Bisexuality in The Fall

BCN 128 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 128, December 2014

Finally we have another prominent bisexual on UK TV screens thanks to The Fall, which is currently mid-way through its 2nd series on BBC2. I’ve tried not to give away too much information about the plot in this article, but there will of course be some spoilers.

The main character of The Fall is Stella Gibson; a part that was written for Gillian Anderson (best known for playing Agent Scully in The X-Files). Stella is a superintendent in the Metropolitan Police who initially travels to Belfast to conduct a 28 day review on a murder case. That investigation then turns into a hunt for a serial killer.

In the first series nothing is mentioned with regards to Stella and her relationships, but we know she has sex with men as we see her initiate a one night stand. We also learn she had sex with one of her male co-workers in the past. There isn’t really any LGBT content, except when a minor character (PC Dani Ferrington) comes out to Stella as gay after Stella asks her if she “has a man”. Stella gives her a long look afterwards and continues to paint her nails in a sensual manner whilst giving a small sly smile.

Although another thing that did interest me in the first series was the motorbike riding character of Prof. Paula Reed Smith. Whilst all of her scenes with Stella were about the case, or showed two professionals getting to know each other, the casting choice was of great interest. She is portrayed by Archie Panjabi, who is well known for playing a character on The Good Wife who has sex with both men and women.

Finally in the first series the police find a video that one of the murder victims uploaded to an dating website where she says she’s up for kinky, sexy fun with either a man or a woman. After seeing a male officer snigger at the video and imply the victim was asking for it, Stella reprimands him by saying “I’m not interested in judging. Just in finding the killer.” I love that the tone of this scene is clear that there is nothing wrong with bisexuality or BDSM as far as the show is concerned.

This year, in the first episode of series 2 we had a scene where Reed takes Stella’s hand and runs her thumb across Stella’s nails, noting their short length. This, combined with the fact that Gillian Anderson had hinted at Stella’s bisexuality during a Q&A on Twitter in the summer, made me feel very hopeful that bisexuality would soon be portrayed on the show!

In episode 3, Reed calls up Stella and asks if she can see her. Stella accepts, and the two arrange to meet for drinks later that evening. Whilst in the bar, Stella steps into a corridor to take a call and upon her return finds a man chatting up Reed whilst holding two martinis. Stella sits down right next to Reed, ‘apologises’ for being late and kisses her. Twice. She even thanks the man for the drinks and takes them off him before dismissing him.

After both say that the kiss was nice, the scene jumps to a shot of the two of them waiting for a lift in Stella’s hotel. Reed panics, and whilst she clearly wants Stella just as much, can’t bring herself to go to her hotel room, hinting that it’s because of something to do with her upbringing. Stella doesn’t say anything to stop her leaving, and respects her decision and heads up to her room alone.

This scene in The Fall is such a big deal for me for several reasons. One is that The Fall is an award winning show. It’s one of the most watched and highest rated dramas on the BBC for several years and is also available on Netflix. This means that Stella’s sexuality is part of a story reaching a worldwide mainstream audience in the millions, and has the potential to be talked about both by the media and the general public for years to come.

The second reason that this is such a big deal is because Stella is such a strong character. She’s confident and self-assured. She tells prying journalists to fuck off. She confronts and challenges her male colleagues’ misogyny and gender discrimination whenever it occurs. When they try to shame her for the one night stand, she points out their hypocrisy and keeps her head held high. She’s so different to the stereotypical bisexual image. She’s not confused or indecisive. This clearly isn’t a phase. She hasn’t murdered anyone (though she may do, but only because of the line of work she’s in), and she hasn’t cheated on any of her partners. (Though this of course may change in later episodes, but I hope not!)

The final reason is that in 2012, Gillian Anderson chose to share with Out magazine that she that she was in a relationship with a girl in high school and that she has had relationships with other women. The bisexual erasure that followed was sadly predictable but still shocking. Seeing all the “Gillian Anderson had secret lesbian lover!” type headlines made me really hope she’d play a bisexual character one day. Whilst the actress has never used any labels to identify her sexuality, I thought that if anyone would help bring bisexuality to mainstream UK television, it would be her. She is also assertive in correcting interviewers’ false assumptions about her character and about the way that sex and violence is portrayed on the show. I know she had a say in the casting and has been involved with the show as a producer, so I wonder if she pushed the role of Reed in Panjabi’s direction or for Stella to be involved with a woman or whether it was already in the script?

For all that praise, isn’t perfect. It would have been nice if Stella’s first on screen kiss with a woman was in a different context. Some have said Stella is simply the kind of woman to kiss another woman to get rid of an unwanted man. She is, but at the same time I know she wouldn’t do that with someone she genuinely wasn’t attracted to. She saw her chance, and she took it. In a way that’s very true to her character!

Others have protested that she’s cheating with Reed, but whilst we know she Reed has two daughters and what appears to be a double–barrel surname, she’s never mentioned a partner and I’ve never seen her wear a ring. So we can’t say anything for sure. I suspect (and hope!) she’s separated or divorced.

The fact that Stella had a one night stand and was going to take Reed back to her hotel room would make her a greedy, slutty bisexual to some. This is exacerbated by her ice queen persona and the fact that we know nothing about any relationships of Stella’s, past or present. Plus the two sexual encounters with men we know about both turn out to be with married men.

I feel that most viewers won’t see her that way though, as Stella (rightly or wrongly) clearly doesn’t feel the need to ask anyone if they’re married or not before taking them to bed. As far as she’s concerned, that’s something she shouldn’t have to check and if someone is cheating, that’s their issue to sort out not hers. She will also have sex with who she wants to, and the show highlights that as a woman, society will judge her much more harshly for it than they will their male counterparts. Bringing this kind of sexism up in the show is one of the things that makes it such brilliant television!
I also don’t think that it was just titillation or there for the media hype. It fits in with the storyline and with Stella’s character. She’d do the same or something similar at that table if the genders were reversed.

As I write there are two more episodes left this series and a third run of the show has been announced, so I am curious to see where this goes. I dearly hope that the b word is mentioned and that there is more to it than this one kiss. I also hope the kiss and the fact that they were recognised as being part of the investigation team by the man Stella dismissed in the bar wasn’t just a plot device to raise more drama for the characters later down the line. They have an amazing opportunity to portray bisexuals well here. I hope they seize it!