If you haven’t heard of NBC’s Hannibal by now, I can only imagine it’s because you’ve taken some sort of masochistic sabbatical from the Internet for the past 3-4 years. This show has sparked a truly dedicated and somewhat intimidating fanbase (the Fannibals), is driven by some of the best acting and writing I’ve seen on TV in recent memory, and consistently has some of the highest online ratings for any show ever aired on commercial broadcast television. And rightfully so – the show is an absolute cinematic and creative masterpiece. I am infinitely surprised Hannibal was allowed to air on ‘regular’ broadcasting (as opposed to Showtime or HBO, home to other well-loved murderers).

Hannibal just finished its third and sadly final season after NBC failed to renew the series. While some held out hope for alternative providers, like Netflix or Hulu, to pick up the series, there have been ownership and proprietary roadblocks preventing this. There are timing issues, as well; with Hannibal‘s showrunner, Bryan Fuller, set to begin co-creating American Gods, and the show’s lead actors, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, taking on other soon-to-film projects (The Way and Star Wars: Rogue One, respectively), it seems that scheduling another season within the next year would be incredibly difficult. Fans aren’t giving up and the hope still exists for an eventual (no matter how eventual) Season 4.

Luckily for us for now, the show’s ending was, (to me) a very satisfying conclusion to the series, whether or not the story is ever taken up again. So, in the wake of the Hannibal TV series finale, while I am struggling to process all these emotions and considering flinging myself off a cliff, I decided to review the show as a whole in terms of how it portrayed women.

Content warning: This review includes discussion of graphic violence, sexual assault and rape.

The Hannibal cast in a promo shot for Season 3.
The Hannibal cast in a promo shot for Season 3.

Not offensive to women = 1 pt*

There is a lot of content on Hannibal that a community of standards might find offensive. There are horrific, explicitly gory murder tableaus, children wielding weapons, depictions of abuse, torture, mutilation, terrible puns about cannibalism, actual cannibalism, and blatant mistreatment of patients, just to name a few of the show’s sins. Yet despite the canonical violence, a large part of what makes Hannibal so refreshing is that, unlike much of its source material, it actually is genuinely inoffensive to women. Bryan Fuller has made intriguing creative decisions about the show that have left it with an egalitarian bent, devoid of sensationalized sexual violence against women.

That probably shouldn’t be refreshing. But when surrounded by media that continuously and gratuitously uses sexual violence against women as a point of titillation (heavy side-eye at Game of Thrones), I was entirely struck by just how relieving it really is to watch a violent show where I’m not anxious about when I’ll next have to watch a woman being raped.

Beyond a lack of sexual crimes, Hannibal is also remarkably inoffensive to women, in that it actually has, you know, female characters. Fuller even “gender-swapped” (purposefully changed the gender of) two of the book’s characters, psychologist Dr. Alan Bloom and journalist Freddy Lounds, so that the TV adaptation presents us with Dr. Alana Bloom and Fredricka Lounds. Finally, the show is also unique in its conception of the crime procedural; while there are some female victims, the split between men and women murdered is fairly equal and there are even several killers who are women. And yes, I am aware how strange it is to say “we demand murder victim and serial killer equality!” Hannibal earns a point here.

Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2 pts

While neither the show’s titular character nor its main protagonist are women, you can’t throw a stone without hitting one of Hannibal’s many excellent female supporting characters. Even without the aforementioned “gender-swapped” characters, Dr. Alana Bloom and Freddie Lounds (who are each magnificent and powerful in their own right), the show still boasts an absolute pantheon of women who are each interesting and complex. Most notable are characters like Margot Verger, canonically gay and hopeful heiress to the Verger meat-packing dynasty, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, prominent former psychologist and icy pseudo-protege of Hannibal, Beverly Katz, fan favourite and member of Team Sassy Science, Abigail Hobbs, the closest thing Will Graham has to family and terrifying accomplice to her father’s crimes, and Reba McClane, unfortunate lover of the Red Dragon, who is also blind and a black woman. That’s not even mentioning less developed, but still immense, characters like Molly, Miriam Lass, Chiyoh, or Bella Crawford. Hannibal certainly provides enough diversity in female characters to get 2/2 points here.

