Phryne Fisher and a curious case of sexism
If conservative elements within the Australian screen industry had had their way, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries either may never have made it to the screen, or the protagonist could have been a very different character.
The issue? Some people who controlled the purse strings objected to Phryne Fisher’s free-wheeling, no-strings-attached love life.
Every Cloud Productions’ Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger, co-creators of the popular 1929-set ABC show starring Essie Davis, Nathan Page, Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Ashleigh Cummings, encountered industry sexism- from males and females- during development and production of the first series.
“Early in our development process, Phryne’s morality was queried by some in the long chain of investors that Australian television series need in order to be realised,” Cox writes in the latest edition of AFTRS' Lumina magazine, which is dedicated to gender equality in the screen industry.
“Was she too promiscuous? Should her sexual encounters only be with men of a certain calibre and standing? Would we ‘like’ a woman who had casual sex this often?
“We were shocked that this double standard should still prevail amongst educated professionals in the screen industry – and probably even more shocked that it would be voiced in complete ignorance of the inherent sexism behind it.
“We felt Phryne had a moral compass but it was separate to her sexual behaviour… To criticise her morality purely on the grounds of the number or variety of her lovers made no sense to us. It would be outrageous and totally beside the point to suggest that James Bond shouldn’t have bedded so many women.
"A James Bond without his sharp suits, his suave powers of seduction and a beautiful woman to flirt over, is as unimaginable as Phryne Fisher without her sensuous gowns, delicate innuendos and dashing lovers to play with."
Even after the show premiered, the battle against sexism was not over. Cox, who tactfully declines to identify the culprits, tells IF, “We had to guard and protect our vision through the first series.”
A turning point occurred last year when the female detective drama screened in the US on Netflix, sparking complaints from more conservative viewers about Phryne “‘sleeping around”’ or “giving it away to every other guy.”
US feminist website Jezebel defused the controversy by upholding the character’s right to “have her man-cake and have mind-blowing sex with it too.”
Cox writes, “We relished the controversy but it was a reminder that, though the female protagonist has gained ground, that ground still needs defending.
“We’ve had no trouble selling the last three series of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries around the world, so clearly Phryne’s overt sexuality is not a problem from a commercial point of view. For many regions, like France where she’s referred to as a ‘femme fatale’ and other parts of Europe with more liberal views, Phryne’s active sex life is either a non issue or a definite plus.
“On the domestic front, the rumble has dropped to a murmur. Luckily, in the relatively civilised and educated realms of television drama, nobody wants to appear sexist or conservative – so any qualms were eased with a reasoned defence.
“We still feel the occasional ripples though, just gentle reminders that where the line is drawn between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ behaviour for the female protagonist may not be exactly where the line lies for her male counterpart.
"As fascinating and flawed and outrageous female characters now flourish all over our television and film screens let’s hope that imaginary line simply disappears.”
Cox and Eagger say the ABC is keen to commission a fourth series and the logistics are being worked out. A key factor will be the availability of Davis, whose profile got a mighty boost internationally from The Babadook.
Last year she played Caitlin Thomas, wife of hard-drinking poet Dylan Thomas (Tom Hollander) in the BBC America telemovie A Poet in New York.