Opinion Piece: Why Has NBC Resurrected The Psycho Killer Lesbian Plot?
The villainous, particularly murderous, LGBT character is omnipresent in American television, film, and theatre. In theatre, it's been appropriated and transformed by gay, lesbian, and variously queer writers, actors, and directors, and well-documented in Jordan Schildcrout's MURDER MOST QUEER (University of Michigan Press). However, the number of LGBTQ artists in television and film, especially out ones who might speak up on the subject, is considerably smaller, and thus we were once bombarded, and are still occasionally assailed, by the show that lobs a psycho murderous queer type at us.
The psycho murderous queer has a clear history back to about 1872, primarily in the form of the psycho lesbian, a trope once so common that it has its own subject page on the popular TV TROPES website. The history goes back to the crazed lesbian vampire, which began in England as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's CHRISTABEL, a lengthy and unintentionally funny epic poem of sweet, virginal Christabel, threatened by the devious, apparently demonic, lesbian vampire Geraldine. Horrorist Sheridan LeFanu contributed, at the same time, CARMILLA, a novel about a sweet, virginal girl threatened by the devious, apparently immortal, lesbian vampire Carmilla. (Classic vampire movie fans note: CARMILLA is the source of every place or person named "Karnstein" in any vampire film.)
In 1892, American newspapers breathlessly covered the murder trial of Alice Mitchell, who had killed her girlfriend; the yellow press of the period developed the mass identification of lesbians as psycho killers when Mitchell was found not guilty due to insanity and sent to a psychiatric hospital. Mitchell's trial was one of the first sensational, highly reported, murder trials in America, its coverage the period equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial much later. The psycho killer lesbian had entered the public consciousness well before television or film threw moving images of perceived depravity and sadism into mass media.
While Brian de Palma's 1980 gay S&M thriller, CRUISING, was widely derided, and publically attacked by gay groups for its ridiculous depictions of gay men, S&M, and psycho killer queers, the 1992 BASIC INSTINCT, with Sharon Stone as a psycho killer (bisexual) lesbian, was extremely popular and far less condemned for its depiction of the psycho killer as a homophobic portrayal, perhaps because America was already conditioned to accept the psycho lesbian trope in literature and in the news.
America has clung to the psycho lesbian trope desperately though decreasingly in television. A very small sampling would include Dark Willow in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER; TORCHWOOD'S "psycho lesbian from space" episode (also known as the "Tosh becomes possessed by the alien necklace" episode); the QUANTUM LEAP episode "Good Night, Dear Heart," which featured the "lesbian kills girlfriend because of girlfriend's involvement with a man" stereotype; and a good bit of the first two seasons of NCIS, before Gibbs and his writers realized it was time to support gays in the military. In those days, NCIS gave us, among other psychos, "Lt. Jane Doe," which featured a psychotic lesbian rapist/murderer, upping the psycho ante considerably. Popular website TV TROPES features a larger though still incomplete listing of the now mostly historic psycho killer lesbians of television.
But why the psycho lesbian, anyway? What's the fascination, other than that heady mixture of sex, crime, a hot babe or two, and lurid death -as if that mix isn't itself justification in the Freudian id?
"The pathology linked to the lesbian is actually a displacement of the feared pathology of patriarchal culture... The very challenge to order contained in representations of lesbians is restrained by depictions that, in their evocations of nonsense or pathology, disenfranchise the out-of-the-law as the outlaw. This is why lesbians are often figured as murderers and vice-versa. The murderous lesbian characters in Paul Verhoeven's BASIC INSTINCT (1992), as well as the association of lesbians with vampires...highlight fears that lesbians threaten the death of patriarchy." So suggests Tim Dean and Christopher Lane's HOMOSEXUALITY AND PSYCHOANALYSIS (University of Chicago), which slides us back into something I've mentioned about THE BLACKLIST previously: its unrelenting misogyny in a television era of strong women in law enforcement.
