Peaky Blinders Review: Steven Knight’s “Impossible Masculinity,” Female Characters, and Fandom

Source: robertviglasky.com
Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) in Peaky Blinders (Source: robertviglasky.com)

Yes, there are spoilers.

Since Peaky Blinders (BBC Two) has finished Series 4, I’d like to explore some inconsistencies that have bothered me for the last two series.  They have to do with Steven Knight’s vision for Peaky Blinders, his problematic female characters, and fandom.  I’ve written about these topics before, but they intersect in ways that are telling.

“An Impossible Masculinity”

Here’s Steven Knight in a Rolling Stone interview:

Knight says he originally conceptualized Peaky Blinders as something like a Western, from its visuals (there’s plenty of gunslinging and getaways on horseback) to the way it probes what he calls an “impossible masculinity. [But] what I wanted to do was mythologize the rest of us.  You know:  the working class.”  

I’ve written here and here about the notion of an “impossible masculinity.”  As someone who’s spent much of my academic career studying the western, I’m familiar with this genre.  Indeed, I was initially drawn to Peaky Blinders because of the opening scene with Tommy riding a horse through Small Heath.  The western iconography was perfect.

Knight has been open about embracing the classic western:

Well, not so much Deadwood, but definitely Western. The great thing about America is that people take its history and mythologise it.  I mean, if you said you were making a film about nineteenth century agricultural labourers, that’s a cowboy film, but it’s just looking at it a different way.  What Westerns did was to take a world and mythologise it.  What I wanted to do was to really look at what really happened in Birmingham – and in other cities – in the twenties and see it for what it was.  Very bizarre, very glamorous, very unexpected, very un-English, not un-English but working class English.

Tommy Shelby in an iconic western pose (Source: robertviglasky.com)

As a genre, the western is intensely phallocentric, an essential element of the myth.  You can read volumes on how the western reinscribes white masculinity.  Here’s an excerpt from December’s Atlantic Monthly:  “And yet, from the bulk of the evidence here, masculinity (like the Western) is a by-product of nostalgia, a maudlin elegy for something that never existed—or worse, a masquerade that allows no man, not even John Wayne, to be comfortable in his own skin.”

Knight most admires the classic western:
As a child, I wasn’t exposed to cinema much at all, apart from Westerns which my Dad used to take me to go and see. At the time I thought it was embarrassing, but now I am very pleased I did, because in John Wayne films like The Searchers [1956] and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [1962], they were telling these fantastic stories. They were an influence mostly, and then I studied old English literature and modern American literature that influenced me even more.

These are old-school westerns.  Many of those westerns from the 50s and 60s couldn’t get made today because of their treatment of women, minorities, animals, and the environment.  This cruelty happens in the defense of that impossible masculinity.  (Don’t believe me?  Try The Western Channel.)

Like any genre, the western has been susceptible to smart parodies, like Near Dark, The Quick and the Dead, Brokeback Mountain, Buffalo SoldiersSmoke Signals and even DeadwoodThese innovative works question the western’s core mythology, but they’re missing from Knight’s list, and he’s said he doesn’t watch contemporary film or television.  So Knight’s influences are traditional, which shows in Peaky Blinders.  Think back to S01E01.  The “impossible masculinity” is everywhere — the men’s clothes, their haircuts, their language, their history, their guns, their drinking, their violence.  We see, again and again, men proving themselves to each other.

Grace Gathers Her Courage
Grace Gathers Her Courage (Source: Annabelle Wallis Instagram)

Enter an Irish barmaid.

“Strong Female Characters”

Here’s my theory — and I have no way to prove this.  The character of Grace Burgess was subversive in ways Steven Knight never anticipated.  Initially, I suspect, Grace was written to reinforce Tommy’s masculinity, but the character took on a life of her own — since she was an undercover agent, this shouldn’t be surprising.

Ultimately, Grace undercut Tommy’s masculinity as well as Campbell’s because she made difficult choices that were true to her character rather than theirs:  She broke both men’s hearts and even shot Campbell, the ultimate subersion of western iconography.  Not only did many fans love Grace, but so did Annabelle Wallis:  “When I read Grace—I think I had the first two episodes— I was like, ‘She is for me.  She is the only woman I want to play in my career: strong, rich, dynamic, many shades of grey.’  Steven Knight is so good at writing women.  I liked how she was equal to the men: she was fearless, she was brave beyond common sense.

“Equal to the men.”   That runs counter to an impossible masculinity.

As PeakyBlogger points out, the most subversive scene in Peaky Blinders takes place in S01 when Grace follows and kills the IRA member to protect herself.  This was her story.  In fact, it was such a unique moment in Peaky Blinders that she was punished for it by being largely absent from Series 2, and then being turned into an unrecognizeable Stepford Wife for two episodes in S03 before her murder.

Since Grace, no female character, not even Polly, has been put in a position of such narrative power.

I have written repeatedly about my frustration with Knight’s female characters (here, and here).  (Please NEVER tell me that he writes strong female roles.)  Although May walked away from Tommy in S04, most female characters are less fortunate. Polly gets to hold her own, but she is tied to Tommy through blood and the family business to the point that she allows her son to be exiled at the end of E06, even though he was acting out of loyalty to her.  Other female chartacters are routinely punished or banished.  Whatever core values S01 Ada had are absent — and we have no idea why.  The treatment of Lizzie’s character should infuriate everyone.  The humiliation of Jessie Eden is breath-taking.  Linda has gone from being a hypocritical religious shrew to using booze and drugs.  Esme stood up to Tommy and was ostracized for it, at first from the family and then from the show.  Grace was reduced to old photographs.  Ironically,  Tatiana was the only woman who could compete with Tommy.  She could scheme with him and sleep with him without losing her self-respect because she was, essentially, amoral, an empty vessel waiting for men to use her body to realize themselves.

