Netflix’s “The Ripper” and Joan Smith’s ‘Gender-Critical’ Influence

When I set out to write about the new “Yorkshire Ripper” documentary series, I didn’t expect to end up writing about TERFs. And yet, here we are.

Netflix released The Ripper at the end of 2020, a limited true crime docu-series about the so-called “Yorkshire Ripper” who terrorized the West Yorkshire community, committing at least 13 murders and leaving several others brutally assaulted. Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer, was active between 1975-1980 and was even questioned and released by the police at least 9 times during the frantic, five-year investigation before a routine traffic stop finally led to his arrest and conviction of the “Ripper” assaults in 1981.

The “manhunt” for the Yorkshire Ripper was the largest ever for U.K. police, and it was the first investigation which made heavy use of media and technology to flood the public with information and encourage community participation in providing information to the police about the identity or whereabouts of the serial killer.

The reason Sutcliffe was dubbed the Yorkshire “ripper” is that his victims were women. At first, police assumed his victims were sex workers — this assumption was based not so much on evidence as on social expectations about when and where a woman “should” be in public places, like a street, or a park, alone, and after dark. With the assumed target being sex workers — a theory that police investigators not only formed for their own investigation but explicitly circulated to media through interviews — the media sensationalism quickly aligned the 1970s serial killer with the infamous and unsolved late-19th century Jack the Ripper case.

The new docu-series was released in December, 2020, just after Peter Sutcliffe died of COVID-19 while still in jail in November. It is directed by Ellena Wood and Jesse Vile and frames the Yorkshire Ripper case in terms of a cultural-historical perspective of gender roles, policing, and media sensationalism specific to late 1970s working-class England. In a short promo-video for the series, the directors explain that they were more interested in telling this cultural story and situating the case — with its failures and frustrations for the community — in a specific political and cultural moment, rather than dwelling on the killer himself.

Yorkshire RIpper - screenshot director promo
Title screen from the short promotional video from the directors of Netflix’s ‘The Ripper.’

Writing for Vox this month, Aja Romana describes appreciation for the series’s refreshing perspective:

“It’s an approach I hope more true crime documentaries consider, not only because it makes for better, more informative entertainment, but because it can arguably make for better, more informed detectives. The Ripper soundly argues that removing sexist hurdles from police investigations improves their odds of ending with a successful solve. That having a police force committed to believing and respecting women makes them less likely to chase their own tails and more likely to catch criminals. In the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, it was a hard-won lesson — one still in need of revisiting.”

Romana also points out that, despite recent criticism in British press, the series does not fetishize the killer or the crimes themselves, as many true crime retellings do:

The Ripper has been criticized in the British media for glamorizing and glorifying Sutcliffe. The victims’ families called out Netflix in particular for renaming the series from its less salacious working title of Once Upon a Time in Yorkshire. Salon argued that it reduces Sutcliffe’s victims to their alleged sex work. But having watched it, I strongly disagree with that assessment. Throughout the four episodes, the focus returns again and again to Sutcliffe’s victims and to the women of Britain who were impacted both by the culture of fear his crimes established, and by the blatant sexism of the criminal investigation and the public’s reaction to it.”

I agree with Romano’s analysis and descriptions — Romano points out, for example, that

“Sutcliffe himself gets downgraded in significance. When we first see him, it’s at the moment he enters the courthouse after his arrest. Police have bundled him into a bulky overcoat that completely covers his head, as hundreds of members of the public shout at him in outrage. So that’s how we meet him: with a bag over his head. As Whitehouse puts it, “He was a very insignificant man.””

But something Romano doesn’t bring up in this short piece is a potential influence on the series’ narrative, particularly its “gender critical” stance, from journalist Joan Smith. Smith is interviewed in the docu-series and plays an important role in constructing the series’ narrative in Episode 3, “Reclaim the Night,” which explicitly re-frames the problems of the investigation in terms of the “misogyny” at the root of both the killer’s motives and the police’s inability to solve the case.

Smith is not the only interviewee who points out the different experiences and theories of the case as being influenced by gender dynamics. From the first episode, journalist Christa Ackroyd, who was a young reporter at the Halifax Courier at the start of the Ripper case, offers an important perspective to the series’ narrative. But for this post, I want to focus on Smith’s contribution to the series, and the cultural framing Smith offered for this case, beginning with her reporting in the late 1970s, and particularly her 1989 non-fiction book, Misogynies, which takes the Yorkshire Ripper case as its jumping off point.

