thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

True-er Detectives: “The Bletchley Circle,” Lady Sleuths, and Friendship

In feminism, gender, girl culture, TV on March 11, 2014 at 9:06 am

Phoebe B.

THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE S1

I sit on the floor with my legs crossed, just a foot from the television, enraptured. I watch The Bletchley Circle alone, almost as if sharing the show with anyone else will change the way I feel when I’m watching it, interrupt my complete and utter devotion to the mystery.

Susan utters, “When this is over, we’ll have to be ordinary.” What she means is, We will have to pretend that we’re not brilliant. We will have to pretend we’re ordinary because we are women and smile politely at others’ accomplishments. It’s only been two minutes, but I am already devoted. I fear ordinary too. I fear boredom and expectations of marriage, children, home-owning. A life that is not your own.

I can feel my mouth forming a smile as Ted walks into the room to ask what I’m up to. I don’t want to answer and I don’t want to pause the show, because I’m worried that I might lose this feeling. But I do, and I do. Luckily, I don’t.

***

The Bletchley Circle tells the story of four former World War II code-breakers who happen to be women. The mystery at the center of the show is amazing; the characters who solve it, even more so. The series is about power in the face of powerlessness, determination and solidarity and what four brilliant women can do together.

The series opens near the end of the war, as Susan Gray breaks a Nazi code-within-a-code that reveals Germany’s strategy, battle orders, and infantry locations. It appears that these four women have given the Allies an advantage that brings about the end of the war.

We immediately meet the rest of the team: Jean, the serious boss; Lucy, the youngest, whose memory is something to marvel at; and Millie, the glue that holds them all together, a strong, independent woman who has travelled the world. Alone, they are each extraordinary, but together they can bring the German army to its knees.

When they meet again nine years later, Susan is a bored housewife whose kind husband mistakenly believes that crosswords can satisfy her incredible, puzzle-driven mind. Meanwhile, a serial killer is roaming the streets of London killing young women. Susan has become exactly what she feared: ordinary, at least on the outside.

Her old life rests on the back of her dressing table mirror, hidden from the view of her family. There, Susan strings together newspaper clippings and the locations of each murder, looking for a pattern. Eventually, she finds one and appeals to the authorities. Her husband presumes that her pursuits are just a silly hobby. The police echo those same sentiments, trusting her initially and then dismissing her. All they see is a woman—not a code-breaker nor a person with a smart and talented mind.

But Susan is driven. Instead of giving up, she reunites her former code-breaking team into a group of sleuths and powers on. Together, the women work day in and day out, forming a pretend book club in order to justify to their husbands the time they spend together. Together, they spend their days and nights pouring over train schedules, searching the archives, travelling to abandoned buildings. They tap into and forge connections with other women. They are persistent, even in the TheBletchleyCircle_Millieface of disappointment, danger, and violence.

Together the four women rediscover their amazing capabilities. They solve the murders, catch the killer, and stop him from attacking another woman. They do what the police can’t, and refuse, to do.

***

The first time I watched Bletchley Circle, I watched all three episodes in one sitting, eager to spend more time with these women. I loved watching the way they pushed each other to move beyond their comfort zones and their assigned positions in a patriarchal society.

I sometimes worry about what it means to be married, before I remember that I can define marriage however I and we see fit. In those moments too, I worry that I have not grown up sufficiently because my romantic relationship is not the solitary relationship in my life. In fact, it is balanced and made better by my girlfriends who push me to be myself. When we are together, as Sarah wrote last week, I feel protected, I feel less weight on my shoulders, less knots in my back, less anxiety. I laugh more and harder.

Together, I feel quite certain that we could even solve a mystery.

***

The solidarity between the four women on Bletchley Circle saves all of them in one form or another. Their relationship even saves Lucy from an abusive marriage and then offers her shelter and comfort to recover and move on. Their relationships with each other are the most rewarding, fulfilling, and productive ones in their lives. They create space for each other, protect each other, and allow each woman to be exactly who she is.

They extend the same spirit of empathy and community to the women whose murders they investigate. Quite differently, Susan’s husband, and the rest of the male characters on the show, are eager to distance themselves and the women they know from the ones who have died at the hands of a killer. Susan’s husband suggests that the murdered women made themselves vulnerable: “These girls, from what the papers say, weren’t our type … I mean out at night,” he comments as Susan explains the pattern she’s discovered.

These girls are not like us, the men on the show tell themselves. They deserved their horrifying fates for wandering alone in the night. Of course, victim-blaming is nothing new: it is endemic to rape culture and to cultures that value women as nothing more than ornamental housekeepers and objects of desire. In this kind of world, women must protect ourselves and each other. That is what Susan’s group of lady sleuths do.

