Claire Napier is one of our favorite working critics, both because of her impeccable critical insight and her unflinching fearlessness. Which is why when Claire spoke out online about some serious issues she took with mainstream criticism of Jane Campion’s masterful miniseries Top of the Lake— specifically at revered pop culture institute The AV Club– we invited her to expand on her thoughts and turn it into a longform essay. What follows is an autopsy of a critical body, and so naturally there are a number of spoilers for Top of the Lake. If you’ve seen the series or are somewhat familiar with it, we believe this piece will spark some new conversations about the intent of the work and how certain critical reactions to it, flawed as they may be, only strengthen the points made by Campion and her team.
Top of the Lake was a Sundance miniseries/maxifilm from Jane Campion and her team in 2013, and against Campion’s initial refusal and all apparent need it’s coming back with a second series this year or the next. It’s a seven hour crime telenovella following Elisabeth Moss’ Detective Robin Griffin, a victim response office from Sydney revisiting her Mother’s home in Laketop, New Zealand. Robin’s mother wants her daughter with her because there are conversations you need to have face to face, and the sooner the better when a woman in her very late sixties comes up, again, against cancer. Robin hasn’t been in town since she left as a teenager in the wake of shattering trauma; she’s come back expressly to face more, and when she arrives, she finds herself the only individual– law enforcement or otherwise– equipped with enough respect, authority or understanding of sexual violence to advocate effectively for a kid called Tui. Tui is twelve, five months into a pregnancy, and she introduces the viewer to the atmosphere and social options of Laketop by walking into said lake, assumedly trying, but failing, to end it. Criticism and commentary published online compares it to Twin Peaks, the original Danish The Killing, and Silence of the Lambs (what they mean is, it’s tense, women do things in it, and it’s terribly good). I had a month of free Amazon Prime over December 2014, and other than all three seasons of Relic Hunter, one episode of The Collector, and two Hallmark Christmas movies (Window Wonderland is recommended), Top of the Lake was what I did with it. Lady vs crime? New Zealand? I’m there.
It blew me away. I loved it. It satisfied me deeply as a crime fiction lifer; more importantly(!), it understood and welcomed me as a person who goes through life as a basically normative, but observant and not naturally compliant, woman in a patriarchy. There is patience expressed and pains taken to illustrate the subtle, encompassing destruction that’s guaranteed by valuing, only, masculine perspective. Robin suffers far more than I have, but I saw myself in her awareness of what was wrong, and I felt heard in a terribly rare way.
I know they say don’t read the comments. But in the way that I have been taught to give people the benefit of the doubt (reader: this is a thematic cue), I went looking for commentary. I found some. From what perspective? Guess.
The AV Club published a series of five recap-reviews, covering the whole seven episodes. One and two, then three, four, five, then six and seven. They are all trash, and I hate them. Of course, as pieces of writing, isolated television criticism, they’re not entirely without fact or insight; an ice-cream wrapper told you something useful before you discarded it and ate your tasty Twister. But are you going to buy a wrapper without a lolly in it? No. And if someone tried to fob you off with that, you’d be pissed.
Feminist perspective is the ice-cold, fruity-sharp, cream-flavoured product that Top of the Lake’s response writing should be about, because feminist perspective is its entire selling point and reason for being. Scott Tobias, first writer (tagging in and out with Brandon Nowalk) to tackle TotL for the AV Club, introduces the series as “Campion’s feminist noir.” Neither Tobias nor Nowalk evidence any understanding of what feminist noir might actually mean. Or, to be frank, Campion’s.