Smith was a new radio journalist in Manchester just as the Yorkshire Ripper case was getting traction in the media. In the series she describes being aware of the trap she was in as a woman trying to report on the Yorkshire Ripper case while also being a potential victim of the serial killer because reporting meant being out, on her own, at night. Her point is that any woman had to re-see herself as a target; that by simply being in public by herself, a woman was synonymous with “potential victim.”

She writes about this in her 1989 book:

“I was constantly aware of my dual role of reporter and potential victim; by day I reported the latest developments in the story, by night I could not sleep when I returned to the Manchester suburb where I lived alone. One of the early victims had died in her own home, and my professional status was no protection; I already doubted the police’s strongly held conviction that the murderer’s prime target was prostitutes. Why I felt this I cannot really say, other than that it seemed too glib, too ‘psychological’ an explanation. What I was struck by, I suppose, was the fact that these were crimes directed against women.” (14)

Other interviews in this episode expand on this issue. Most notably, Mo Lea, one of the few survivors of a violent attack by the Ripper, offers an important perspective. Lea was in Leeds pursuing a degree in Fine Arts at the end of the 1970s, and she represents those who felt strongly that her behavior should not be restricted due to the Ripper’s crimes and the police force’s inability to bring an end to them. Lea came from a working-class Liverpool family, and she had been accepted to Leeds Polytechnic, her second choice school. She’d been in Leeds for a little over 2 years when she was attacked by someone who was likely Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, on a dark stretch of a street. She got a good look at him — slim, about her height, dark hair, thick eyebrows, and olive skin. Wearing jeans and a puffy bomber-style jacket. Yorkshire accent (not a Geordie accent, as the Ripper squad had been convinced by false letters and audio tapes mailed to the police that the serial killer was not local to Yorkshire.) But, as she says in her new memoir, the police never bothered to take her witness statement or get her description documented for the Ripper case.

She explains in her interview for the Netflix docu-series that at her age at that time, 20-going-on-21 in 1980, she (and all the other women near to her in age) had just spent so much time and effort “learning how to go out” by herself that she wasn’t then going to go backwards and be afraid to be on her own. Why shouldn’t she be able to go out in public on her own to pursue basic things, like an education, or a beer?

She was out with friends in advance of her 21st birthday in October of 1980 when she experienced her attack. Having broken off from her group of friends so that she could cut across campus to catch her bus, she was attacked by someone with the same m.o. ascribed to the Ripper: a heavy blow to the back of her head with a hammer, followed by several stabbings with a screwdriver. Luckily, a couple walking nearby disrupted the attack, causing the assailant to run away. While in the hospital after her attack, she was told that her wounds resembled those of the Ripper’s victims. Her case was not officially charged to Peter Sutcliffe in the 1981 trial, but she and others assume Sutcliffe was her attacker. In the series, she explains that she decided she would rather “just put that behind” her than think of herself as associated with “prostitutes” — because she and everyone else in Yorkshire had been told that the Ripper was a “prostitute killer.”

This brings us back to the cultural framing of the Ripper case, then and now, and Joan Smith’s contribution to re-framing the case. After Smith moved to The Sunday Times in 1979, she and her colleagues eventually filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, through the United States, to access a 1978 internal police report of the Ripper case, which was not released to the public in England. Smith explains in the series that when she went through the police report, she saw that the detectives had used misogynist language and narrative tropes to characterize the case, particularly the victims. Smith says that she knew then that they could never solve this case because they were looking for an “imaginary” person.

Going through the report, Smith sees that the “prostitute killer” police theory was fabricated. It was a projection based on assumptions and prejudices.

Yorkshire Ripper - Joan Smith reads police report - criticizes prostitute theory
Screen shot from Netflix series showing Joan Smith, reading through the 1978 special police report of their Ripper investigation.
Yorkshire Ripper - snippet of police report - loose morals
Screen shot from the Netflix series. Close up of text from the 1978 special police report on the Ripper case. The text reads “She is of loose morals,” illustrating the police investigation’s moral judgement of victims.

Smith’s emphasis in this series, and elsewhere in her writing, is that misogynistic culture shaping society, particularly within the policing and judicial systems, contributes to (is even the source of) the harm done to women, even after their death. In her 1989 book, she writes:

“Peter Sutcliffe made me realize that I was wrong [about the changes I thought feminism had already brought to society]; that only a culture which nurtured and encouraged a deep-seated hatred of women could produce a mass killer of his type, and that when it did, it was hardly to be wondered at that its agents were unable to distinguish him from the mass of its products” (15).

