I don’t believe anyone ever uses the word ‘feminist’ or anything close to it. However, I would say this is still the most feminist television show I’ve seen in years, possibly even more so for its light, deceptively simple approach.
First of all, Miss Fisher’s larger-than-life personality is a lot more complicated than it at first seems.
She grew up in poverty — her current wealth and title arose as a result of most of her family being wiped out in the First World War — and, overshadowing that difficult childhood is the fact her sister was abducted by a known kidnapper and murderer who continues to protest his innocence. (This is reminiscent of the backstories of protagonists like Batman and Fox Mulder — the tragic past that is usually bestowed on male characters.)
Despite this, the show resists the temptation of taking Phryne’s subsequent lifelong quest to find out what happened to her sister, along with her wartime experiences as a nurse on the front lines, and using it as the explanation for her worldview.
A major feminist plus point about Phryne as a character is that she staunchly supports girls and women and makes a stand for their education, freedom and decisions.
For example, in her first episode, she hires a maid, Dot (Ashleigh Cummings), a terrified girl who is chief suspect in a murder, and gives her a safe place to stay. Dot Williams becomes Phryne’s live-in companion and, in a sense, her social secretary and partner in crime combined. Dot is scared of many things, including the telephone, but learns through Phryne’s example that the quality of her life can improve.
In the second episode, it is a young street urchin named Jane (Ruby Rees-Wemyss), a chief suspect in a jewel theft, who Phryne offers support to. A little later, Phryne’s own best friend, Elizabeth ‘Mac’ Macmillan (Tammy MacIntosh), is hauled in on suspicion of murder. Mac is a wonderful character in herself: a doctor with a fearless streak, who is constantly on the edge of the law in the matter of contraceptives and abortion.
Phryne is supportive when Mac comes out to her as a lesbian and the way this scene plays out is a great example of how well the complexities of 1920s society are rendered on the show: Mac does not live in a world where lesbianism is illegal (as opposed to male homosexuality) and is unrepentantly butch, with her tailored suits and brusque manner. However, it turns out that she is actually more frightened of coming out to Phryne than she is of dealing with murderers.
Phryne respects the choices women make for themselves. For example, she herself enjoys the independence that both wealth and privilege give her and would never think of marriage. However, when Dot embarks on a tentative romance with a police constable, Phryne is there for her, with advice and support. Meanwhile, Jane is quiet and bookish and Phryne sees that she gets the best education possible. Phryne herself believes that femininity is her best weapon, but she respects Dot’s steadiness, Mac’s practicality and Jane’s studiousness. When at the end of the first season, Phryne gets herself in worse trouble than usual, it is Jane, with some knowledge of ancient Egyptian history, who helps get her out of it.
Another strength of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is that events are shown from Phryne’s point of view and, as a result, everything that happens in this universe is seen from a female gaze.
Every few episodes, Phryne comes across a young man to have a fling with and discards him by the time of the next murder. Regardless of whether or not you find men attractive, it is still incredibly refreshing to see them lingered upon and playfully objectified by the camera, as this underlines that the show is largely being made by and for women. Women, whether they’re heroes, villains, innocent bystanders or extras, are not sexualised without their consent in this show. Phryne herself says to Dot: “A woman should dress first and foremost for her own pleasure.”
Connected to this commitment to the female gaze is the determined choice the show makes to take a view of history that is not solely a privileged one. Though it could do better in terms of some areas of representation, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a period drama in which there are working class characters and women of all social backgrounds, along with also going against type by depicting people who went to war and did not come back heroes.
Most notably, Phryne’s experiences as a wartime nurse are not distinguished unfavourably from the frontline experiences of the male characters, who were soldiers. They all had their trauma, the show tells us, and they all deal with it and go on in their own ways.
It is this shared experience of trauma which is at the centre of the most significant relationship in Phryne’s life that isn’t with a woman: the one she has with Detective Inspector John ‘Jack’ Robinson (Nathan Page).
It would be so easy for the show to slip into a romance between the archetypal ‘lady detective’ and a male police detective, played out against the background of their cases. However, that’s not what this is. With crisp and delicious writing, Phryne and Jack go from belligerent enemies to working partners to a deep, intimate, sexually charged friendship. So much of the way this relationship is written and acted actively resists the heteronormative groove that these two might otherwise fall into.
Jack is a restrained counterpoint to Phryne’s extravagant personality; she’s outspoken, extroverted, generous with her wealth, disrespectful of authority and doesn’t have a lot of regard for other people’s personal space. Overall, Jack pulls Phryne back while she drags him forwards. They argue, flirt, sometimes agree, often disagree and, in fighting crime, complement each other perfectly. They love each other but it’s left carefully unspoken what form that love takes, or should take.
In contrast to this relationship, we see Dot and her relationship with one of Jack’s constables, Hugh. These two, with encouragement from their respective mentors, embark on a sweet romance that may well lead to marriage. However, Phryne and Jack can’t take that particular path and the show is very good at underscoring their reasons why: firstly, they have come to each other as equals, with shared wartime experiences and working class roots (Phryne was very recently in receipt of an inheritance and it is clear that her working-class background informs how she sees the world). This would have been a potential barrier during those times; indeed, a socially sanctioned heterosexual romance could destroy them both.
Phryne values the life she’s built and the sexual and financial independence at the heart of it too much to ever give it up. Meanwhile, Jack’s marriage has fallen apart because of how the war has changed him. (We are introduced to Jack when he is separated from his wife.)
In the society they live in, Phryne and Jack’s choice to be together without being married would be momentous and neither of them has gone so far as to want that.
So they flirt, solve crime and dance around the topic of what they are to each other, while letting each other be all that they are. It is beautifully executed.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has its flaws, of course. For one thing, it has a very white cast and although there is a recurring Chinese character, Lin Chung (Philippe Day), the show doesn’t handle him particularly well and tends to exoticise his background in an uncritical fashion, using clichéd settings for him, such as sinister dark alleys and murky restaurants.
Meanwhile, his grandmother (Amanda Ma) is always given creepy, stereotypically ‘Chinese’ entrance music and inscrutable malevolent motives. However, it is also worth mentioning (though I won’t include a full spoiler) that Lin’s eventual wife, Camellia (Haiha Le), neatly flips all expectations the viewer might have of her.
Another sticking point is that Mac, while bypassing many of the more tired aspects of the representation of lesbians on television, sadly doesn’t escape the dead-girlfriend trope; my dearest wish for the next series is for her to have a living, happy girlfriend to have adventures with. However, overall, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a joy: a glorious, glittering, deceptively complex feminist extravaganza and, I hope, a harbinger of television to come.
Series’ one and two of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are available on DVD in the UK now. A new series will be broadcast in Australia later in the year.
Miss Fisher leans on her arms on her front on a furry rug on a bed, holding up a golden pistol in her right hand. She wears 1920s get-up: a jewelled head band, red lipstick, thin white scarf, black dress and just visible black high heels (that can be seen from a backwards angle in the background, as her legs are bent at the knees).
This is adapted from the cover for the DVD for series one of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and can also be seen on the cover of the accompanying CD soundtrack. Shared under fair dealing.