The problem is not in the ability of either Tobias or Nowalk to review or deconstruct an episode of television. Their work on other shows is fine and interesting, and in fact a Nowalk Mad Men piece brought me to the site on the occasion that I, with high hopes, searched “Top of the Lake”. He raised those hopes! The problem is that they are both unsuited to review and deconstruct the work of feminist auteur Jane Campion, proving time and time again they simply don’t have the necessary perspective. Perhaps there are men out there able to see what I see in this programme–Campion’s writing partner, Gerard Lee, is male, and my partner has not run screaming from my spoken analysis–but none of them seem to have published commentary. Certainly Tobias and Nowalk miss so many points I’d deem obvious, make such a mockery of the finer points of the storytelling, narrative and directorial craft, that I have to wonder. Why send two guys to do a feminist’s job, AV Club? Why not ask for a woman’s view on a woman’s story about a woman and a girl? Why choose this patriarchal, obtuse perspective for your site’s coverage of a fairly major televisual event? At least search out a boy who’ll notice and admit when he’s out of his depth.
To begin at the beginning, do you remember the first time you watched Gone With the Wind? Having heard lines from it for years. “Frankly my dear… I don’t give a damn.” Classic line! Amazing delivery! Do it with panache when your friend makes a boring complaint! Except, no. That’s not how it goes. Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn. Little emphasis. No enacted punctuation. He’s out the door, he says it, he’s gone. Did you feel cheated? Like fandom, or culture, fibbed to you, mislead you that the pithy moments are important and the important moments are pithy? I did. I’ve not forgotten that. Tobias’ first review begins:
“You’re a long way from any help,” says a concerned mother to Robin Griffin, a big-city cop who’s investigating a crime in an idyllic New Zealand backwater in Jane Campion’s mini-series Top Of The Lake. “I am the help,” she replies.
That little exchange captures both Robin’s predicament and the essence of who she is.
I’ll be fair. It’s easy to imagine that exchange making it into a trailer. It’s understandable to press weight on a scene that doesn’t innately bear it. But I don’t think that doing so is worthy. Pinning the turn of the series on this exchange of very basic, essentialist truth does two things: it undersells the story as a whole (like I said: it is basic), and it oversells the actresses’ performances. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler does not holler and hoot like Gomez Addams. Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin does not frown slightly, sneer a little, and buckle on her gun. And neither of the women in the scene suggest any plaintive woe at the helplessness of a woman attempting to shoulder authority in this big bad world of men (“predicament” is a patronising word. Oh, how could you get yourself into it?). Robin’s mother is worried, nervous for her child. But she is not, in practice, mewling the hopelessness of the female condition. Because–
[Working in Lakeside] means getting second-guessed and mocked by local cops below her rank; intimidated and harassed by roughnecks who don’t respect her authority (or even the seriousness of crimes against women)[…]
Of course it does. There is no possibility more obvious, in this world of ours, and certainly, surely not in these stories of ours. A woman cop. That’s what she gets. Duh. A lady, viewer or character, will take this for granted. A woman professional “having to navigate the world of men”–hold up. You mean the real world?– in a “feminist noir;” to lay out that this means she may, gasp, encounter sexism, and to tell your second-hand audience as a critic of the piece that some of the men this protagonist meets may be boorish? Do not attempt to hold my hand. I am a grown person, reading criticism of a miniseries that hinges upon male violence and rape. I, the reader, am able to understand that boys will be mean to the lady detective. Introducing these concepts as if they’re central to the feminist identity of the product is disingenuous! It suggests that these things are remarkable, and we may miss their possibility in stories and in life, because! The very idea of the thing! Men? Who are rude?
But perhaps I’m being too demanding, and such simple cues are built in to the form. Later Tobias relays to his readers that the father of the pregnant child “emerges” as prime suspect (for paternity of her foetus. Incest). In fact, he becomes prime suspect because he is her father and she is a pregnant child. This is stated. He does not emerge. He is prime suspect because “check for bad dads” is simply recognisable protocol from, if not real life (I’m no lawman, but here are the stats on acquaintance rape), then every other piece of police or detective fiction dealing with child pregnancy that I have ever encountered. I cannot be such an outlier on this point. Does the reader need to be spoon-fed so carelessly? This description misrepresents the story being told–my complaint with these reviews time, after time, and again. There is no time taken in a Top of the Lake subplot for the magnifying glass to stumble across clues (pubic hair, photographs, a diary entry? nope) suggesting Tui’s father may have raped her. The story simply progresses on its own terms, following characters, and his coming under suspicion happens as it naturally must. That is form, not active relay of plot. In the in-universe template of sexual assault investigation that Robin Griffin practices, the victim’s father is a suspect until he is eliminated as one. The story, if we must expend analysis on this point, is underselling the regularity of parental abuse in order to emphasise it. Labeling this for-granted suspicion as “emergence” is spoiling the milk.