Passes the Bechdel test = 3 pts

Something that didn’t occur to me about Hannibal until the show finished and I started writing this article is that, while there truly are tons of great female characters on the show, they very rarely interact with each other. Granted, it’s a show about two guys slowly falling in love amidst chaos and cannibalism; there may not have been a lot of room or airtime for women having conversations about unrelated topics. I’ll give you that. But upon reflection, it does strike me as odd how seldom we see these phenomenal women actually speak to one another. We have some choice moments between Alana and Abigail early on as Abigail recovers, there is some interesting content to do with Freddie and Abigail with the book they’re co-writing, and of course Alana is in a relationship with Margot so there is some screentime (though it is decidedly sparse) dedicated to furthering that relationship. I was struck by how many of these awesome and deadly women speak exclusively or predominantly to men throughout the show (like Bedelia, Beverly, Reba, Molly, and even Bella). While Alana and Margot’s relationship provides enough fodder to essentially satisfy the Bechdel test, a lack of women interacting is certainly an oversight of Hannibal’s. I’d give it 2/3 points.

Dr. Alana Bloom and Margot Verger. Known online as Marlana or Alargot. Pick your poison.
Dr. Alana Bloom and Margot Verger. Known online as Marlana or Alargot. Pick your poison.

Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4 pts

Hannibal is, sincerely, a delight. It’s the best show you haven’t watched yet. It’s beautifully shot, full of remarkable people performing phenomenally, and its narrative is immensely fresh and constantly surprising. It’s disgusting, glorious, gory, violent, ridiculous, emotionally devastating and perfect. 4/4.

Above and Beyond General Media = 5 pts

Bryan Fuller and the team behind Hannibal have, despite all odds, given us a broadcast TV show with: an actual onscreen (not just implied!) gay relationship between Alana and Margot; bi representation in Alana, and, depending on your interpretation of the show finale, in Will and Hannibal; and, probably most importantly, a cast of remarkable and diverse women who are each dynamic and impressive. As if that weren’t enough, Hannibal also turns the crime procedural on its head by refusing to “tell rape stories,” as Bryan Fuller has said, and by taking prominent male characters from the novels and making them women to steer the show away from ‘sausagefest-dom’ (which I’m now coining).

There are, of course, valid feminist criticisms of Hannibal. The women in the show hardly interact enough to pass the Bechdel test, despite being numerous and having many opportunities to interact. The female characters, while strong in their own rights, still are primarily victim to Hannibal and Will’s whims which can, at times, make them feel as though they are just sort of pawns being pushed around in one really disturbing game of chess. Some characters escape this push-and-pull and exercise their agency, like Bedelia Du Maurier or Freddie Lounds (you can read deeper into some of the women’s characterization at It’s Just About Write if you’d like) but many, like Abigail, Margot, Alana, Chiyoh, Molly or Bella, are often just movable and killable pieces in The Greatest (Most Horrible) Love Story Ever Told. Margot Verger’s character in the show has taken some flack as well, considering that Thomas Harris wrote her as a body-building, butch lesbian while her TV counterpart is thin and feminine (you can read an interesting criticism of this choice at Nerds Raging).

So, how does Hannibal fare when compared to other current TV shows? The answer is: incredibly well, but with some (mostly minor) reservations. For these reasons, it gets 4/5 points in this category. Ultimately, Hannibal is a gruesome and bewitching show about the budding and bloody co-dependency between two damaged men. It’s a stupid, terrible show that broke my heart and made me feel things. You should probably watch it.

Total: 13/15

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*This is a category that could get very complicated, very quickly, if we tried to list everything that could be offensive to women. Instead, we use this category as a way of showing our own personal reaction to whatever we are reviewing. All contributors to this site are women and can speak from a woman’s perspective. However, no woman can speak for all women so we do our best to explain our choice one way or the other. We encourage all readers to share their opinions in the comments of every post if they want to express agreement or disagreement with our rankings.

14 thoughts on “The Dark, Gruesome, and Oddly Feminist World of “Hannibal”

  1. This is a really good article! I think it would be awesome if you could write a deeper one, I see you getting some flack here that you probably wouldn’t be getting if it was a bit more explanative. Also, personally, I prefer ‘Alagot.’ I’ve been using that since their first ep together, though I’ve never seen anyone else use it. I see Marlana the most.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yeah, I guess I didn’t anticipate the response this has gotten. But I love all the comments – the whole point of taking apart media like this is to start a discussion. So I’m pleased! 🙂 I personally prefer Marlana, only because ‘Alargot’/’Alagot’ (I think I’ve seen both) sounds like a snail to me.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Like

  2. Fuller himself may be a feminist, but I don’t think the show is. It’s quite focused on this operatic story of serial killer and FBI profiler, with everything else (including women) getting relatively short shrift. And it should be noted that Fuller’s handling of the Red Dragon storyline actually alluded more toward sexual violence than either film adaptation (though significantly less than the book).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a totally fair criticism. I tried to balance the actually well-written female characters with the fact that they do lack agency, but also considered that it’s a world in which everyone lacks agency except for Hannibal and Will, really. And sometimes other serial killers.

