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Luther’s Woman Problem

by Zan Romanoff

September 3, 2013 | 10:23 am

Mallory Ortberg recently proposed one of the best things I've heard in a long time: a type of costume party where every attendee has to "come dressed as an unpopular wife from a prestigious drama on cable television and treat each other with respect the entire night." Ortberg is talking about the morally complex gray-man anti-heroes of critically acclaimed shows-- Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano--but the same trope repeats itself on both sides of the gender divide in detective shows, which all too often allow their violent, troubled heroes forgiveness and asbolution in the arms of smart, strong, and theoretically fiestely independent women.

You know the story in its broad outlines: he stands strong against the system, the small beauracratic minds that want to find evidence and follow procedure-- his brilliant intuition has no time for these things! He must right the wrongs of his dark and private past. His pursuit of justice twists him because he feels too much. He is brutal in his heart, and brilliant, and he could have chosen a criminal life but he lives on the side of the light! We must respect him for it. Inevitably his wife is among those who don't understand: she wants him home from dinner, she wants him to stop brooding while she's doing the dishes and putting the kids to bed. She leaves him for another, less complicated man. And then she comes back to him. Because he is so passionate and twisted and true

This story repeats itself in the first two episodes of Luther, which is as many as I could bring myself to watch. It's a poorly-plotted procedural, somewhere between boring and inexplicable on the level of the crimes detective Luther is actually trying to solve, but it's Luther's relationship with his wife Zoe that makes the show intolerable. Twice in the pilot he has violent outbursts in her presence; both times when someone comes to restrain him he announces that he's a policeman, too, and they back off. Can we just imagine for a moment this story told from her perspective? What it would be like to be involved with a man who, upon hearing that during their separation she's started seeing someone, smashes a wooden door into pieces, and then gets to tell the police that it's okay, he's one of them, nothing to see here, move along? Zoe has every right to be terrified of Luther, but we never get to see her fear because the show doesn't consider or respect her enough to imagine that she might feel it. 

It's chilling to watch the show edge us around to liking Luther, romanticizing his outbursts as evidence of his unbearably passionate nature instead of the uncontrolled rage of a man unchecked in his violence. It is essentially apologizing for an abusive dynamic as it repeatedly undermines Zoe's protests against having Luther in her life, telling us over and over that she doesn't know what she wants, that he's the only one who can protect her, that his actions are justified by the ends they achieve. 

That's the problem with these shows: they write neat arcs in which there is a moral justification for every one of Luther's screaming fits. But in real life it doesn't work that way, and even if it did, all of the Zoe's of the world have a right to determine whether they want to be screamed at or not. The idea that anyone else can decide what is for a woman's own good is base, primitive thinking, and it's awful to watch it underlined in what sells itself as a smart, thoughtful drama. A costume party would be a nice start, but what I want more than anything is a show that takes women's stories seriously, talking about what it's like to be loved by men who genuinely aren't good for you or for themselves. I want to watch Zoe walk away from Luther and see what happens after, when she's in control, an acting subject instead of a beloved object, a sexy lamp in need of protection. 

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