The ‘gateway body’ and crime narratives: trafficking in white feminism

When reading Tanya Horeck’s Justice on Demand earlier this year, a reference to something called “the gateway body” caught my interest.

Horeck’s book, which I reviewed here, is a media-studies look at true crime in the current post-tv, serialized and digitally-networked era. One chapter in that book focuses on the way popular true crime series, like Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer, use the death of a woman as a hook to draw audiences in:

[T]hese binge-worthy true crime serials simultaneously deploy— and then elide— the dead female body in the service of stringing out their long-form narratives. I argue that the extended structure of these long-form serials, designed for binge-­ watching, make visible the problematic raced and gendered mechanics of the true crime format” (Horeck 33).

Horeck references the term “gateway body” to explain this as a cultural/narrative trope in the true crime genre. The term comes from a 2018 article by Barbara Klinger (another media studies scholar) about transnational crime dramas — that is, serialized crime dramas in the “post-network” (as in, network TV) era that are redistributed or re-made in different countries. Her primary examples are Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (The Crime/The Killing), New Zealand’s Top of the Lake, and UK’s Broadchurch. Klinger’s article discusses only fictional crime dramas, so Horeck’s recognition of the trope in true crime media is a helpful expansion of the critical term that reminds us that “true crime” is also constructed with narrative/cultural “tropes” — themes, narrative devices, or popular characterizations that are repeated.

Screenshot from 'Top of the Lake,' dir. Jane Campion. Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin from Sydney, specializing in sexual assault, investigates the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old in New Zealand, Tui.
Screenshot from ‘Top of the Lake,’ dir. Jane Campion. Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin from Sydney, specializing in sexual assault and children victims, investigates the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old in New Zealand, Tui. Robin is herself a victim of rape at age 15 and the two cases of sexual violence and trafficking of minors entwine.

Klinger’s analysis looks at how a media narrative style like seriality — something which seems structural rather than cultural — is actually reliant on “embedded familiarities” that contain and transport cultural tropes across global entertainment channels like Netflix and YouTube (Tomlinson qtd. in Klinger 517). In the case of crime dramas, that cultural mobility often seems to come from the “white female victim” (WFV):

“Transnational crime programs shoulder the additional burden of being fascinating to audiences with potentially little knowledge of the source culture. As a crime genre fixture, the lost, raped, and/or murdered WFV at the code’s center serves as a common language. … She is the gateway body that invites audiences into the opening season—the ‘first girl’ to Carol Clover’s (1992) ‘final girl.’” (Klinger 521-22)

While there has been much written on the intersection of whiteness, womanhood, and victimhood in popular U.S. media (and I think the “Karen” phenomenon in popular discourse condenses this idea), Klinger’s article exposes this trope’s functionality for the specific cultural medium of transnational crime drama.

The term “gateway body” begs the question: gateway to what?

Of course, in Klinger’s analysis and in Horeck’s usage, the destination seems to be binge-watching itself or long-term engagement with a particular drama series. So we could think of the use of “gateway” here as the same way the phrase “gateway drug” refers to enticements that lead to ever more addictive and dangerous substance use. Media producers and platform CEOs want to encourage not just one-time viewership but repeat or hooked viewers.

Klinger also considers this figure as useful for generating variations that can communicate familiarity while also introducing variance or innovation:

“Because genres reinvent conventions to attract audiences, female trauma is a mode of program differentiation, resulting in a repeated re-aestheticizing of bodies that often confirms the norm. The gateway figure is, then, truly a workhorse for crime TV in transnational distribution, functioning serially as apparatus of capture, structure of the hermeneutic code, axis of multiple affects and genres, and site of interplay between convention and invention” (530).

But another dimension of this idea, which Klinger also touches on, is that the “gateway body” transports cultural codes about womanhood and whiteness — she refers to “contested white femininities as an intimate dimension of traveling televisual language” (531). Here Klinger is referring to the tension between “WFV” and “female detectives” which pervade these circulating international crime dramas:

“The programs recycle second-wave feminist concerns, their narratives focusing on gendered struggles of the most fundamental kind as central to the worlds they circulate. That they do so in the context of race preserves the association of feminism and whiteness in the media equivalent of amber” (531).

