Not Forgiven But Forgotten: Top of the Lake (Season 2) – China Girl

The future is female, and so is crime television. 2017 became a game-changer with a previously unseen revolution of powerful and strong women fighting for their rights and openly denouncing the inequality and the violence – many times silenced – that has been historically embedded and tolerated in everyday life. Time’s Person of the Year for 2017 was a celebration of all the women who have spoken against this violence and who have taken the necessary steps to assure they get the justice they deserve. The Time’s Up initiative was made public days before the Golden Globes, where a relentless Natalie Portman openly denounced Hollywood’s inequality causing a stir and some laughs. As a consumer of American pop culture, it has been refreshing to see a sisterhood stand together for what it is right not only in real life and see their values translated into their works in film and television. The Handmaids Tale [HBO 2017], adapted from Margaret Atwood original novel, instigated public uproar as a thirty-year-old science fiction tale bore uncanny resemblances to Trump’s America. Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman’s Big Little Lies (HBO 2017) adapted from the book with the same title by Australian domestic noir writer Liane Moriarty, is earning the accolades and the critical and popular acclaim it deserves. But this is not the only show of the year that has dealt with life-changing issues that mainly affect women. Jane Campion’s second season of Top of the Lake (BBC2 2017) – with the running title China Girl –  has been overlooked in a year dominated by strong women and feminism despite posting some interesting and much-needed questions about motherhood, race, and politics begging another question: Why?

Jane Campion has been respected as a feminist filmmaker since The Piano (1993) opened the public’s eyes to a historical perspective of domestic and structural violence in an English and postcolonial context. But any savvy director will have noticed by now how television productions are stealing the show in the 21st century, and Campion has cleverly adapted her narratives to fit the production and consumption demanded by the silver screen. Top of the Lake season 1 (BBC Two, 2013) was a love letter to the moral and feminist values that had flooded Campion’s previous work, though the series finale left some women feeling uneasy as the main character embarked on a romantic relationship with the man who sexually assaulted her as a teen. For this second season, with more film and more time to develop her work, Campion picked up Robin’s story with due diligence and offered her target feminist audience a troubled and complex main character masterfully played by Elizabeth Moss, who by this time may as well crown herself queen of 2017 feminist television after her successful run in The Handmaids Tale. 

The first episode in Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017) sees Robin discovering that her future husband is the owner of a large marihuana plantation that he shares with a blonde, younger woman who is also his lover.Now wide awake to the reality of her relationship and embodying the feminist values Campion’s characters have been known for, Roby burns her wedding address surrounded by her family and friends as a celebration to the strong, feminist woman she is, and a rejection of everything that a traditional marriage would have meant for her. As a character, she realises she is beyond these images and these social norms and seems if anything, this second season has allowed her the freedom to be herself. Robin Griffin belongs to that acclaimed and respected lineage of noir detectives led by Chandler’s Marlow who find professional courage and strength in the complex misery of their reduced private lives. Following the hard-boiled trope, Robin realises she is better alone and throughout the series insists on her status a lone wolf, remaining single even after a few of her police colleagues approach her. Though certainly not the first, Robin is a rare bird in this lineage and the reversal of gender roles introduced by her political identity as a woman is challenging to say the least. While traditionally audiences could easily assimilate that intelligent and passion-driven male characters may reject traditional social conventions such as marriage and parenthood, their female counterparts had not been awarded the same liberties. That is until Campion made gave Robin the freedom, but also a dark and twisted past, to stand on her own. It is only during a night of alcohol and emotional strain that Robin succumbs to other passion rather than her crime solving, and she does so with the adoptive father of her daughter.

Top of the Lake: China Girl - Burning the Dress
Top of the Lake: China Girl – Burning the Dress

Campion’s challenge of traditional crime fiction tropes unapologetically colonises the crime narrative, which has traditionally been understood as a male story. ‘But why?’ She wonders in this second season as she explores the complexities of having women playing both the role of detectives and victims. Because, let’s be clear here: Campion keeps gendered roles in the crime story, but with purpose. It would be impossible to imagine a crime TV show produced by a feminist filmmaker without a female victim when the past years ended the systematic silencing crimes against women. Crime fiction has traditionally denounced the ills that plague our society, the deviant behaviour that challenges the status quo, and though women were often at the centre of it, they were passive and silent witnesses to their own fall. Fully aware of this reality, Campion introduces a female victim whose nickname will dominate this second season. ‘China Girl’ is a young woman of Asian ascendancy that is found inside a suitcase in Bondi Beach. Robin and her sidekick in training, Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), taker over the case without guessing there is more to China girl’s body than her murder and with the only purpose of giving this victim a voice and the justice she deserves.

