On Women and Trauma: ‘Top of the Lake’ and the Power of Empathy in Crime TV

Images: BBC UKTV

Season Two of Top of the Lake (2013–2017) begins with a suitcase in the ocean. Two lifeguards have spotted the suitcase, with long black hair protruding from the side, and have alerted the police to its presence. Detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss, arrives at the scene. As Robin approaches the suitcase to open it, we brace for what we are surely about to see – the body of a dead girl, shrivelled and disfigured – but we never see this. We see only Robin, with her piercing but empathetic gaze, looking at the girl within. 

This scene in Season Two is emblematic of how Jane Campion’s crime drama deals with brutality, trauma, and violence against women. Top of the Lake centers of Robin Griffin, a New Zealand Detective specializing in sexual violence. Season One follows her as she returns to her hometown after her mother gets sick, while Season Two takes place at her new job in Sydney. Rather than depicting brutality as a means to shock or horrify the audience, Campion’s Top of the Lake focuses instead on the trauma this brutality causes and the pain that remains as a result of such violence. In a moment where violent crime series are more popular than ever, Top of the Lake prompts us to consider some intriguing questions about the genre. We might ask, for example, what does it mean for a crime drama to take a woman’s perspective? What does it look like when women’s pain, rather than men’s witnessing of women’s pain, is central to the story? 

As I alluded to above, while the show deals with violence in very intimate ways, it does not do so as a means to shock or traumatise the viewer. In Season One, the story revolves around Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a 12-year-old pregnant girl who goes missing. In the case of her story – though by the end of the season we find out who the father of her child is – we never see a single moment of Tui being assaulted or mistreated in any way. Campion gives her audience credit here, knowing that they may be imagining this violence anyways, given the shocking nature of Tui’s condition, and recognising that showing it would do nothing to move the story along. Robin too has experienced horrifying brutality in her life. She was gang-raped at the age of fifteen, leading to her becoming pregnant and having a child. However, we never see the rape itself – only the moments leading up to it. Instead, much of the series focuses on how Robin reckons with this event in the present day, and how it emotionally affects her work as a police officer. 

This shift in focus – from violence itself to the traumatic effects of violence – is another way that Top of the Lake reframes how we see women’s relationship to crime. The reveal of Robin’s violent assault as a teenager – what we assume to the origin of her desire to become a police detective specialising in sexual assault – is not used as a shocking plot point to manufacture sympathy for an often cold and sometimes unlikeable character. Throughout, she remains a difficult character to love. Instead, it allows us to better understand her actions, odd and anti-social as they may seem. Robin’s trauma, as well as the trauma of the women around her, is not fetishised or used as a melodramatic plot point. Instead, she is living with this trauma, always, regardless of whether those around her see it or not. Reiterating this theme, a subplot in Season One involves a guru-like figure (played by Holly Hunter) and her group of women followers, all of whom have experienced some trauma in their lives that have led them to follow this mysterious figure into the desolate wilderness of New Zealand. These women, unlike the men at the precinct, do not judge Robin’s trauma, nor her means of dealing with it. They are all, in their various ways, doing their best to cope. 

Crime dramas over the years have taken many different approaches to depicting and reckoning with violence on screen. There is the psychological approach, such as in David Fincher’s Mindhunter, which primarily involves men trying to get inside the heads of other violent and misogynistic men. But in recent years, there have been more and more female detectives on television reckoning with this same violence. We might think of Gillian Anderson in The Fall, Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, Mariska Hargitay as the immortal Olivia Benson on Law and Order: SVU, or Merrit Weaver and Toni Collete’s detective duo on Unbelievable. All of these women deal with the trauma of their lives and jobs differently. Some of them have their own experiences with violence and trauma, some do not, but the best of these characters approach their jobs with sensitivity and empathy. (Merrit Weaver’s first scene in Unbelievable is an excellent example of this). 

