The feminine appeal of Hannibal (spoilers)


The tv adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novels ‘Hannibal’ , which I have written about before, has become known for it’s devout cult audience (hi!) known as ‘Fannibals’. Known for their supremely silly sense of humour, at odds with the show’s dark aesthetic, their intelligence and their close link with the show’s creators, they keep the show afloat and preach it’s message and merits to others. Something that has been written about before is the female domination of the Hannibal fandom. A crime show stuffed with gore with two male leads doesn’t scream “female audience” to promoters, but the show has appealed to smart young women and worked it’s way into their hearts and fanfictions. Showrunner Bryan Fuller described in an interview his joy at finding “well read bright young women” love the show. As a fannibal and, I hope,  A “well read bright young woman”, I thought I’d explain why the show appeals to women, at least from my perspective.

What makes the show unique in a sea of murder-solving boxsets is its emotion. The writers care more about keeping the psychological and emotional reality of the story than cold, hard details and intricate logic. Visual metaphor, dream sequences and borderline supernatural plot points create a dream like atmosphere where we see what people are feeling and the pursuit of beauty and insight trumps the “gritty” reality of crime. One scene involves a live bird flying out of a corpse mid autopsy. It was placed in her ribcage to emulate a heartbeat. To say this is near impossible is to miss the point. Hannibal isn’t out for realism. In a sea of macho gritty crime shows Like True Detective and cold, emotionless characters like Sherlock Holmes it is refreshing to see a show where logic isn’t king. Since civilisation began women have been held back by assumptions that they are over emotional, illogical and weak. Even of you are a woman who can’t be described as highly emotional or empathetic, it feels like a breath of fresh air to see such qualities celebrated and prioritised for once over ‘masculine’ qualities we are both chastised for not displaying and accused of abandoning our femininity if we do. In a genre were coldness is glamourised and having heart is seen as the ultimate weakness we finally have a crime show driven by ‘feminine’ qualities.

Take the lead protagonist Will Graham. On the surface, a typical guy. He wears check shirts, goes ice fishing with homemade fishing gear and repairs boats. He is called in to help the FBI because he suffers from an empathy disorder. He can feel what killers feel and unpick their motivation, a great cost to his mental stability. There are a million wonder detectives with oddly wired brains in pop culture, Will Graham sticks out because of his empathy. He doesn’t join the dots and work out the clues with his super logical wonder brain, he relates to killers on an emotional and psychological level. He’s not a “high functioning sociopath” He’s an empath. Emotion, imagination and empathy are presented as highly valuable qualities, superpowers even. As an emotional, empathetic and imaginative person myself (I cried at a dog food advert) I can relate to his character and love seeing my so called weaknesses shown as brilliant strengths. Compare him to Sherlock Holmes, the aforementioned high functioning sociopath. We are constantly reminded of how cold and hard and brilliant he is. His antisocial coldness is sometimes chastised but more often used to separate him from the sentimental idiots around him and mock anyone who tries to get close to him. The treatment of Irene Adler in series two was a classic example. A brilliant woman nearly brings Sherlock Holmes down with her flirting and sharpness but is defeated by her girly crush on him. Sherlock has a large female fanbase too, but showrunner Stephen Moffat sees them as silly little obsessives lost in Benedict Cumberbatch’s piercing eyes and deep voice who are too smitten to realise he will break their hearts. Bryan Fuller celebrates his female fans, rather than mocks them. He rejoices in homoerotic fanart and fanfiction rather than laughing at it. He understands the power of geeky women rather than scratching his head at the female appeal of his macho supermen characters;

” It’s been wonderful and unexpected. I was surprised at the demographic that the show was reaching. A significant portion was young, smart, well-read women; they really responded to this show and I typically relate to young, bright ladies [laughs]. It was nice to see how enthusiastic and passionate they were. And, also, happy in the face of the dark material. They found joy and hope in something that is arguably quite bleak. I found that really rewarding and as somebody who is a fan of many things myself, I appreciate and relate to being enthusiastic about a show you love. I think it’s wonderful”

One of the main draws of the series is its title character, Hannibal Lecter. Here he is a respected psychiatrist and secret murderous cannibal. Not exactly a Carrie or Miranda, but still has a lot of female fans. True he wears fabulous outfits, lives in a flawlessly designed mansion and drinks fine wines but it goes deeper than that. Tumblr use axmxz has eloquently explained a lot of his appeal here;

He’s not a gangster or a pimp or a drug lord. He’s a brilliant man and a respectable professional who kills people when they offend him and arranges them into beautiful dishes which he serves with fine wine and classical music.He’s the bad guy you can’t help but respect, he’s intelligent and well presented and he always gets his way. He quotes philosophers and composes on the harpsichord. He’s restrained, cool headed and attractive, he’s not a violent masochist filled with masculine rage and a desire for the physical upper hand. He fights with his mind and he’s not afraid to make friends along the way, particularly with Will Graham and his collection of adorable stray dogs. Actor Mads Mikkelsen regularly describes him as a passionate man and a perfectionist who wants everything to be beautiful and interesting. His motivation is not power, it’s passion. His invitation he assist the FBI is an irresistible and fascinating offer. He loves Will and his imagination and he’s not afraid to admit it. He doesn’t look down on emotional characters or see everyone else as an idiot, he invites them to dinner and offers them friendship, even if his own needs come first.

The most obvious appeal is the dedication to diversity and the respectful treatment of female characters. Characters which appear as male in the book, Freddie Lounds and Alan bloom, are genderswapped and brought to the front of the story. Female characters which only get a brief mention are given complex personalities and story arcs. Characters traditionally played as white are racebent as well, Laurence Fishbourne is excellent as Jack Crawford. There is a deliberate effort to create diversity and include people. Bryan Fuller has also spoken about his effort to exclude sexual violence towards women. A common problem in gritty crime shows is the ubiquity of sexual violence, which is excused as a reflection of reality. For once women have a dark and horror driven show which does not remind them of everything they fear when they have to walk home alone at night. The violence is horrific but it is almost never gendered, female dead bodies are not sexualised and do not outnumber male victims. This shouldn’t be a standout feature of crime shows but unfortunately Hannibal is unique. Female characters are not violently punished for their flaws either. Jack Crawford’s wife Bella cheats on her husband while struggling with illness and is treated sensitively and understood rather than chastised. Alana Bloom is a romantic interest of Will Graham’s but turns him down, saying as a psychologist she would only examine him f they were in a relationship. Will accepts this. She even begins a relationship with Hannibal Lecter, the same man who framed him for murder and his respect for her does not wane, he even praises her professionalism. Female characters in Hannibal do not exist to look pretty and provide a love interest for the male heroes. They are complex, flawed and strong and essential to the plot. They are not throwaway sexy one dimensional lady shaped characters, or damsels in distress, or over the top flirty “strong” women who fall for the hero. They are people, which is what we’ve been asking for!