“That little exchange captures both Robin’s predicament and the essence of who she is” is such a small sentence. But it captures so much badness! It suggests valorised isolation, a refusal to rely on anybody. “I am the help” could be the battle cry of the Strong Female Character. Such a masculine idea of feminism. Robin’s onscreen battle is to figure out who she can trust and how she can love. She desires to be comforted. She wants to be helped. She doesn’t aspire to be a lone ranger. She’s not the Good. She’s newer than that. She’s a product of nuance and feminist consideration–
Let me stop. How many fictions of rape can you think of that make a studied effort to explore and define positive, desired, generous adult sex?
Top of the Lake is not simply the story of a detective who returns to the community in which she was raped to “solve” (ha ha, right?) the impregnation of another child. It is a narrative that follows an adult woman on her return to the community in which she lost many precious securities, sees her assert herself with confidence and capability despite this assertion being a hardship, witnesses her suffering and repercussive trauma as she investigates, against many odds, the impregnation of another child, attempts to heal her relationship with her mother, who forbade her own teenaged abortion, survives the death from illness of her mother, retains her professional integrity despite experiencing various further abuses… and finds exciting, intimate, heartful sex with a lover who is (established within the onscreen happenings of the story to be) her equal. To reduce it, Robin is a traumatised survivor with a gratifying sex life. That is fucking radical. It deserves focus. It receives nothing.
Feminist does not mean “ballbreaker” or “female supremacist” or even “just as good as a man.” It does not mean “my idea of the coolest guy, only, a woman!” It does not mean “woman who experiences the humiliations of active misogyny whilst I, the audience, watch.” It’s not automatically feminist to depict women experiencing, or even fighting, their own abuse. Feminism is belief in women. The allowance for the existence of women who experience and respond to the world in ways that are informed by their own, and others’, view of what “woman” means. Tobias and Nowalk fail to imagine this definition, and this failure of imagination returns with regularity, like water lapping at the shore. Compare Top of the Lake to Twin Peaks, why not! Never mind that “lush setting, outsider detective, small town, big secrets, even a dead body lapped ashore” is hardly specific. Never mind that it’s common. Top of the Lake is exactly like Midsomer Murders in this way, too, and Sigurdardottir’s Somebody to Watch Over Me, and Gracepoint. Add your own. Tobias is generous enough to note that Campion “makes it her own”, but that’s after he’s made the comparison (to a Great Man’s work) in plain black and white. “You’re ugly and you smell. Only joking!” No, no take-backs, ok? He even uses the word “whiff,” if you think I’m overstating the insult in the language: “There may be a whiff of conventionality to the central mystery in Top Of The Lake.” The performing audience/storyteller incompatibility is driven further home when Tobias states boot-tough, contradictory and unflinching GJ “wants to care for and protect her vulnerable charges.” Where you get that from, man? How many shits do you count her giving in that direction? I’ve got nothing.