Robin and Miranda
Robin and Miranda

The crime quickly becomes personal for both Robin and Miranda as part of this new wave of crime fiction that has placed women in the spotlight as victims and detectives. A quick study of crime television produced in the last three decades will show that main characters cannot exist outside the crime they are investigating. The likes of Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen with the television adaptations of their novels (Bones [Fox 2005 – 2017] and Rizzoli & Isles [TNT 2010 – 2016]) prove that crime personal and political for women. This strategy allows the audience to sympathise with the story and victim thanks to the closeness they experiment through the detective: This is personal for her, and so is for the audience. Robin’s connection to the title’s China girl is established through her teenage and estranged daughter Mary, who is dating the human trafficker in charge of bringing Asian girls to Australia. The traffic of these women is a contemporary crime in itself, but it also plays with Australia’s troubled and traumatic colonial past. Even though Australia has been long studied as a colony subjected to the City’s power, the Pacific became an area of exploitation for white Australian colonisers, and race and ethnicity defined the country’s relationship to other countries such as China establishing hierarchies subtly perpetuated nowadays. Hence, China Girl is not only a murder victim that represents violence against women in the 21st century but instead focuses on the historical inequalities that sustain white capitalism in postcolonial environments.

Living up to the high expectations set by the crime plot in the series’ first season, and keeping Campion’s moral compass always in sight, China Girl is a denouement of the crimes associated with motherhood. The series cleverly explore the pressure and the social expectations that white, middle-class mothers are subjected to – some of them leading to serious mental health problems – as well as the impact of this codification of motherhood for racialised bodies from so-called third-world countries. In the series, which explores the hierarchies and exploitation of other Pacific islands by the late colony, it is symbolical that the operation is controlled by a frustrated European domestic abuser who has brainwashed Robin’s daughter to believe a wicked pseudo-feminist and liberal discourse in which women’s labour is tied to their bodies as a form of rebellion. Aware of the weight on her shoulders when she chose to deal with these issues, Campion is not shy in the representation of reproductive slaves and shows the dim conditions in which they survive as prostitutes until their pregnancies are visible to their clients. Only a few times has motherhood and reproductive slavery been portrayed in crime fiction, and even then, the stories focused on white women’s problems, ignoring that feminism must be intersectional and inclusive. China Girl faces these issues upfront and though it does not reject white women’s feminism – including the sexual awakening by Nicole Kidman’s character as a lesbian after almost twenty years of marriage to her husband – it forces us to admit that there are many battles still to be fought.

Nicole Kidman in Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017)
Nicole Kidman in Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017)(C) See Saw Productions Australia – Photographer: Sally Bongers

Despite its feminist core and a spotless production led by respected and Hollywood celebrated feminist actresses such as Moss and Kidman, Top of the Lake: China Girl has been very much overlooked in 2017 both from the audience and the critics alike. The show had to share the spotlight with an array of American mainstream feminist television productions, but considering Campion’s strength as a film-maker, the show’s invisibility is hard to understand. Seeing the strategic move of Big Little Lies from the novel original’s Australian context to California’s Monterey it is only logical to wonder if feminist crime television show is perpetuating traditional imperialistic relations, with the US at the centre of it. Because despite the revolutionary climate we are living in with the Time’s Up Initiative, Campion is a veteran, working hard to portray the difficulties of being a woman in the 20th century, and much to her faithful audience’s dismay, they were the only ones talking about Top of the Lakes second season. China Girl deserves much more attention, both as a crime and as a feminist television show if only for its ability to cleverly navigate crime fiction conventions and feminist denouncements at the same time. Few things have been more urgent in these past years than the fight for women’s rights – especially reproductive rights – and even more so, those of non-white women whose racialised bodies carry the weight of centuries of pro-slavery and racist discourses which are, sadly, making a comeback in 2018.

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4 thoughts on “Not Forgiven But Forgotten: Top of the Lake (Season 2) – China Girl

    1. I hope you like it. And please, please, keep me posted. It was such a complex season that I’m still trying to figure out some things!

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