      Interesting point about Red Dragon, too – personally, I felt the show handled it really well. It’s not that I never want to see sexualized violence against women in media; it is, after all, an unfortunate truth of our society. But in only alluding to some of the sexual aspects of Dolarhyde’s crimes, I think Fuller managed to avoid the Game of Thrones-esque perspective of just graphically showing rape with no actual story-telling purpose.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  3. Minor reservations? The fact that Abigail Hobbs is fridged four separate times is not a minor reservation. This also doesn’t count the fact that Beverly was fridged as well. Everyone is all like “Yay Fuller didn’t show rape” but what good is that when he just replaced it with another trope that uses violence against women? And I’m sorry but passing the Bechdel test, character gender swapping from the books and queer representation does not make up for the fact that all these women were merely pawns in a large game of white male angst romance.

    Harris’ books are inherently feminist in nature and the show lacked what the books had. You can’t just add more female characters and say look I’m a feminist! Yes the books are largely a sausage fest but with the Harris was proving a point and the women that are there are the ones actually getting shit done. Molly is a total badass in “Red Dragon” she’s actually the one who kills Dolarhyde when he “comes back from the dead” and attacks Will. Fuller fucks her over royally. Luckily he didn’t really mess with Reba. The author addresses the issues with Margot but there is the fact that in the “Hannibal” novel she could intimidate a room full of men. Some of my favorite bits were when she’d just look at Krendler as she’d crack walnuts with her bare hands.

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    1. I’ve only read each of the books once, and I’ll admit that it was awhile ago, so it’s likely I didn’t pick up on some things that were missed or lost in translation in Fuller’s adaptation.

      I did consider the ‘fridging’ of characters like Bev and Abigail to some extent, and I did make mention of the women lacking agency. When I considered it, though, it felt more like a general theme of the show than an actual slight against its female characters. Jack is consistently outwitted by both Hannibal and Will, Chilton is consistently used and abused regularly as a sort of ‘plot advancement tactic’, Pazzi was offed as soon as he became even mildly inconvenient and Antony Dimmond’s entire appearance was, while entertaining, somewhat farcical. It’s also interesting to note that Freddie was originally in Chilton’s place in the Red Dragon storyline, so Fuller did specifically choose not to kill her off despite it being canon. I felt that the male characters received much the same treatment as the women in Hannibal; everyone can be considered lacking in agency when compared to Hannibal and Will.

      That said, I can definitely see your point – Hannibal certainly has flaws. Part of my leniency, perhaps, in giving it a relatively high score was that when compared to other similar media, particularly crime shows, it really does set a higher standard.

      Thank you so much for your comment, you gave me lots to think about!!

      Like

      1. I was thinking about Crystal Dawn’s comments about the show being non-feminist (although definitely not misogynist) and the fridging of women. I thought at first she was right but on review I think the killing of major characters skews 50/50 between men and women, with the most severe abuse of living characters skewing completely towards the guys. ***RAMPANT SPOILERS AHEAD***

        Of the dead characters, the women (named, have lines, appear in more than one episode, relevant to the plot) are Beverly (who I’d like to point out was the first at the FBI to believe Will and was mad-awesome when she decided to check out Hannibal’s place for herself), Bella (natural causes), and Abigail (arguably the most manipulated and violently murdered of anyone on this list). The men were Dr Gideon (who became Hannibal’s chew toy, literally), Pazzi (killed by Hannibal and his own greed), Mason Verger (killed by Hannibal because a promise is a promise), Cordell (killed by Hannibal for bromance), Dolarhyde (murder husbands!),and possibly Garret Jacob Hobbes (killed by Will), but only because of his constantly looming over the overall story and being the catalyst for bringing Will and Hannibal together.