“It would be easy enough for Campion to make Robin the noble feminine warrior in an arena thick with testosterone,” says Tobias. But Scott! It would be entirely useless, and irrelevant; this is not Campion’s area to the point that the sentence is insulting and reductive. Are the inclusion of a mostly offscreen, bit part, secretarial character named Xena and the casting of Lucy Lawless in a blonde, unrecognisably milquetoast role a joke from the filmmakers? Ah, this is New Zealand, and a woman will stand against men–! It’s deathly subtle but now I’ve considered it I refuse to give it up. Because Robin Griffin is expressly not a warrior princess; Lawless’ Xena, as an icon, is a pedestal character who is seen by mainstream dialogue as an answer to the problem of sexism. Sexism is not over. And it is much harder to see, or subsequently mend, when nobody is trilling in leather and hurling a chakram at it. Nowalk and Tobias prove that.
Jane Campion is a writer-director who earnt the public accolade “feminist” at the same time as an Oscar, with a film about a mute woman and her fatherless daughter bundled between men who want her affection as well as her ownership. A Weak Female Character with–literally!–no voice won Campion a feminist Oscar. What inclines you to consider her work from an assumption of conventionality? Why do these reviews ask her to earn her place at the feminist table and earn it at the detective story table–“Campion’s eagerness to attack a common format from a feminist angle” –and why do they treat confident, experimental storytelling as mistaken, foolish, or accidental? But it’s returned to, again and again, the complete misreading of “feminist narrative”. Episode three, “Until now, Robin has been an intrepid pursuer of justice in a corrupt and hostile place, slashing through a thicket of male authority figures and local roughnecks.” This is not a Universal Pictures weekly serial short. Robin is not wearing a pith helmet and enormous shorts. This is not caricature.
Three intense moment from the first third of the series; what I would call the thematic high points. One: Matt Mitchum’s sons are more afraid of gayness by proxy than they are of moral or legal responsibility for murder. Process: Give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? That’s like kissing! Kissing a man? That’s what a woman does! What are women worth? I am NOT something like that. Never mind that the man dies. Never mind that these young men helped kill him. It is simply imperative that men do not give sexual service to men. (This compulsive homophobia also answers Nowalk’s later question; why “Campion and Lee sure took their sweet time complicating the gender structure of Laketop.” As Tobias suggests, about the lack of infodump re: Robin’s past, “such revelations stand to pay off more forcefully later.”) Two: Robin takes out her dead father’s well-worn shoes from under the dresser where he left them years before, and cries. “Daddy!” she says, with pain. Listen: she literally weeps for the lost comforts and broken securities of the patriarchal dream. Later Al tells her that he and some other men of local social power rounded up Robin’s own rapists and made the ringleader lick the arseholes of the others, explicitly because her dad “wasn’t there” to “take care of things.” Three: Johnno gives Robin oral sex in the bathroom of a more metropolitan bar than usually appears. Quick diversion and we’ll talk more about that.
Ryan Gosling, right? Face of a feminist meme. As the AV Club well knows, although perhaps they didn’t at the time. Ryan Gosling is on a lot of people’s OK Guys list (and coarsely, a lot of feminists’ would-bang lists) because he noticed that women’s sexual pleasure is taboo in film, and then… He said something. He said something defending a film he starred in from a prohibitively high release rating, sure, but nevertheless: bro spoke truth. You don’t see a lot of lady-lickin’ in the fillums. On these grounds alone, Top of the Lake’s pro-woman credentials begin to shine. But let me describe the scene in more detail.
