‘Hannibal’s “Feminist Take on Horror” Still Has a High Female Body Count

[caption id="attachment_10511" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Hettienne Park as Beverly Katz Hettienne Park as Beverly Katz[/caption]

[Spoilers for all the aired episodes of Hannibal ahoy! Yar!]

Hannibal is a show about serial killers, so it’s no shock there’s a high body count. And it isn’t the usual death parade of butchered women that crime thrillers often present. Sady Doyle wrote that Hannibaltakes on the serial-killer cop procedural—one of the most irredeemably woman-hating genres on TV—from a feminist perspective.” Crime shows so often depict women as victims, and victims as bodies. (I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of struggling actresses getting the “break” of playing a cold, naked corpse on a medical examiner’s table, and their families excitedly tuning in to see her silently horizontal in blue-gray makeup, functioning essentially as a prop.)

Hannibal has flipped this archetype. The vast majority of the nameless victims, often naked, usually incorporated into inventively macabre art installations, have been men.

[caption id="attachment_10508" align="aligncenter" width="509"]Equal-opportunity artful display of dead bodies. Equal-opportunity artful display of dead bodies.[/caption]

But women are certainly not spared from violence on this gruesome show: the twist is that Hannibal‘s female victims have mostly been strongly developed as characters before being dispatched. The most devastating deaths on the show have all been women: last season’s long-time-coming murder of Abigail Hobbes, perhaps the only person we’ve seen Hannibal kill with any reluctance, and this season’s huge loss of FBI Agent Beverly Katz.

Even the one-off characters we’ve seen murdered (or at least victimized) have been given complex characterization over the course of their episode, for example the Cotard delusion-suffering Georgia Madchen (Ellen Muth), or Anna Chulmsky’s Clarice Starling stand-in Miriam Lass (recently revealed to be alive, although deeply damaged).

[caption id="attachment_10509" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Kacey Rohl as Abigail Hobbs Kacey Rohl as Abigail Hobbs[/caption]

Because the female victims on Hannibal are well-written, sympathetic, and interesting, the audience grieves for them. They are not merely dramatic beats to generate manpain for the dude heroes. (Will Graham nevertheless suffers epic amounts of manpain. This is his design.)

Hannibal clearly takes the murder of women seriously, and uses it as a source of dramatic pathos, not titillation. But an unfortunate consequence of this pattern is that midway through the second season, only one female character in the regular cast remains: Caroline Dhavernas’s Alana Bloom. And she’s a love interest for both Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter (which is not to say she’s been weakly characterized, but does seem to explain her survival).

[caption id="attachment_10510" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Last woman standing: Alana Bloom Last woman standing: Alana Bloom[/caption]

Hannibal is also running low on women in the recurring cast. Gillian Anderson’s Bedelia Du Maurier exited early in the second season, and the amoral journalist Freddie Lounds (one of several male characters from Thomas Harris’s novels that series developer Bryan Fuller rewrote as female) has only made brief appearances in two episodes this year.

The loss of Hettienne Park as Beverly Katz is particularly devastating, and not only because she was one of the precious stereotype-defying women of color on network TV. Katz’s sardonic sense of humor provided some much-needed comic relief, and her warm friendship with Will was perhaps one of the only psychologically sound relationships presented in the entire series.

[caption id="attachment_10512" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Will Graham and Beverly Katz Will Graham and Beverly Katz[/caption]

And yes, it is immensely frustrating that when the powers that be decide someone important “needs to die” to up the stakes or prove “anyone is expendable” for that someone to be, yet again, a woman of color. (Tip to showrunners: WE KNOW you can kill anyone off. We’ve been watching TV the last ten years. It is not that shocking anymore, and not even remotely surprising when it is a woman or person of color on the chopping block. Some cast members are more expendable than others, and it’s easy to guess who you think they are. Please stop sacrificing representation on the altar of high drama.)

So while Hannibal has a refreshingly compassionate narrative approach to the murder of women (which is a phrase I never imagined I’d write), they’ve got to cool it with killing off the ladies in the cast. And they need to replenish the ranks with more well-crafted female characters, and they’re going to have to stay alive for a while. Because right now we’ve got too many dicks on the dance floor.


Robin Hitchcock is an American writer who is now afraid of mushrooms in the wild.

One Comment

  • Jimmy_Winter
    Posted April 18, 2014 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    I agree with you, except for the implication that Fuller killed Katz off because he was aiming to “shock” the audience. He killed Katz because it garnered the strongest emotional reaction from the audience. Aside from Will, we probably cared about Katz the most. Unless you’re one of those weirdos who still have sympathy for Hannibal.

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