They refuse to judge the murdered women or think that their actions in any way devalue them or make them deserving of their fate. As an antidote to a culture that suggests we are not valuable because of what we do, what we look like, who we sleep with and how many times, or how short our skirts are, Bletchley Circle presents a structure of female companionship, a feminist space that protects women from an all-too-often hostile world.

***

In a recent bout of frustration and amidst the flurry surrounding True Detective, I declared to my students that I was tired and frustrated by watching shows written by, imagined for, and starring white men looking for themselves. So, while my Facebook feed exploded with articles about True Detective over the past few weeks, I went back to Bletchley. As I re-watched the show  I thought about how little I cared to listen while white men explain their worldview to me, pretending to solve the world’s problems.

Besides, philosophizing on the world’s problems seems a fool’s errand, anyway. What I love about Bletchley Circle is watching women fighting for, and in solidarity with, other women. The women of Bletchley Circle are people of action. They’re not compelled to solve the puzzle of life as they’re too busy just trying to get by in a world that is so often hostile to their—and our—independence (and our voices).

***

This last weekend, one of my oldest and dearest friends came to visit me in Atlanta. We walked miles, giggled, drank wine, sat on my back porch, and talked for an entire day. A few days earlier, I had talked on the phone with a friend I’ve known since before I can remember. We caught up, we made plans, we said “I love you” when we hung up. Today, I spent at least an hour online chatting with Sarah T. about everything from writing to how delicious we both feel sun dried tomatoes and avocados are as a combination.

The thing is, these relationships are among many with amazing women that balance me, power me, and make me happy. With them, I worry less and I am more myself. And if all goes well, we feed off and power each other. Together we are never isolated because we are intertwined in a complex network that produces energy, the kind that could perhaps power a team of lady sleuths. These are not relationships to grow out of, but rather to grow into.

Bletchley Circle is among a select few series–Scandal, Miss Fisher’s Mysteries, Pretty Little Liars, Dance Academy, among some others–that champion women’s relationships with each other as important and valuable, complicated, and awesome. In these too, we get to see a variety of women as powerful, complex, and fantastic. So, here’s the bigger truth, as far as I can tell: we need a lot more narratives that reflect women in all our diversity and specificity, in our brilliance and complexity, and wherein our many perspectives occupy the center.

Related Reads:

PLL and the Power of Four

Quiet Times: Ladies, Friendship, and The Good Wife

The Wonderful Women of Friday Night Lights

Drawing Beauty: Limits and Surfaces in Dove’s Social Experiment

On Words & Sheroes,” from the amazing Janet Mock’s website

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  1. We could solve a mystery, I know it!
    Also, this show sounds like a dream come true.

  2. I love this show. So glad you wrote about it!

  3. Yay! I love it too, Sarah!! And, Melissa, is is literally my dream to solve a mystery all together!!

  4. Great essay! I just watched this show on Netflix last night and loved it. If you’re looking for more shows with female protagonists, I highly recommend Orphan Black on BBC America.

    • Thanks so much, B! And, I’m excited about Orphan Black … I’m definitely planning to check it out as so far I’ve heard amazing things about it!

  5. Phoebe B., after reading this piece re The Bletchley Circle and your other one about The Good Wife, I think we have similar TV tastes and opinions. You _must_ also watch Scott & Bailey – another British detective drama with strong female leads (the title character detectives). Complex stories and relationships: sisters, mother-daughter, friends, coworkers, police force hierarchy, family, spouses all explored at some point with grit. And of course the crimes — delving into the relationships of victims, perps etc.and shades of grey. Oh my. Their boss Jill – a role superbly acted IMO. Watch it!

    ~ LM of http://www.facebook.com/TheBletchleyCircleWatchers #TBCW

    • LM! Scott and Bailey sounds right up my alley and I’ve been in need of a new mystery to watch! I am just finishing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries–an Australian show set in the 1920s that is also awesome and features really fantastic female leads!! And, which I highly recommend, if you haven’t seen it.

      • Phoebe, Miss Fisher is on my list of things to watch. I have a feeling I’ll love it. Period mystery, 20s costumes, female leads — sounds made to measure. -LM

  6. I can’t wait to watch this now. xo

  7. […] Bletchley Circles liegen sie am Herzen. So ist die Serie eine weitere kleine, feine Ausnahme, die Frauen und ihre Freundinnenschaft in den Mittelpunkt […]

  8. […] True-er Detectives: “The Bletchley Circle,” Lady Sleuths, and Friendship […]

  9. […] True-er Detectives: ‘The Bletchley Circle,’ Lady Sleuths, and Friendship […]

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