Since his entry to the story, Johnno has made prickly overtures of friendship towards Robin and she has shown wary interest in return. She turned a morning coffee invitation back on him and asked him running, and he joined her barefoot. He has humbled himself to her, and has tried his best to do what she needs him to. He considers her; he is not always correct, but learns from what she tells him.He has lady friends, Robin has a five-year fiancee back in Sydney who she doesn’t feel right for. Johnno knows Robin was raped and he’s exhibited certain feelings of disempowered responsibility. Johnno is so uninvested in the social mores and structural authority of Laketop that he lives in a tent in the woods. Johnno is aware of Robin’s perspective. She’s glanced over at him socialising with two happy women twice before the bathroom liaison happens. The scene is, she goes to the bathroom, and he turns up. There’s a bit of snitty leave/no/leave/no and then they kiss a little, and then he drops off the bottom of the screen and her trousers come down, and she takes his face. He faces her anxious genitals and meets her stress and he kisses it all better. No kiss ever lasts, no kiss fixes everything, but look at what he does: he gives her an orgasm. It’s a gift. He asks nothing. He paints her some clitoral pleasure, when she’s returned to the locale of her vaginal rape. He balms her nerves while they’re stretched between her past and her professional present. He looks after her, with the intimacy of adulthood, when her daddy is dead and gone and unable to give childhood’s asexual comfort. Her hands are on the wall, the camera sees her back and none of him. It’s not sexually intended for us, it’s not sexually intended for him, it is sexually intended for her. Her sexual presence, her sexual grace, is granted to this kind, still man. (This proves that it exists.) He knows that he is lucky to experience this with her.
Even without the explicit survivorship theme of the miniseries, this would be a standout scene. It is exceptional. It is compassionate. I am grateful and full of fierceness to have been given, not a sex scene intended to titillate a woman, but a sex scene intended for emotional resonance with a woman. Sure, we’re all human, and a lot of people can probably relate without being women, but for me, the importance of this scene is processed through parts of my brain and heart that are inextricable from my experience of my gender. This scene is life.
I even appreciate that they argue before he goes down; she’s cross with him but she’s not afraid. I’m on her side as she experiences reactionary rejection but I’m not fearful for her as he makes it clear he wants to stay. I’m not sure how subjective is too subjective, but I can watch Top of the Lake without anxiety flares. It doesn’t give me nightmares. It doesn’t bring me nausea. I watch a lot of crime fiction that prioritises dialogues on rape, and watching this? About the chillest I’ve ever been. It’s something about the gaze. The camera work’s a marvel. The story’s full of perverts who rape kids but the camera never makes them meat, or pretends they’re provocateur. The children are barely ever on screen, and when they are, the focus (composition, lighting, occasionally distance) is all messed up. On purpose. On purpose. Campion’s made a story about patriarchy’s inclination towards rape that never once looks wrong at women or children. Tobias thinks it’s just “compelling even if Campion had nothing else in mind but an entertaining yarn.” Because he has missed the vital parts.
Discussion of sex is sorely wanting in these reviews, which is an obvious weakness when things are set in motion by a disruptive pregnancy. Beyond the suppression of the oral scene, which goes like this: “A session in a bar bathroom leads to a bedroom scene where Johnno asks Robin to keep her engagement ring on during sex—a form of territorial pissing that seems a bit much, frankly” I have to log my dissatisfaction with the dismissal of this later, in-bed, probably penis-in-vagina cis-hetero penetrative sex scene (I mean, it’s radical in its own yard, but its not here to speak for the full spectrum of humanity). Robin, yes, fiddles with her engagement ring, taking it off. Johnno does tell her to keep it on. Calling this a territorial pissing match is one interpretation, about which my good buddy Editor Nick suggests: “I think from a male perspective, there is the reflexive need to view it as a cuckolding thing.” So I can dig it, that fear, but Tobias’ is not an interpretation that’s either interesting or applicable for the audience member who is me. This view of the scene demands that I consider Johnno aroused by the thought of taking a woman who belongs to another man; I have to mark him as rotten as the rest, and throw him out with the corrupt masculine authority of Laketop. Among men, it leaves nobody. #YesAllMen, AV Club? Boring. Horrible. I’m not for that. I say, saying keep it on further shows how good of a man he is. He doesn’t ask her to change her life for him by colluding in her removal of her ring. He lets her exist out of herself for a while, without facing the truth of her action. If she keeps it on she can say to Steve, “He meant nothing to me. I was confused, it was a mistake. I didn’t even take off my ring! I wanted you, all along.” She can even pretend it never happened. Just a weird blip. She can tell herself she was confused and needed comfort. She can absolve herself of him. See how I’m dealing entirely with the premise that she will return to her existing fiancee after this fling? Johnno’s line, “keep it on,” created this probability. He says he doesn’t want to fall for her (too late, he clearly has (and he’s saying keep it on anyway! He is the perfect man!)) but knowing she’s marrying somebody else a) isn’t changed by the presence or absence of a ring and b) isn’t prohibitive for a man like him anyway. The Piano revolves around a white woodsman who knows Maori culture and loves a sexually traumatised woman married to somebody else… The lodes resonate. Once again, Johnno prioritises Robin’s emotional security while he engages with her body. He is a character in a new mould. The kind you want your sisters to meet.
