by Professor Elizabeth Yardley, Saabirah Osman and Melindy Brown, Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University
The proverb “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is adapted from a play called The Mourning Bride by William Congreve who wrote in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Despite the several hundred years that have passed since these words were penned, women’s behaviour in the aftermath of relationship breakdown is still vigorously discussed and debated in popular culture.
As criminologists teaching undergraduate and postgraduate criminology courses here at Birmingham City University, we’ve seen how gender can be a hot topic in the classroom too. We spend our time exploring social and cultural expectations about who women and men are, how they are expected to behave and how this has an impact upon their experiences of crime and the criminal justice system. As such, we have been watching the second series of the BBC drama Doctor Foster with interest.
The first series revolved around Dr Gemma Foster discovering and exposing her husband Simon’s infidelity. It ended with Simon and his new partner Kate, who was heavily pregnant with his child, leaving for a new start in London while Gemma remained in Parminster with her teenage son Tom, following a rollercoaster ride of betrayal, revenge, humiliation and violence.
Two years on, series two picks up with Simon and Kate returning to Parminster, now married and with a young daughter, Amelie. Gemma and Simon collide again. Simon says in the first episode, “The only way I’m leaving here is in a coffin”. Gemma responds, “That’s good to know”. The battle lines are drawn. The series finale airs tonight (3rd October) and we’re certain that however it concludes, two criminological concepts will continue to take centre stage – victimhood and vengeance.
So far, the series has raised some interesting questions about victimhood. Who is the victim in this series? What does a victim ‘look like’? Can you be both victim and aggressor? In the first episode, Gemma reminds Simon that she was the victim not only of his infidelity but also of his violence. At the end of the first series, he attacked her in their home, leaving her lying unconscious on the floor. Simon now has a criminal record and served a community sentence for this offence.
In his response to Gemma, he tried to claim the victim status for himself and used the old adage that she ‘drove him to it’ having led him to believe she had killed their son and as such, ‘deserved’ it. This was the first sign that Simon had neither accepted responsibility for his violence nor addressed the traits and behaviours that fuelled it. He hadn’t changed and it would only be a matter of time before things got nasty again.
What followed in this series was a victimhood tug of war. Gemma and Simon stubbornly clung onto their ownership of the victim status, oblivious to the other victims they created through their battle with each other. Their son Tom was passed from pillar to post, a pawn in his parents’ game. Kate and Amelie were also in the crossfire as Kate struggled to reconcile Simon’s performance as a committed and loving husband with the evidence that Gemma presented to her about who he really was.
As expected, the concept of vengeance ran throughout this series as it did the last. When is enough, enough? Whose word is the final word? Will they ever be ‘even’? How is this going to end? For this we need to look at the outcomes each of them were trying to achieve.
Simon wanted to erase Gemma from his life, to airbrush her from the picture of domesticity he was trying to create with Kate, Amelie and Tom. Gemma didn’t want Simon to return to Parminster. When he came back she wanted him to leave the town where she had made a life for herself. Simon’s vision of a future back in the place where he grew up would never materialise after Gemma revealed his continued cheating and lying. His lifestyle was bankrolled by Kate’s parents, who were none too pleased to discover Simon was the leopard who hadn’t changed his spots.
But even though his picture of domestic bliss is now shattered, Simon shows no signs of wanting to go anywhere so what Gemma was trying to achieve also appears to be off the table. Simon is standing his ground, as is Gemma. Both are territorial – this is their town, where the other has no right to be. This is not a crime drama about love and hate, it’s one about ownership and possession, power and control. Each are essentially saying to the other, “What’s mine can never be yours”.
Simon has been exposed as a man without his own identity, a parasite, living vicariously through the women in his life, never standing on his own two feet. Kate and Gemma served a purpose for Simon, they enabled him to perform the role of the well-heeled middle-class businessman. Now both are gone, Simon has little left to lose. Gemma has also been exposed as someone obsessed with what Simon has ‘done’ to her in taking away the life and identity that she had so much invested in.
Doctor Foster follows hot on the heels of other recent BBC crime dramas like Paula, Apple Tree Yard and Trust Me, in which the female protagonist is presented as unable and unwilling to cope with circumstances she has had a hand in creating. Simon’s violence at the end of series one was unjustifiable and we are not apologists for his abuse. What Doctor Foster does reveal, though, is that physical violence is one among many elements of abuse. Abuse is also about coercion and control, psychological warfare and emotional manipulation. Gemma and Simon are each other’s victims and each other’s abusers, these roles in a constant state of flux, flipping back and forth in this disturbing power play.
Given all this, the outcomes have changed. Neither Gemma nor Simon are able to achieve what they each set out to achieve. Along the way, both have realised that they enjoy hurting each other. They like having control, they get off on pushing the others’ buttons, lobbing a grenade and standing back to revel in the carnage. Causing the other person harm and making them suffer has become the new outcome for both of them. The sadism in this relationship is a two-way street.
In real life, the lethal stage in abusive relationships is often preceded by ‘changing the project’ (Dobash and Dobash, 2015) where one person shifts the way in which they control the other. Rather than keeping the abusive relationship going, control is achieved by destroying their partner or ex for good by killing them. This is commonly discussed in the context of men’s abuse towards women but this series has actively acknowledged women’s capacity for harming others too. There are also rare cases in which a parent takes their own life and that of their child to make the other parent suffer, the ‘self-righteous’ familicide perpetrator (Yardley, Wilson and Lynes, 2014).
All of the warning signs are there in Doctor Foster. No one else in the series shows any signs of intervening with Gemma and Simon. The abusive behaviour is escalating, both Gemma and Simon are continuing to get pleasure from hurting the other and the ending is all too predictable. If the street scripts the screen, this series will end with someone being killed. As to who will survive – Gemma, Simon, Tom – this remains to be seen.
Doctor Foster series two concludes on BBC1 at 9pm on Tuesday 3rd October
Elizabeth, Melindy and Saabirah will be discussing ‘Doctor Foster’ on this week’s Crime Bites podcast, which will be available from Saturday 7th October on iTunes and Stitcher
Dobash, RE and Dobash, RP (2015) When men murder women, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Yardley, E, Wilson, D, and Lynes, A (2014) ‘A taxonomy of male British family annihilators’, 1980–2012, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 53(2): 117-140