Tommy and the Women of Peaky Blinders (Source: RadioTimes)

It turns out, Grace was a fluke, and Steven Knight has been punishing the women of Peaky Blinders since.

Peaky Blinders Fandom

There’s another level to this.  I suspect Grace could have gotten away with her independent S01 self if it weren’t for fandom.

In Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis explore the benefits and challenges, especially for women, of belonging to a fandom.  They point out that female fans are treated with derision (characterized as “‘rabid,’ ‘demented,’ ‘obsessed’ stalkers or just plain ‘batshit crazy'”) even though as they argue, “[Fandom] is all about community. . . . The sense of belonging is powerful — especially for women.”  For them, this allows women to subvert traditional male-centric power structures.

Steven Knight said this about fandom in TV Outside the Box:

The interesting thing for me about television is the level of loyalty that comes with it.  So, people watch a film and they love it.  But they won’t have that evangelical loyalty that they have with television.  I still don’t know why it is, but people will watch a particular TV series, and they will become like proselytizers:  “You’ve got to watch this!  It’s brilliant!” 

Later in the interview, he adds,

With television, people have the time to form a community of likeminded people.  It’s like joining a club around a particular show.  If you look at social media, my god, it goes mad!  I mean, the loyalty given to a television show is because certain people who are watching it think, “There’s me, and in the whole globe, there are other people like me who like this, and we’re all friends.”  That’s a unique and very different phenomenon than film.

Like Larsen and Zubernis, Knight understands the community of fandom, but he misses its revolutionary politics.  Knight’s view of fandom is much like his understanding of the western — traditional and outdated.  He and the Peaky Blinders social media team use traditional media (e.g., magazines, newspapers, radio) with Facebook and Twitter feeds but do little to engage  fandom.

I suspect that when Knight began writing Peaky Blinders, he envisioned a white male viewership very much like himself.  When the show became popular, he opened an expensive clothing store for men.  But Peaky Blinders has lots of female fans.  They were creating Tumblrs and Twitter feeds and Pinterest boards, and they were writing fanfic that provided for them what Knight’s writing failed to do.  The story that drew many of them in was Tommy’s relationship with Grace.

Peaky Blinders‘ discomfort with Grace Burgess/Annabelle Wallis is a mystery.  I have no answers.  But here’s what I do know.  Grace’s death was treated differently — no onscreen funeral for her, and no exit interviews for Annabelle Wallis (in contrast with Joe Cole.)  Clearly, Steven Knight was unprepared for the #TeamGrace fan backlash.  evenstar297’s Reddit post describes attending Knight’s Writers Guild Foundation lecture, which she and a friend attended to ask him to answer a central question for some Peaky Blinders fans:  Why did he choose to kill Grace?

At first he responded, “well did I?” then he chuckled and said, “Well….its accommodating schedules and its difficult with a big ensemble….but ultimately I couldn’t have Tommy in a happy domestic situation with the woman he loves.”

He had just killed a favorite character, so why would he joke about it?  Moreover, why wouldn’t he expect this question, and why hadn’t it been answered in traditional media?  Cillian Murphy was surprised, too — watch his GoldDerby interview.  Neither Knight nor Murphy seemed to understand how invested female fans were in Grace.

Charlie Murphy as Jessie Eden in Peaky Blinders (Source: Robert Viglasky)

Peaky Blinders S04

I’ve been a fan of a lot of TV shows.  However, I have never been shown the contempt that Steven Knight treated female fans with in S04.  He took, deliberatly, the iconography of Grace and used it to define other female characters.  The “Blackbird” scene in Jessie’s flat is a clear re-creation of the events in Grace’s flat in S01E05.  Knight was, essentially, telling female fans to get over it.  The same was true of Lizzie’s pregnancy.  Actually, he was reasserting that it was his story about an impossible masculinity to do with what he pleased.

Peaky Blinders fails to understand the power of fandom.  Consider Outlander, Scandal and This is Us.  These shows get social media, and the writers and actors recognize that their show gains resonance through cultivating fandom.  But fandom and an “impossible masculinity” are inherently incompatible.

Steven Knight would probably point out that Peaky Blinders S04 averaged more than 3 million viewers and was BBC Two’s most highly rated series this year.  That’s fair.

But I live in a world of #MeToo.  And here’s why #MeToo matters:  It means that the days of an impossible masculinity are ending.  Fast.

Grace Burgess, you broke all our hearts.  You go, girl.

Publication Date:  22 December 2017

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One thought on “Peaky Blinders Review: Steven Knight’s “Impossible Masculinity,” Female Characters, and Fandom

  1. I so agree every woman on the show is just a plot device grace was killed so Tommy could mourn and we would feel sorry for him lizzie has turned out to have no self respect who allows herself to be used wasn’t good enough to be John’s wife but good enough to have his baby making her pregnant was so obvious Jesse Eden storyline was so disrespectful given she was a real life person who fought for people’s rights she ended up just another person to warm his bed and Linda was written as a cold person so they could show her being taken down a peg or two drugs really and Polly has very little power esome had the right idea she got the hell out of town when the show started I had a lot of hope for the women but that has sadly gone never liked grace but the woman didn’t even get a funeral Freddie did even aurthur got a fake one the worst part for me was the look lizzie gave jessie like she had won some sort of prize the used her and made sure to remind her she was a hooker at every turn and destroyed any realathship she had 😈

    Like

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