He’s Just a Really Nice Guy: Masculinity in BBC’s The Fall

Paul Spector, antagonist in the BBC TV show The Fall, is a really nice guy.

He is active in his community. He volunteers as a counselor on a phone helpline. He works as a bereavement counselor. He is known to go over and above when assisting women suffering from domestic violence. He keeps a journal of his feelings. He is a loving husband and father of two. He is particularly close with his daughter, Olivia.

People who have already seen The Fall may well be recoiling in horror at those statements. Not because they are untrue, but because Paul Spector also stalks, strangles and poses the then-dead bodies of young, conventionally attractive, professional women. He does not perform average objectification of women—while he watches porn or ogling them when they walk down the street. Paul Spector objectifies them permanently.

He does not perform average objectification of women … Paul Spector objectifies them permanently

The tongue-in-cheek ‘Nice Guy’ label stems from tumblrs documenting the dating profiles of self-professed nice guys. Each post is a reminder of the great chasm between how these men see themselves and who they actually are. Many profess that they are nice guys only to go on to bemoan the lack of women interested in them; their bitterness sitting under the skin, bubbling to the surface when they deride all women as bitches.

On 22 April 2014, Tom Meagher, husband of murder victim Jill Meagher, had an article published exploring the dangers of the rhetoric we use when talking about male violence.

What Meagher talks about in this article is how the myth of the ‘monster’—a “man [who is] not human, that … exist[s] as a singular force of pure evil who somehow emerged from the ether”—effectively hinders our ability to understand how we create the false dichotomy of the monster and the average man in order to distance ourselves, and the men around us, from the ways in which masculinity is entwined with violence.

Where Meagher was forced to swiftly and brutally confront his own unconscious biases about masculinity, the character of Spector offers the viewer a more drawn-out epiphany. While there is no doubt in the show that Spector is the perpetrator of the murders, the trappings of a Nice Guy surround him, adding nuance and depth to his character.

It is compelling that Spector, counter to the notion of ‘the monster,’ seems to love women. He dotes on his daughter, Olivia. He helps the character Liz Tyler escape a domestic violence situation. He takes a risk and writes a remorseful letter to the father of one of his victims, Sarah Kay, when he learns that she was pregnant at the time of her murder.

Rather than this being a saving grace or something that humanises his character, it is an intricate and accurate manifestation of his violent misogyny.

In reality, a misogynist is more likely to conceive of himself as a champion of women

When it comes to the stereotype of the monster, the man summoned to mind is usually a deeply nefarious figure. He is someone who despises and degrades women without exception. In reality, a misogynist is more likely to conceive of himself as a champion of women, and the mental gymnastics a misogynist needs to do in order to overcome this cognitive dissonance usually involves putting caveats on his support.

For Spector, a woman’s worth is directly proportional to her role as a mother. This is why he expresses remorse over murdering Sarah Kay. This is why his wife Sally Ann Spector never bore witness to the murderous side of him. This is why he helped and comforted Liz Tyler. Living as a woman or gender non-conforming person, you are incessantly confronted with these various, often incompatible internal benchmarks of the men in your life. In the case of Spector, non-conformity justifies murder. As Detective Sergeant Gibson (Gillian Anderson) observes of Spector, he judges women as either deserving or not deserving of life and acts to execute that judgement.

Where a murderer sits on the scale of nice guy to monster is invariably linked in public discourse—in a much more insidious form of Spector-esque judgement-passing—to the societal perception of the innocence of his victim. In the case of Masa Vukotic, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who was stabbed to death in a Melbourne park in 2015, Justice Lasry condemned her killer, Sean Price, of picking an “entirely innocent” victim at random. This label implies that there are women more deserving of the murders committed against them. In The Fall, DS Stella Gibson draws this point out beautifully, asking that the department not use the word ‘innocent’ in a press release warning professional, attractive brunettes of a potential killer targeting them:

What if he kills a pr*stitute 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 or wh*res. Let’s not encourage them. [1]

Through DS Gibson we get a firm critique of the subtle ways the media influences what we see as socially acceptable womanhood and how it is used as a tool to lessen culpability for violence against women.

It’s this enforced division of “angels or wh*res” that enables many men to prey on women unchallenged. Sex workers in particular are targeted. Because sex workers defy societal expectation, the institutions that have a responsibility to protect them treat them with suspicion and antipathy. Thus they are doubly exposed, both at risk and at fault, and the consequences are manifest. In the words of the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway:

I picked pr*stitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked pr*stitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. He confessed to killing 48 sex workers from 1982 to 1998. This number makes him one of the most prolific serial killers in US history—and that number could not have grown so large were it not for the nature of who he targeted and the manner in which they are treated.

If The Fall depends on a gendered critique of innocence for its study of female victimhood, it also excels at showing how small, everyday actions set foundations that enable larger forms of violence. What makes Spector a chilling character is not his extraordinary strength or even his cold, calculating nature—it’s the fact that he is so normal. Before Hitchcock’s Psycho, the genre of horror hinged largely on literal monsters like giant blobs taking over towns. With the character of Norman Bates, Hitchcock introduced the notion that the real monster is the person living next door.

The Fall posits … that it is not ‘a psycho’ but the average man, himself, that is the real danger

Unfortunately, Bates was also depicted as someone whose violence was inextricably tied up in mental illness and gender. When he murders Marion Crane, he is dressed and playing the part of his deceased mother. Psycho was a mainstream representation of the idea that cross-dressers and transgender people were dangerous and violent. Where Hitchcock sets up the notion that your neighbour could be secretly ‘a psycho’, The Fall posits (at least in the first two seasons) that it is not ‘a psycho’ but the average man, himself, that is the real danger. With around one woman murdered a week in Australia at the hands of her partner or ex-partner, that message is an incredibly accurate and important one.

This is why the characterisation of Spector in the third season as a cross dresser or someone interested in gender bending is a disappointing eventuation. Not only does it undo the critiques of the ways masculinity and violence are entwined, it feels lazy, ignorant and dangerous.

Contrary to the implications made in both Psycho and The Fall, trans women, in particular, are far more likely to be the subject of violence than to commit it. A history of being represented as predators has only served to compound their marginalisation as it has contributed to societal oppression of them, such as in the repressive North Carolina bathroom laws. Trans women, like sex workers, are often targets for violence because depictions like these render them ‘less innocent’ in the eyes of society.

Spector’s wife, Sally Ann, is a neonatal nurse and mother of two. In many ways, she represents the quintessential vision of a ‘good woman’. She is kind, compassionate and loyal. When she has the opportunity to contradict Spector’s story, she initially takes his side and lies to the police. When she does threaten to go to the police, however, Spector reacts violently. Here we can see the true nature of the Nice Guy™; he is nice, so long as you obey all his rules.

In Meagher’s article on the monster myth, he states:

The only thing more disturbing than that paradigm [of the monster–nice guy] is the fact that most rapists are normal guys, guys we might work beside or socialise with, our neighbours or even members of our family.

While The Fall isn’t perfect, it does understand this point intimately and has crafted the character of Spector to take full advantage of how large this societal blind spot is. It is not the brutality of Spector but the acts of normalcy and of kindness—corrupted though they may be—that make Spector a terrifyingly real character.

[1] In efforts to combat the marginalisation of sex workers, a good step is to listen to them. This is why this article has censored the words wh*re and pr*stitute, as they are considered slurs by that community. Some further reading on this can be found here.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrShare on Reddit

Leave a Reply