Law and Order: SVU generally does a commendable job of telling about, rather than showing, the brutal crimes committed in the series. And significantly, on SVU it is Benson’s deep empathy, paired with Stabler’s righteous anger, that anchor an otherwise repetitive procedural in an intimate, emotional space. As Emily Nussbaum describes her, Benson is “a Xena with empathy, the woman created from—but not destroyed by—rape.” This emotional and physical vulnerability is also what makes Anderson’s Stella Gibson so powerful and compelling in The Fall. As Sonia Saraya puts it, “Stella is what makes The Fall different from other investigations of serial killers; in this game of cat-and-mouse, the hero is a woman just as vulnerable as any of the murderer’s victims.” Indeed, it is Robin’s empathy and willingness to be vulnerable that makes her not only a compelling character but a capable detective – she is willing to keep searching, even when others have given up.

In many crime series, and in much of television and film in general, women’s pain or death is used as the fuel for men’s anger or the origin of their life’s mission. The pain of the women in their lives is thus necessary for their development as heroes (or in some cases, anti-heroes). We might think here of Netflix’ The Punisher, in which the death of Frank Castle’s wife and kids spurs him to become a “righteous” killing machine, or a multitude of action movies, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, or Andrew Garfield’s Spiderman, where the female love interest dies in order to further cement the hero’s mission. Another rather shocking example is Wind River, in which the story ostensibly centers around the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women on a Wyoming reservation, but ends up as a redemptive story for Jeremy Renner’s character, who has lost his own daughter to similar violence. Even in Law and Order: SVU, Christopher Meloni’s Stabler often thinks of the female victims they encounter in relation to his wife our daughters, rather than as individuals in their own right. 

But what if, Top of the Lake seems to ask, rather than violence against women being an unfortunate but necessary occurrence that reveals men’s heroism, violence against women was the story? What if instead of violence being deferred onto male heroes’ female partners who then commit violence against these same perpetrators, women’s trauma was centered and used to create empathy among, rather than sympathy for, these victims of violence? 

This a powerful shift in perspective, and one that Campion achieves by focusing on the power of empathy and emotion, rather than objective psychology or intellect. In shows like Mindhunter, which look at male violence through a psychological lens, the experience of these men’s victims often gets overlooked. As someone who has watched all fifteen seasons of Criminal Minds (which is based on the same FBI unit whose origins are depicted in Mindhunter), I can attest to the appeal of this formula – there is something so satisfying about seeing the agents outsmart these killers using their intellect – but again we must consider who is centered in these stories, and who gets pushed to the side. 

In Top of the Lake, Robin has little interest in why these men do what they do. She is intimately connected to the cruelty of misogynistic men, and feels no need to psychoanalyse their behaviour. (Indeed, the most tiring elements of shows like Criminal Minds is the repetitive nature of their psychoanalysis. The formula they come up with usually boils down to something reductive like “the perpetrator hates their mother and/or ex-girlfriend and is taking this hatred out on other women. The end!”). Instead, Robin focuses on the experiences of the survivors and the victims of this violence. 

In Season One, Robin is singularly focused on ensuring 12-year old Tui’s survival, even while others have given up hope. While she also wants to find out who fathered Tui’s unborn child, this goal is secondary to ensuring Tui’s survival and safe return. Robin, who herself had a child as a teenager as a result of rape, feels Tui’s pain as if it was her own. The depth of her empathy for Tui separates her from her male colleagues at the police station, who not only have given up hope that Tui is alive, but also mock and belittle Robin’s personal investment in the case. 

While her emotion sometimes clouds her judgment – particular in Season Two as her proximity to the players involved in the case becomes harder for her to ignore – this focus on empathy grounds the show in Robin and these other women’s lived realities, rather than focusing on the horrible acts committed by the men around them. This female-centric and survivor-centric approach to the crime genre shifts our focus from the evil acts of misogynistic men, to the sustained trauma that women experience living in a misogynistic culture. By taking an unflinching look at women’s pain and trauma, Top of the Lake highlights the power and the necessity of empathy in attending to the brutality of misogynistic violence in the many forms it may take.

by Kira Deshler

Kira holds a Masters’s degree in Media Studies from UT Austin where she studied queer female fandom and representation. She loves lesbian cinema, any and all TV shows about crime, and coming of age stories about teenage boys who love music. Every Christmas she watches Carol (2015) and has an emotional breakdown. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd, and can find her thesis site on queer female fandom here.

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