The Dark, Gruesome, and Oddly Feminist World of “Hannibal”
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.
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.
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.
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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.