(I already have one.)
(Can I ask where Tobias got the idea that Robin’s sexual relationship with Johnno was “renewed,” by the by? All we know about her sexual past is that she was raped by a gang as a teenager…)
Then there’s the carelessness of “stray observations” (that’s a section of bullet points at the end of each AV Club tv review) like “Paradise looks to be a solid source of comic relief in a show that could use some.” Coming towards the end of Tobias’ review of episodes one and two, not returned to in later installments, I have to agree that Bunny’s seven minute sexual quest was humorous. But I also have to insist that it was integral. More than “offbeat antics” with “a funny (or at least tragicomic) bent that holds the show’s darker elements in balance”, this specific scene is one piece of a puzzle: Bunny shags Sarge. Sarge is not suggested to be a professional sex worker but is agreeable to check-box sex with a stranger, for seven minutes, for £10; Sarge, sexually subservient for the job at hand (and face, and cock), offhandedly relays to Bunny that he doesn’t feel anything much about anyone, maybe pissed off at the most, and is just like, right, how do I fuck you, then? He’ll do what he’s told, it’s a shag, it’s a tenner, not a problem. He’s emotionally blank and sex isn’t intimate; this conversation and sex with a stranger is mildly awkward, unpracticed at worst. Sarge raped Robin when she was fifteen. He, and his gang, put her in a van, took her out again, and raped her on a roadside. Here he is pathetic and harmless, serving a purpose for a heartbroken, middle-aged millionaire. He’s an uncommonly proactive rapist. What sort of analysis ignores that duality? Intercourse firmly distinct from eroticism. Bunny buys seven minutes of dicking from a barfly as a lesson in personal boundary definition; she must be in charge, and working to a framework, or she will become emotionally involved after physical intimacy. She shows us entirely impersonal, release-based intercourse, explicitly defined by the visibility of its power structures. Feminists know that rape is born of entitlement (so do rapists, probably). Bunny doesn’t rape Sarge, like Sarge raped Robin, but both deal in forms of sexual congress as control. She barters for the gratification that she wants, where he stole, and said theft was inherent to, his genital stimulation and ejaculation. Bunny seeks dominance of herself; Sarge sought dominance elsewhere. Constructive/destructive.
I could say a lot about fellow Paradise-resident Anita/Robyn Malcolm’s sex scenes, as usual (was ever an actress luckier than her?), but fuck it, I’m not getting paid for this. What I’ll do is turn my nose up at the glib analysis in “if you really want to get symbolic, Matt [father of Tui, the pregnant child] also lashes out because Anita’s cup handles point inward.” It’s critical wordplay suggesting that Matt is a violent misogynist, because cup handles pointing inwards are a reference to Anita’s vagina (cup handles pointing out are willies!). And, fine, that’s applicable, and a smart jest too. But Nowalk doesn’t suggest a change to the AV Club review’s stated position from recap one: that Matt “seem[s] genuinely incapable of doing his own daughter grievous harm.” No acknowledgement of the tiniest domestic “wrongs” being such a well-known rationalisation of familial abuse that it’s a cliche you’ll see on Eastenders time and again. No weight given to the racial othering (during foreplay with Anita) by Matt of his Thai ex-wife, Tui’s mother, or of Matt’s partial impotence– “I can get hard. But it takes time”, he says. We know that Matt’s mother would beat him with a belt. We know that he had his first orgasm at seven, and full sex at eleven. We know that he has a lasting devotion to his mother, as he tortures Bob Platt (to death, accidentally) after Platt allows other people to live on open space which is adjacent to the woodland in which she is buried. He keeps a belt on that grave, and flagellates himself staring at her gravestone. Is this an abstract narrative of sexualised parental abuse, or what? Do we add it up with the racist descriptions and impressions of Thai women done by Matt and other men of the town, and begin to see how easy it might be for a violent, criminal (he runs a drug manufacturing business in a room hidden under his downstairs shower) patriarch with the ear of the law to take advantage of the isolated, pubescent, Eurasian daughter living upstairs in his house? Can we be bothered to do that, boys.
