‘Mindhunter’ is a critique of misogyny — but it still sidelines women in favor of men
A few episodes into Netflix’s Mindhunter, the streaming service’s prestige crime drama about FBI agents investigating serial killers in the late 1970s, we’re introduced to Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychology professor. She’s approached by two agents — our main characters, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) — who are trying to innovate how law enforcement thinks about and characterizes serial killers. They’re using psychology to better understand criminals, and they’d like her perspective to make sure there’s some validity to their work.
Carr, who is writing a book on white-collar “psychopaths,” is convinced to leave her academic gig in Boston to join Ford and Tench, who are interested in utilizing her research as part of their new criminal profiling unit in Virginia. She moves down the coast, away from the woman she loves, to live in a lonely apartment complex while working to understand why men kill women — in an office filled almost exclusively with men.
In the basement of Carr’s apartment complex are the laundry machines, and one night, laundry basket in hand, she heads down into the dark, secluded room, wearing nothing but a dress shirt. While in that creepy space, she hears what seems to be a cat meowing outside a nearby window.
The sequence is tense, largely because of its muted, shadowy look (this is, after all, a David Fincher production) and the fact that in a typical show about men who kill women, Carr would probably be attacked at the end of such a scene. She isn’t — she gets out of there just fine. What really makes this scene stand out, though, is its emphasis on Carr’s vulnerability.
It’s a rare occasion when Mindhunter — which has drawn plenty of rave reviews for its critique of misogyny — completely adopts the perspective of a woman living among men. (Though even then, the fact that she goes into the laundry room pants-less might be a sign that she is being watched, and directed, by men.)
Vulture has dubbed Mindhunter “the perfect crime procedural for this #MeToo moment,” and praised it for providing “a window into the rot at the heart of the white American male.” They’re far from the only outlet to champion the series. At a time when men’s abuse and hatred of women is being exposed everywhere from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., Mindhunter carefully and compellingly portrays Ford, a white man, being slowly infected by misogyny. When the series begins, Ford is “feminine... open-hearted and sincere,” as the Baffler noted, but by the end, he is brought down by his fascination with playing the part of a “real man.”
Yet, despite breaking from the path of many serial killer dramas in some respects — the welcome indictment of angry, hateful men; the fact that the violence against women is discussed, not depicted — the show doesn’t entirely veer away from the trappings of more traditional crime stories.
Like agents Ford and Tench themselves, Mindhunter is still more interested in the perspectives of men who hurt women, and less interested in the perspectives of the women they hurt. Throughout the season, Ford and Tench are traveling across the country to teach various police precincts about FBI methods; but while they’re moving through America, they’re also taking the time to interview imprisoned serial killers and get a sense of what makes them tick.
So we hear a lot of reasoning and explanation for why violence is committed against women, but women don’t get very much screen time. We do delve into Carr’s personal life, but she’s one of only two women — along with Holden’s girlfriend, Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross) — in the main cast, and is decidedly a supporting player in a story that’s ostensibly about the treatment of women in America.
Whenever local cops trying to solve a case seek input from Ford and Tench, we’re told the horrifying details and see flashes of photos from the scene. On the one hand, it’s refreshing for a crime show to not glamorize or immortalize violence by actually showing us the act; on the other, the show is so clinical in approach that we end up with a lot of men trying to get inside the heads of other men, without much in the way of empathy for the women who’ve been assaulted or murdered.
Even if the show’s writers didn’t want to hand over a ton of screen time to the victims themselves, and wanted to keep it focused on the agents, it would’ve been possible to filter the series through Carr’s perspective more often. How might a Mindhunter centered on a woman’s viewpoint differ from the show we got?
How might a ‘Mindhunter’ centered on a woman’s viewpoint differ from the show we got?
It’s not too far-fetched to imagine a version of this show where Carr is more of a focal point. Women were deeply involved in the real-life psychological profiling work that’s at the heart of Mindhunter.
The series is inspired by a book (1995’s Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit) co-written by former FBI agent John Douglas, who is the model for Ford. Yet as the Pacific Standard noted in an interview with Ann Wolbert Burgess, the forensic nurse upon whom Carr is loosely based, the FBI’s behavioral science outfit wasn’t just two male agents working on the sidelines, bucking authority; the unit consisted of “at least 10 people,” including Burgess, and was a collaborative workplace.
Speaking to Pacific Standard, Burgess described how it was her research into rape and sexual abuse that helped the FBI begin to take an interest in the psychology of killers.
“They invited me down to talk ... because I had published on rape victims by then,” she said. “The agents began to talk about the kinds of cases they were seeing. I said, ‘You should really think about doing some research with it, because this is important information to get out to the field.’ So that’s really how it started.”
But instead of putting more emphasis on, say, the psychological effects of Carr working to unpack why men hate women so much — all while surrounded by men — Mindhunter focuses on the troubled men within the FBI and in prison.
The show examines the ways in which men are socialized to dominate others, but we also see the agents intentionally indulge in openly anti-women behaviors (often under the pretense of “manipulating” killers to reveal their secrets, but still finding some pleasure in it). Much of the drama comes from watching them descend into danger as a result, culminating with Ford’s harrowing encounter with Ed Kemper, a killer he builds a friendship with over the course of season one.
The most dramatic shot of the finale shows Holden crashing to the floor of a hospital after his unnerving visit with Kemper, when a female nurse comes to his aid. He’s finally feeling the weight of his arrogance, and beginning to understand the consequences of his narcissism. But in truth, as in so many male-centered crime series before it, certain consequences are left obscured. His choice to adopt misogyny as a tactic for understanding serial killers might isolate him, but it does not necessarily make it clear to him or the audience what the long-term effects of such behavior are on women in his personal life, like Mitford, or Carr, who has to work with him every day.
Even the season’s final scene underlines how the show’s more interested in what it takes to kill than what it’s like to be a target. Throughout a chunk of Mindhunter’s 10 episodes, we repeatedly check in with an unnamed, nefarious-looking man (apparently Dennis Rader, aka the BTK Killer) who’s separate from the story’s main narrative. At the close of the season finale, we end with a shot of this man, who appears to be on a path toward committing violence, burning paper. Instead of emphasizing the people who are most vulnerable in the world of the show, the season’s last moments once again highlight the mysterious ways of the dangerous men who dominate it.