There is something chilling that happens in Episode 2 of the Netflix series, “Between Now and Dawn,” that somewhat corroborates Smith’s critique of the institutional misogyny that seems, at least to her, uninterested in really solving the case of the “prostitute killer.”

In Episode 2, there is a sequence of appeals that were filmed, during the manhunt, of multiple experts on the case addressing the elusive Ripper directly. Clip after clip, we see “pillars” of society and experts on the case:  an investigator, psychological experts, and even a bishop, making personal appeals to the Ripper to stop and turn himself in. There is a sense that emerges from these clips that these men are perhaps sympathetic to the Ripper and are appealing to one of their own. In these appeals, there is reference to the victims as “prostitutes,” and the suggestion that perhaps these women were worthy of the treatment they are receiving from the Ripper. One appeal argues that the Ripper has “made his point,” but that he should stop because further distress to the community could result in sympathy for the prostitutes, god forbid!

Even if these appeals were calculated to appeal to the Ripper’s assumed delusional sense of morality and his social role, the effect of these clips is to justify and sympathize with that delusion.  And not only for the Ripper, if he happened to see the clips, but the whole community. What kind of message does this reinforce? That the Ripper is doing the right thing? That it is “prostitutes” that are the real scourge, but let’s leave it to the men in charge to deal with them?

Yorkshire Ripper - forensic psychologist - made your point
Screen image from the Netflix series. The expert addresses the Ripper directly, saying “you’ve made your point.”
Yorkshire Ripper - forensic psychologis - appeal to ripper
Screen image from the Netflix film. An expert makes an appeal to the Ripper.

In the foreword to her 2013 re-release of Misogynies, Joan Smith writes:

“I gradually realised I needed to do more than describe the shortcomings of the investigation. I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘conducive context’ in those days but I wanted to write about the assumptions which allowed someone like Sutcliffe to come into existence” (10).

And in the 1989 Introduction to the volume, she explains her own theory of the Sutcliffe case, and beyond:

“I inhabit a culture which is not simply sexist but occasionally lethal for women. Misogyny wears many guises, reveals itself in different forms which are dictated by class, wealth, education, race, religion, and other factors, but its chief characteristic is its pervasiveness. So powerful is it that society is organized along lines which sanction the separation of the sexes to an extraordinary degree. Nor is woman-hating found only in the male half of the human race. We are all exposed to the prevailing ideology of our culture, and some women learn early that they can prosper by aping the misogyny of men” (15).

Her book traces the ways media and justice systems (in the U.K. and the U.S., primarily) are shaped by misogynistic narratives and tropes, and it argues that women are thus always at the mercy of this warped, sometimes lethal, as she says, ideology. (I’ve remarked to myself that her book, which reviews various court cases and pop cultural scandals as well as popular “horror and slasher” films in terms of their treatment of women, seems like an earlier, British, version of Sady Doyle’s more recent Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers. While Doyle’s book is white-woman-centric, it is certainly not anti-feminist in the ways Smith’s book is, thankfully.)

And Misogynies does, briefly, touch on the intersections of say, race and gender, or class and gender, such as its look at the treatment of Anita Hill during the congressional hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States (1991). But as I read the book, I can’t help but feel wary of Smith’s analysis in many places, which seems to moralize women’s behavior — much like the Ripper Squad did — according to a narrow sense of what women “should” do with their bodies. For example, her chapter on Samantha Fox, a 1980’s model and pop singer from the East End of London whose public appearance once provoked a small riot, blurs into slut-shaming.

“It is Samantha Fox and her father/manager, the men who photograph her, and the newspapers that print her pictures, who espouse a fraudulently ‘liberated’ sexuality, extending an invitation which they have no intention of fulfilling. I hope the Cavan ‘cavemen’ got their money back.” (48)

Here she falls into the same old anti-woman trap of suggesting that Fox was “asking for it” by being sexy in front of men that she didn’t necessarily want to have sex with.  While Smith is critical of the police investigators during the Ripper case of suggesting that the Ripper’s victims might have deserved their brutal assaults, here she suggests that Fox deserves whatever fallout might come of the riot. (I wonder what Smith has said of Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan? I wonder if Smith and Donald Trump might have more in common than Smith would like to think?)