No. They stick with saying things like “The gender war really gets obvious” and “The men are bound by power.” As a smart dog named for risk taking once said, wake up and smell the kibble. Call me a bitch, but you’re being super 101 right now.
The final AV Club piece on Top of the Lake finishes with a paragraph citing “the cherry on top of the essentialist sundae.” Gender essentialist, is the implication; “the last we see of the hero of the gender war, she’s doing laundry”. These reviews pick at this idea regularly, the thought that Campion is setting down gendered essentialism, the observation that at times characters do things which someone of their gender stereotypically might. Pointing out things like “[the corrupt, sexist, gaslighting policeman] must be really impressed with himself that all it took was a position of maximum authority, a much bigger body, and a lot of physical coercion to get Jamie to sort of respond” after a scene of adult/teenager brutality, Robin’s so-called laundry (her attempted removal of blood, in the titular lake, after she has killed a powerful evil), and “the show’s rigid gender divide”, Nowalk (by this point, Tobias has retired from the project) imagines a series quite different, rather worse, to the one I witnessed. Al’s police station abuses of Jamie–you don’t get points for noticing that he’s being a bully. That’s the intention of the inclusion of the scene. To show that he’s a bully. To remind us that he navigates power in this way. How does he treat somebody who crosses him, and has no recourse, in Al’s own territory? He sets out to destroy them. And how does he treat Robin, whose circumstances are different? He aims for the same goal, through different channels. So you saw the obvious message. Did you catch the echo?
By my estimation, Campion’s creative team included elements of essentialism in order to disempower the concept. Robin, again, with her laundry. And another scene that’s not well documented in these reviews, but could be: Johnno, upon confessing his long-held feelings of guilt about the night of her abduction (upon being told by Robin that it was not his fault), can’t cope with this absolution and can’t stand to do nothing. They’re together in her house and they’ve eaten. “Where are you going?” she asks him, and in poorly hidden distress he tells her he’s going to take out the bins. He does. And then he goes to uselessly exile Sarge.
Usually in a fiction a man will be saying “woah, my unreasonable wife” if he is required to relay dialogue related to “taking out the bins.” Usually in fiction laundry will be something a woman is doing because it is a thing that women do (for everyone else (their children, and men)). Usually, it is essentialism. In Top of the Lake, Robin washes her own clothes because they must be washed and Johnno takes out the bins because they need to be taken. Robin’s clothes are dirty because she shot a rapist; Johnno’s bins are a necessary chore that provide cover for his subsequent prideful exhibition of anguish. Listen: if we do not wash our clothes, we will become diseased, and we will die. And if we don’t remove our refuse, we will become diseased, and we will die! Household chores, having become gendered and tokenised in fiction and in life, are nevertheless facts of life. They must be done. Or we will die. For a woman to “do laundry” is not to be inherently diminished–for a story to allow laundry to diminish a woman’s position is both possible and common. For a man to take out the bins is not an indication of being, as they say, whipped; for the bins to stay inside is an indication of degradation. Things, in life, must be done. Tears must be cried, chores completed, songs sung, shopping done. We must be able to imagine every person doing these things, as a matter of neutral course, or else we have become essentialist. Johnno angrily wheeling the bins down the path, along the road, with his heart bursting with love, anger and blame, is not a character symbollically thinking “I’d better do the bins or Robin will hate me because she’s a woman.” He is just taking out the bins. Because otherwise, there will be rubbish present in great amounts.