        3 women and 5/6 men, all of the men killed violently. Of the other minor or weekly characters killed they seemed to skew heavily male, including killers, victims, Verger’s Italian gang, and the intelligencia in Europe. Severely abused were Will (with about 10,000 bullets, knives, and beatings under his belt) in first and Chilton a distant second. Honorable mentions for Hannibal (who took obligatory hits before hulking out and killing everything in the room), Jack (who brought a towel to a Hannibal fight), and Alana (had to see for herself what the fuss was all about smh).

        Bedelia would probably not be in a good place to survive if the series continues eventually and Hannibal has that standing murder date with Alana but Freddie has no apparent dates with destiny. Not only was she spared her book fate but I would also lay odds that in spite of her rudeness Hannibal would protect her if he was in a position to as she’s been a different devil who helped Will become what Hannibal wanted him to become (her pushing Will into irritating situations that made him distance himself from the FBI a good bit and especially the Chilton debacle). Also against her book counterpart’s role Molly kicked a lot more ass. Will wasn’t present for her confrontation with the Red Dragon but in spite of that she got herself and Walter out of there alive. Yes she took some bullets but her tenacity still saved her and her son. The other 2/3 of Team Sassy Science would likely not be on the menu any time soon either

        Feel free to fact check all of this since I did the counts off the top of my head. My TL;DR is that more men were fridged than women with women tending to do more heroic acts than the men. I think saying that the show is feminist holds up at least in regards to who was killed off.

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    2. Okay, I can agree with your criticism of the show to some extent, though considering the entire premise of the show was the relationship between two men I think they did pretty well at keeping the women as strong supporting characters. But “Harris’ books are inherently feminist in nature” just floored me as a statement. When I read Harris’ books, I thought they were blatantly sexist. Almost all of the (very few) women were victims. Violence against women was almost always sexualized and struck me as exploitative. Margot was fairly heavily implied to only be a lesbian bodybuilder because of trauma from being sexually abused by her brother, and she remained almost cartoonishly one-dimensional. Clarice was a strong character who lost all sense of integrity or autonomy by the end of the series, and many people were rightfully furious with the way her character deteriorated and basically just became Hannibal’s pawn. I mean, speaking of characters who got royally fucked over? Clarice, 100%. The TV show has been a marked improvement as far as female characters go. As for female characters who weren’t just pawns in the TV series, Bedelia started that way but had as much control over the situation in Europe as Hannibal did, and she acted out of her own interest. She got what she wanted from that situation. Freddie has also had a lot of autonomy.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Interesting points, but I think you’re being overly generous with calling the books “inherently feminist”. I agree that Red Dragon had strong female supporting roles and SotL had the true feminist narrative, but once Hannibal Lecter became the breakout star, Clarice got the full Hollywood treatment and became ornamentation to his killer lifestyle in the novel. Her storyline makes a nonsensical leap into adopting his elitist tastes from cannibalism to opera, with her giving up everything and Hannibal giving up nothing. She’s also written to have all these hidden neuroses to help facilitate said romance, but honestly the entire sequence of Hannibal liberating her through therapy is marred by the suggestion that she is still not fully awake (hypnosis/trauma/drugs).

      Now Margot’s physicality is a beautiful thing, but its not a clean approach to trans-identity in my opinion. Her self image and sexuality is sculpted from a landscape of sexual rape and abuse by her brother. She chooses steroids and bodybuilding as a form of protection, which sadly destroys her ability to have children. Even in the prequel, Harris introduces Lady Murasaki to be the love object of both Hannibal and his uncle, while using her culture to indulge some gimmicks.

      So when you talk about women being pawns for white male angst… well, there are no absolute winners in the Harris novels either. Except for Reba of course. [Also: I liked Molly’s sequence in the show. She outsmarted the Dragon, saved herself and her son without Will’s intervention. I just wished we had more time with her.]

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds really interesting! I listened to an interview with the actor who played Hannibal, and based on the description of the show I didn’t think I would want to watch it. I don’t usually like criminal procedural shows. I think I will have to start watching this one though! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be honest, my first try I only made it through the first episode because I have a notoriously short attention span. But once I gave it a real effort, I was hooked! The ‘crime procedural’ aspect drops off almost completely after Season 1, which I think gave the show more freedom and creative license, as well. It’s totally worth watching 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It actually isn’t a procedural, really; it starts out as one, but it quickly becomes something else. Less than half of the episodes are actually procedural-y at all. In fact it’s almost as if the characters were living in a TV Procedural Universe in episode 1 and then Hannibal Lecter showed up from a Freaky Gothic Horror Universe and shook things up.

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