Soapy Broads and Quality Gentlemen: The Antiheroine in Top of the Lake

Curator's Note

In the third episode of Sundance Channel’s mini-series Top of the Lake (2013), Detective Robin Griffin, (Elisabeth Moss), uncovers video of the pregnant and missing, twelve-year-old girl, Tui. The footage shows Tui, happy and playful, singing for an unknown person.

For fans of the television detective series, this video may invoke nostalgia for another example of evidentiary footage: Laura Palmer at her hilltop picnic in Twin Peaks (1990-1991). Unlike Special Agent Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks, who sees this footage solely as a tool and therefore objectifies Laura, Robin, allows herself to identify with the missing Tui, seeing herself as not just detective, but also as the victim.

Unlike Cooper who maintains a steadfast and focused character throughout the series, Robin begins to unravel during the investigation, in a similar vein to her male antihero contemporaries, Don Draper or Tony Soprano­—getting uncontrollably drunk, having inappropriate sexual liaisons, and provoking violent conflicts. Like these men, Robin experiences her emotional breakdown, as a direct result of the collision between her personal and professional life; her work arousing lingering traumas she seeks to mask.

Typically shows focused on “unraveling women” are considered soap operas while shows about male characters facing the same turmoil are considered “quality” programming. Tara McPherson cites the show 24, as an example of using, in part, genre as a means of masculinizing the show’s content and distancing the viewer from its serial structure, one that mimics the feminized soap opera. The current wave of “quality” programming, similarly relies on genre to differentiate itself from the soap opera, as does Top of the Lake, which exploits the masculinized detective genre, to mask its melodramatic and serial structure.

Although Twin Peaks, too, is a detective show, it is openly transparent of its soap opera roots, utilizing the serial structure to weave a complex mystery; however, Agent Cooper fails to indulge in the excessive emotional fallout that Robin experiences. Robin’s emotional breakdown, not only connects the show to the melodramatic influences of the soap opera, but invokes the traumatized detective, a trope of the genre. Top of the Lake, maintains its emotional exploits while maintaining its recognition as “quality.”

Work Referenced: Tara McPherson, "'The End of TV as We Know It': Convergence, Anxiety, Generic Innovation, and The Case of 24"


Thanks, Bree, for this thought-provoking piece. A number of female protagonists come to mind that involve women who are “victims” of whatever constitutes their Achilles heel (Robin’s rape, Homeland’s Carrie Mathison’s bipoloar disorder) as differentiated from male protagonists’ dangerous, aggressive or self-destructive behavior (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper). That’s not to imply that self-destructive behavior is not borne of mental health issues nor that women’s “weaknesses” don’t also work in their favor as strengths. To address your point of genre use, it does seem that a number of the shows that fit into the “quality” category are masculinized to some degree – Nurse Jackie, Weeds’ Nancy Botwin – involving crimes and substance abuse to distance them a bit from the emotional core (and assure male viewers). But in the hands of a good (and feminist) director – certainly true in the case of Top of the Lake – those more passive or victimized circumstances do not cave to the soapy, “chick” programming characteristics that they might in less capable hands.

Thanks for the comment, Kathleen. I definitely agree, that there is an increasing amount of these kinds of different female characters, Keri Russell on The Americans and Gillian Anderson on The Fall, also comes to mind. I also think you're correct to point out that these kinds of behaviors typical of these characters, specifically females, can certainly be seen as strengths. I would argue that Top of the Lake aligns Robin's identification with Tui as 'victim' is in part why she is able to solve the case, since she is seemingly the only person (perhaps besides Tui's brother) that actually "feels" not only for Tui, but what Tui has experienced. The final episode I think proves this when Robin "saves the day" so-to-speak.

It's interesting to think of the narrative that surrounds these characters being based in the intersection between the personal and the professional (or public). I'm thinking about where the "trouble" starts. Is it when the personal seeps into the professional (Homeland/The Sopranos)? Is it in the denying of the personal to serve the professional (The Killing/Justified)? Is it the focus on the personal to justify the professional (Breaking Bad/Damages)? All of the examples that I gave probably could fit into multiple categories. But, do these different factors tend to be negotiated and represented differently depending on whether the protagonist is a man or a woman?

These are great inquiries, Barbara. I'd have to think more about the distinction of these spheres and whether its dependent on gender of the protagonist. What this does make me consider too, is the role of family in these character-types. This intersection of personal and professional becomes all the more complicated when these private lives are enmeshed in the family unit. Of which I'm hard-pressed to think of an example of a female protagonist example in which the private life involves the family-unit (I believe in the American version The Killing she has a son, but in the original Danish series she has only a fiancee?). I'm sure there are examples of this, I just perhaps don't know them. The Americans is the only one that comes to mind, which interestingly gives equal gravitas to both the male and female protagonists, in which their personal life IS in fact their professional life.

Fascinating post, Bree. 'Top of the Lake' inspired me to search out other female investigator shows, and I would offer up 'Broadchurch' as an instance in which the female protagonist's private life is importantly defined by her family. The series interestingly references 'Twin Peaks' in being about a young person's death in an idyllic small town where everyone becomes a suspect, but with important reversals/revisions to do with gender. It's the female investigator's male partner, for example, who is depicted as unraveling and bereft of a private/family life. I won't give additional examples for fear of spoilers, but it's worth checking out. Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion!

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