When the Irish/British crime thriller The Fall debuted in 2013, the world – particularly women – fell in love with its lead, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson played artfully by American actress Gillian Anderson. Gibson, it seemed, was the representation of a woman on TV that viewers have been waiting for.
She was strong, intelligent, in control, beautiful, imperfect, perceptive and, best of all, she didn’t tolerate misogyny: not from the criminals she was investigating or the police officers she worked alongside.
The series centred around the investigation of a series of murders of young, professional women in their 30s in Belfast who became targets of a deeply troubled killer named Paul Spector (this is not a spoiler, the killer is made known from the start).
These women were treated as objects of desire – strangled and then bathed and posed, undressed, in various doll-like positions in their bedrooms. Gibson, in stark contrast, refused to be objectified (although she constantly faced sexism among her peers).
In doing so, she became a role model for women and an example for men. The show – three seasons – ended in 2016 but the character lives on through hashtags like #whatwouldstellado, #standingwithstella and even #nextbond. Why was Gibson so powerful? Here are five reasons.
1. She doesn’t react, she schools
When the department wants to use the word “innocent” to describe on of the women victims – they were young, attractive professionals – in their press statement, Gibson stops them short.
“Let’s not refer to them as innocent. What if he kills a prostitute next or a woman walking home drunk, late at night, in a short skirt? Will they be in some way less innocent, therefore less deserving? Culpable? The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels and whores. Let’s not encourage them.”
Now, that’s a lesson for us all. Drop the labels and simply view people as people.
2. Double standards? Don’t you dare
When a fellow detective (male, of course) questions her about a one-night stand she had, Gibson doesn’t retaliate; she shows him how much of a hypocrite he is. “Man f**** woman. Subject: man; verb: F****; object: woman. That’s OK. Woman f**** man. Woman: subject; man: object. That’s not so comfortable for you, is it?”
3. She calls a spade a spade … to his face
When Jim Burns, a colleague and ex-lover comes to her hotel room and makes an unwanted pass, Gibson breaks his nose with an upper cut. Well, he wouldn’t take no for an answer … what else was she to do?
Later, when the same person calls the serial killer a monster, Gibson points out to him the parallels between his behaviour in her room and the killer’s.
Gibson: Men like Spector are all too human, too understandable. He’s not a monster, he’s just a man.
Burns: I’m a man. I hope to God I’m nothing like him.
Gibson: No, you’re not. But you still came to my hotel room uninvited and mounted some kind of drunken attack on me.
4. She isn’t a cliche
All too often, as strong as the women characters on TV are, they are made to fall in love as part of the story arc. One of the male characters on the show actually asks Gibson if she is in any way attracted to the killer she’s hunting down – because, you know, he’s attractive and so is she and it’s “only natural”. Once again, she doesn’t retaliate but wearily sets him right.
Gibson: A woman, I forget who, once asked a male friend why men felt threatened by women. He replied that they were afraid that women might laugh at them. When she asked a group of women why women felt threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid they might kill us. He (Spector) might fascinate you. I despise him with every fibre of my being.”
5. Not a stereotype either
You know the idea about women in power – that they’d step on other women to get to the top? Well, so not true. Gibson may not gush or be overly expressive but she is a nurturer. When she sees a young female detective with potential, she tries to mentor her and gives her opportunities to learn and grow.
She also empathises with the families of the victims in a way that’s not just comforting but healing.