And her reference to the AIDS epidemic in this 1989 book is outright disastrous for all who may encounter it. She criticizes the thriller Fatal Attraction (1987) for portraying a single working woman as the deranged threat to the nuclear, middle-class, heteronormative family, but in doing so, she suggests that the “real threat” is actually gay men [CW: hate speech, homophobia]:

“Far from being a naturalistic film, Fatal Attraction has several metaphorical meanings, all of which tend to reinforce traditional values and justify the annihilation of the independent woman who is the product of a century of female struggle. At its crudest propaganda level, the film’s subject is the-nuclear-family-strikes-back; only the family unit, acting in concert, is able to counteract the destructive power of the single woman. At another, more figurative level, the film is about AIDS, and here is one of its larger dishonesties: the source of contagion, the carrier of the lethal virus to which Dan unthinkingly exposes his family, is located as a woman in spite of the fact that it was largely men who benefited from the relaxed morals of the 1960s which are implicitly under attack in the movie, and who passed on sexually transmitted diseases to their many sexual partners.” (63)

Again, Smith does the same thing she criticizes the Ripper Squad of: she targets a specific population based on her own cultural imagination about gender and sexuality. She paints gay men as the scourge of society, literally infecting and destroying society, just as the Ripper Squad or the press might have seen so-called “prostitutes” as the “real threat” to their Yorkshire beat.

I have to say, I had to stop reading the book when I got to this point. I’m glad I did not pay for the book with my money.

Joan Smith seems to have aligned herself with British TERF’s, an anti-feminist movement that promotes hate speech and abusive policies regarding queer, non-binary, and trans- rights. (Her Twitter account includes several TERF-friendly posts, including recent support for the Scottish National Party MP Joanna Cherry, who was at the center of a recent dust-up about social media remarks purportedly in favor of “free speech” but which were protecting explicitly antisemitic and transphobic statements; Cherry was recently stripped of her leadership position as a result of her participation in this public debate.) Smith also tends to be anti-sex-worker rights — arguing that all sex work is a form of sexual debasement and suggesting that women have no agency in this practice — which is another form of anti-feminism.

Smith’s critique of misogynistic culture initially helped to re-frame the victims of the Ripper case and expose many of the problems with investigative practices that rely on specific cultural prejudices — and as a result, many of the recent documentary accounts of the case, you’ll probably notice, use the word “misogyny” or “sexism” to contextualize the case, which was the biggest manhunt in U.K.’s police history.

And, to be honest, I really appreciated her reading of the police report on screen in the Netflix docu-series. This was before I began to look into Joan Smith’s career and other writing. In the film, Smith has an emotional response to the police description of Wilma McCann and her “untidy house” and her “neglected children.”  Smith points out that the woman being described sounds like a “vulnerable woman” who is “probably a single mother.” There is no evidence that she is a “prostitute,” as the report concludes.  But also, what if she is a sex worker? Should that make a difference in whether police attend to the murder? What do “morals” really have to do with the police investigation anyway?

Smith’s so-called “gender-critical” (a.k.a TERF, or anti-feminist) analysis of culture is, at best, limited, and it is literally limiting. In many cases, however, language and policies derived from this anti-feminist movement are also harmful to people, especially women and young people who hope to grow up to become women.

I think this presents another issue with crime discourse, especially when those infamous cases become a kind of cultural meter for a time and place and, often, a kind of social class in itself: who were the victims? What was the community that was affected the most? Often, the answers to these questions are as much a cultural product as the various media representations of the crime narrative. Does the fact of “The Ripper” produce the fact of “prostitute victims,” rather than the other way around?

Sometimes we really just can’t see any trees because someone has told us to stay out of the forest. (That twist of the metaphor works in my head, but apologies if it doesn’t work that well yet — maybe we can come up with something better. I welcome suggestions!)

Perhaps it might help to get a bit closer to one tree at a time, to sit with it.

Mo Lea recently published her own survival narrative, moving beyond the attack while describing the effect of it on her life:

Book cover for Mo Lea's Memoir
Book cover of Mo Lea’s new memoir, published by Pen and Sword True Crime in 2020. In Facing the Yorkshire Ripper: The Art of Survival, Lea recounts her attack, the downplaying of her attack by the police, and her long journey to recover and build a life through art.

And she’s also the subject of a short film by Roberto Duque. The film presents Lea’s own narrative about working through her traumatic experience through her art:

Yorkshire Ripper - Mo Lea - PTSD short film
Screen shot from the short film by Roberto Duque, ‘Facing Evil.’ Mo stands in front of her drawing. The drawing depicts a body laying on a pillow, the spectator point of view as from above; tubes and metal clamps come from the skeletal-looking head. The drawing is black and white except for a few splotches of red. The caption on the film reads: “This is what I wanted the perpetrator to feel like”.

Perhaps after watching the Netflix series, you can go read Lea’s memoir and watch this short film.

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