I’ve been watching through Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries again lately, and if you haven’t watched them, do yourself the favour. It’s an Australian series about a female detective in the 1920s. Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) is minor nobility, but only because a lot of people died in World War I—she grew up poor. But she’s rich now, and flashy and brash and talented. And in the first episode, she acquires a companion named Dorothy Williams (Ashleigh Cummings). Through the three seasons of the show, Dot is wooed by Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). We’re supposed to be charmed by their relationship, which is the traditional one compared to Miss Fisher and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). Instead, I find myself spending all three seasons thinking, “Eh, she can do better.”
And I mean, my best friend’s boyfriend gets that a lot, but as I’ve pointed out to him, no one is good enough for her. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the feeling you get watching a movie where you’re supposed to be cheering for a couple and you really want one of the people to realize their romantic interest is terrible. I know not everyone feels this, but Kermit and Miss Piggy are another one that goes there for me. She’s terrible, and he deserves better. The first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies; I feel as though Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) is the coolest of the three main characters, and she’s married to a drip who goes away for ten years or whatever at a time.
Specifically to Dot, Hugh just seems dull until he’s converting to Catholicism for her. And then he gets weirdly obsessed with the idea that Catholic women are supposed to submit to their husbands. Then he gets all upset because a promotion goes to someone because nepotism and runs off, including ditching Dot without telling her. She literally doesn’t know he’s on a leave of absence until his obnoxious replacement tells her. Besides, he wants her to quit a job she finds fulfilling, and I know it’s the 1920s, but Dot can still do better.
The most common failing with these people seems to be that they’re just dull. This is more than just the boyfriend at the beginning of the romantic comedy, because you’re supposed to be cheering for this person to succeed. And yet you’re thinking, “That’s it?” Initially, this is what’s going on with Hugh. Over the course of the first two seasons, we’re watching Dot grow and develop, and Hugh is just a bit of a stick. She overcomes her fears. She uses her talents. She is discovering herself. And Hugh is . . . stolid. Not stupid, but not terribly bright.
Then in the third season, he becomes the other popular failing—actually abusive. Not physically, not the way Piggy beats up Kermit all the time. But emotionally. He denigrates her accomplishments, tries to distance her from her friends, tries to make her dependent on him. I know people in that era believed that women should be dependent on their husbands, but do we really think he’d encourage her to spend time with Miss Fisher after Dot stopped working for her? Part of it is that she’s a bigger person than he is—perhaps the fault of the script writers for not giving him more personality. But either way, there’s nothing to him to be as expansive as she is, and he seems to resent that.
I suppose this is worst with period pieces. Even The Apple Dumping Gang grates on me a bit because I keep wanting Dusty (Susan Clark) to realize she can raise the kids without the help of Mr. Donavan (Bill Bixby), who’s pretty well a waste of space. Even if they need the marriage of convenience, which I suppose is necessary in the era, that’s no reason to fall in love with him. I know we’re working under the limitations of a time period when her having a career at all, much less as a stagecoach driver, is shocking, but still. There’s got to be someone better.
You’d think I would get used to this. I almost feel it’s one of the most common hazards of female-led stories; it’s as though the screenwriters have internalized the idea that no marriage of equals is possible, so if the woman is strong and interesting, the man has to drag her down. Kind of like all those movie men married to grasping shrews, I suppose. It kind of makes me wish we could start taking people into different works of fiction to find them someone better from another story, if that’s what it takes.
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