‘Hannibal’ Changed the Game for Women and Gender on Television

Bryan Fuller creates compelling TV through genderbending, writing strong female characters, and refusing to eroticize sexual violence.

NBC’s Hannibal likes to play with, twist, and tear down sex and gender stereotypes. Hannibal is a serial killer — prim and proper and baking in an apron. Will Graham is sweet and gentle… and also an ex-cop swilling whisky in his lumberjack shirt. They both appear one way to outsiders. But inside they are almost inverses — both of each other and of what you might expect.

This is before we even consider the way two male original characters in Thomas Harris’ novel Hannibal (1999), were made women in the show. Dr. Alan Bloom became Dr. Alana Bloom and was transformed from a minor role to a main player. Freddie Lounds, sleazy and annoying male journalist, is now a sassy, smart and… still annoying lady. Had this “genderswap” not occurred, NBC’s Hannibal would have been, to quote Bryan Fuller, a “sausage-fest.”

In his adaptation, Fuller not only invited the ladies to the party, he treated them well. Alana is a fantastic representation of not only a woman with her own story to tell and her own motivations, but of an incidentally bisexual character (as oppose to one who is defined by that alone) who gets a happy ending with another woman. Alana’s relationship to the male protagonist is also subverted to an extent. Her role as Will’s champion — his defender and protector — cleverly sidesteps the predictability of making her his love interest for no reason other than heteronormative oversimplification. Alana is collected, knows her mind, and is successful in her career. In other words, she possess many traits that are normally coded as “male.”

Conversely, Will, our male “hero,” is a fragile wreck who needs to be cared for. He is vulnerable, nuturing, easily and frequently manipulated, coerced and bullied by his boss, and, to top it all off, he loves animals. (He’s a genderbent Snow White for goodness sake!) His gift is having extreme levels of empathy, and he can be hesitant, impulsive, indecisive and is essentially a teacher when we first meet him. You could even make an argument for him “not knowing himself until a man showed him.” The inverse of Alana, Will possesses many traits that are normally coded as “female.”

Even Hugh Dancy (the actor who plays Will Graham) is styled soft and vulnerable. On the show, he is seen in his underwear or pyjamas numerous times, a voyeuristic technique usually reserved for the pointless objectification of a female character. In one scene, he sleepwalks down the road, barefoot in a tight T-shirt and boxers, in winter, while being stalked by the beast in his psyche. On Hannibal, the women are not subject to any of this “male gaze” fuckery. This clever reversal makes for captivating storytelling at a time when women are making their voices heard about representation in media. Additionally, because of our own internalised stereotypes, it makes Will’s transformation into a dark killer all the more powerful.

Speaking of Will’s transformation, on Hannibal, sex and violence are intimately linked. But where other series focus on portraying violence against women as sexy, Bryan Fuller refuses to make his show that way. He makes no secret of his hatred for the constant stories of rape and sexual violence against women on television, particularly in the crime genre. On Hannibal, allusions to sex crimes are vague and the necrophilia aspect of the Red Dragon arc was diluted down so it would only be understood by those who know the source material. The handful of sex scenes are bordering on abstract, and nudity (male and female) is tasteful and not gratuitous. In fact, the most erotic scenes always involve Dr. Hannibal Lecter cooking, where sultry cinematography and music rivals the steamiest of sex scenes. Food porn, if you will.

Choosing to shift the erotic focus from violence against women to the act of violence itself may be dismissed by some, but I have personally witnessed fans crying with gratitude to Fuller for not telling stories where women are victims of sexual violence. Unlike most creators, Fuller empowers women, both as characters and as viewers, and he doesn’t sacrifice either one for ratings. This is important.

And, in this way, NBC’s Hannibal changed the game for women on television and for how gender imbalances can be rectified. The game is still changing in our media culture and I hope that if and when Season 4 hits our screens, Hannibal continues to pioneer. #TimesUp

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Find more of Katie’s writing at Insight Debate.

About Katie McDonald (2 Articles)
Katie is a regular TV and movie contributor at Insight Debate. She enjoys animals, comedy, travel, musical theatre and reading. Now a full-time fangirl, she recently played Alana Bloom in Hannibal: A Fannibal Musical. Bryan Fuller hugged her once.

1 Comment on ‘Hannibal’ Changed the Game for Women and Gender on Television

  1. “In one scene, he sleepwalks down the road, barefoot in a tight T-shirt and boxers, in winter, while being stalked by the beast in his psyche.” – This is super interesting. I haven’t heard this trope described before, but knew instantly what you were talking about. Compare the beast scene of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”: a show-piece of the female victim version.

    I also understood why an old original slash fic called something like “Afraid of Shadows” ‘(it has been deleted now, I think) made a lasting impression on me. It wasn’t a perfect fic by no means, but it had a male protagonist stalked by the beast of his nightmares and that was both unusual and compelling.

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