Long after the lengthy run of Ziva David as the starring kickass agent of NCIS, long after tough, physically and intellectually competent female FBI agents on CRIMINAL MINDS and the earlier THE X-FILES; long after Mariska Hargitay's seminal Detective (now Sergeant) Olivia Benson on NBC's LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, THE BLACKLIST has brought us Elizabeth Keen, FBI profiler turned marginally competent field agent. Keen is hampered by her addiction to her former husband Tom, a spy of sorts who tried to kill her while they were working against each other in their professional capacities, surely the ultimate form of domestic violence. In what's supposedly thriller-drama but is textbook domestic violence victim behavior, even after they've tried killing each other, even though she is fully aware of everything he has done to her, Liz has proven incapable of and unwilling to see Tom entirely out of her life.
Elizabeth Keen is the antithesis of the smart, brave, powerful television law enforcement heroine we've been given since the 1990's. She's a dubiously effective mess who can't fully give up an abuser, who is dominated by male colleagues, who's perpetually being saved by men who dig her out of her perils-of-Pauline difficulties. She's frequently incapable of using her supposedly profound profiling and psychological-training abilities to help solve the cases she's on, to understand the people around her, or even to recognize her own problems. She's a professional victim, not a heroine; she's a throwback to the helpless, hapless television heroines of the 1960's. Frighteningly, CHARLIE'S ANGELS were better able to handle themselves.
How is Keen's weakness connected to the issue of psycho lesbian killers? First, Keen is a symbol of the patriarchal control mentioned by Dean and Lane -straight, weak, bound to a cycle of domestic violence, perpetually saved by men. Second, THE BLACKLIST, which has been wallowing in misogyny, with her as the center of it, has now upped its sexism ante by adding its own psycho killer lesbian storyline to the TV TROPES list of shame for LGBT groups fighting media discrimination. "Vanessa Cruz" brings the Sharon Stone version of hot, sexy, man-killing psycho (bisexual) lesbian serial killer to a whole new and pointless level. Cruz, the widow of a man framed for an insider trading scandal, now sets up, frames, and has imprisoned, or kills -there's sexy bathtub drowning right in the cold open -the men responsible for her husband's death, but she certainly doesn't mind seducing, using, and killing women along the way. In fact, the only clear relationship she's had since her husband's death is with an attractive woman who's in love with her, but whom Vanessa ultimately intends to have killed as part of the frame-up of the girlfriend's employer. It's the television version of BASIC INSTINCT, except that no animals are harmed in the unfolding of her psychotic criminal behavior.
There's been only one other verified LGBT character on the show, "Mr." Kate Kaplan (Susan Blommaert), an audience favorite, who's extremely competent and loyal to her employer, but who's so little used that fans keep a record of her small, infrequent appearances. Just like the quickly-deceased sexy female Asian employee of Reddington's, there has been no episode backstory for Kaplan. There has been more screen time devoted in one episode to Cruz's psycho lesbian-ness than there has to the very sane Kaplan at all. There's certainly been no attentipm to Kaplan's sexuality, which has been limited one comment about Kaplan's girlfriend, while the psycho Cruz had a steamy scene or two with hers. Notably, at the end of "Vanessa Cruz," it is Kaplan who's sent by Reddington to recruit Cruz to work with him.
One wonders if aside from sexism and homophobia, there's also a touch of Latino discrimination here -after all, the hot-blooded, raging Latina is a sterotype that's also both appalling and done-to-death... pun intended. African-Americans and Middle Eastern Jewish characters in THE BLACKLIST are the two minorities who have been shown as competent on the side of Dubiously Good in the show, not Hispanics; Cruz is a villain, and Raymond Reddington's occasional associate Mr. Vargas (Pee Wee Herman), certainly Hispanic-surnamed, is barely able to perform his work due to fear of blood. Other Hispanics are notably lacking.
The psycho lesbian, with little or no countering characterization, is yet another example of THE BLACKLIST'S misogyny, and in this case, the story is not only both sexist and homophobic, but even throws the series' treatment of Hispanics into serious question. A current hit network television show can, and should, do better. NBC can do better.
Photo Credit: NBC Universal