We want to get rid of the things that harm us. That’s neither a masculine nor feminine trait. We act to get rid of the things that harm us.
But the accusations of textual essentialism are subtle as well as blunt. As Johnno confesses to Robin that he was in the van that abducted her, that he wanted to help her but couldn’t, that he’s at fault for not stopping her from being raped by men– she responds “is that it?” Nowalk’s review calls this “eminently reasonable.” He’s already labelled the character’s desire to hear this confession, following a refusal to hear it, “haphazard,” and it’s this disdain for complex receptiveness that puts such an ill shine on eminently reasonable. See, women– women in relationships– they (we) have this hilaaarious reputation for being “unreasonable,” lacking integrity, specifically during disagreements. Bitches be bringing up that thing you did five months ago, and whatnot. Robin and Johnno share three scenes centering upon his confession, and they go like this:
- I’ve got to tell you something and it’s bad / I don’t want to hear it right now. No.
- I was there and I didn’t help and I’m guilty (subtext: I want to be with you but I abhor the idea of being a roadblock to your healing and I don’t want to deceive you) / It wasn’t your fault. You were fifteen and alarmed by rape, and they were a gang of adult rapists. Stay with me.
- [Robin has been begged by her dying mother not to see Johnno, but Robin’s only respite is Johnno, so she asks him if he signaled to the rapists. He is appalled, she is able to respond to the force of his response, they shout, he leaves, Robin’s promise to her mother is fulfilled–without Robin needing to defend her mother’s position or exhaust herself explaining.]
And it’s such a perfect, perfect diagram of how dimensional nuance, and yes! integrity, inform the possibility of recurring discussion between loved ones. Nuance should be brought to the critical table when nuance is evident in the creative project.
In her “eminent reasonability” we see that Robin is good at her job because she has internalised the truth of rape: rapists do it, and they victimise everybody else when they do. In fact she is not “reasonable,” she’s truthful. Johnno was a victim of the rapists without them raping him. He was bullied, and tortured with the torture of his sweetheart. Robin’s primacy is not in question, in the who-had-it-worst stakes, but “my toe’s broken” means pain as surely as “my leg’s chopped off.” Johnno’s not allowed himself to acknowledge his victimhood or respect his own pain because he prioritises her more extreme experience. Robin’s a trained agent of justice, a specialist in sexualised assault, and we’re shown her telling the core truth of her role: you are not to blame for what they did to you. Campion didn’t give us a revenge narrative, Robin lashing out in reaction to her own rape. She gave us one of justice. Robin seeing the destructive force in sexual violence and working seriously to counter it. Message: being a victim of injustice does not impede one’s ability to observe it. Advocating for your own demographic is not corrupt. Message compounded: when a woman’s arguing with her lover, she has a perfect right to stand her ground and fight her corner. Know your truth, babes, don’t let a fuckboy convince you you’re drama.
I can’t stand the reduction to reasonable. I can’t stand the accusation of essentialism, reductive gender war bullshit when this sort of THINK BIGGER code is in the text, the direction, acted as plain as the nose on your face! This sort of gently, rarely excavated humanity, female humanity, offered to an audience that just… belittles it. It hurts me. It’s a bloody tragedy. Our humanity is made this clear, and you can’t focus on it even now? You’re defining the perception of feminist art for your readers and you’re calling it irrational and sexist. Can you not? Can you just murder me, instead?
Matt, Mark, Luke and Johnno and a land called Paradise. What do we remember from the Bible?
It all comes down to Eve’s fault. Ask anyone.
AV Club asked anyone but “her”.
Laketop prioritised men’s perspectives and nothing but destruction came after.