In other words, the transnational trope traffics in the fossils of white feminism.

I want to push on this aspect a bit more, and I can draw on my own research into literary tropes about white womanhood at the beginning of the twentieth century.

As I’ve written about before, my dissertation research led me to some interesting tropes in media and public discourse circulating in the first half of the 20th century, which I refer to as companion tropes of “Trafficked Women” and “Surplus Women.” These images or representations of women construct specific ideas about femininity that rely on other social status categories such as race and class, and that, at the same time, convey social values about the relationship of gender to agency, citizenship, and crime.

That’s a lot of information wrapped up in these figures! And that’s what made these tropes so portable: they conveyed a lot of information, and they tapped into emotions, values, and desires of audiences.

A “Surplus Woman” referred to white (middle-class) women in metropolitan areas who, because of a population shift after wars and waves of colonization or other kinds of movement by men for the purposes of labor, outnumbered suitable white men for marriage and procreation. Newspaper editorials, magazine articles, social comics, and other types of popular media debated the fate of so-called Surplus Women: what should society do with such women? What good are women without men or children to keep them inside a home? How can our nation make better use of these Surplus Women? Will we have enough white children to maintain the white race?

Clipping from 1921 NY newspaper with sensationalized title referencing the Surplus Women Problem in Europe following WWI
The Evening World (New York, N.Y.), 20 Oct. 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

The term thus tapped into the language of family values and patriotism and economic anxiety and racial anxiety that were particular to the concerns of British, American, and Canadian societies, especially between the two World Wars. This was an era in which cultural and political seismic shifts threatened the borders of nation states and of traditional class and gender roles. In creating this language about “surplus women” — the white woman who might lose value and become a burden on society — the culture could at the same time reinforce what society needed from a white woman: domestic and reproductive labor in the service of white supremacy.

The term “Trafficked Women,” on the other hand, was an evolution of the “White Slave Trade” trope that circulated in European and North American discourses. While narratives of the “White Slave Trade” had circulated as a cautionary tale for women since the nineteenth century, new attention to sex trafficking and prostitution in the first decades of the twentieth century was driven by multiple factors in Europe and North America. These factors—not wholly unrelated to the contexts that constructed Surplus Women—included the increased freedoms and mobility for middle-class women, as well as changes in the populations and visibility of not only women but also immigrants, displaced persons from the Great War and other conflicts, and, in the United States, African Americans moving from southern agricultural regions to northern, more populous, industrial regions during the Great Migration.

Foreignness, agency, and criminality are flexible concepts that find crystallization through racialized and gendered considerations of so-called Trafficked Women. In other words, a symbol or trope like “trafficked women” does work to shape cultural ideas about what “foreignness” or “criminality” are. A “trafficked woman” is someone who crosses borders, who is not aligned to a legitimate household (father or husband), and whose body might produce children outside of national and racial interests. Like the “surplus woman,” the trope of the “trafficked woman” works negatively to reinforce the ideals of legitimate white womanhood.

Like the rhetoric around “Surplus Women,” then, the racial imaginary of “Trafficked Women” carries with it a complex matrix of assumptions regarding sexuality, nationality, agency and legitimacy. The idea of Trafficked Women taps into fear about sexual transgression, but also fear about loss of control of women’s bodies and the reproduction that they can contribute to economic and political interests. And think about how portable the idea of “trafficked women” is — even today, the idea of sex trafficking triggers strong emotions and is used as a slogan for policing of immigrants, shaming and criminalizing sex workers, and even for raising money for various kinds of organizations or political figures.

I go into this detail about the Surplus and Trafficked Women because my point is really this: these two tropes from the first part of the 20th century transport one central idea that has to do with (colonial) patriarchy and white supremacy. Even though the emotional appeals or implications of these figures are varied, the effect is a cultural circulation of that one idea: white patriarchal control. And that idea is ultimately in the service of a European colonialism — a political and economic matrix of power — that began in the 15th century.

I think that Klinger’s “gateway body” trope works in a similar way to construct and distribute cultural information about gender, sexuality, and mobility in the service of political and economic interests.

Furthermore, I believe the trope that Barbara Klinger identifies in these “transnational crime dramas” of the current media era is in the service of the same overarching mission or original idea. Even with the nuances of race and gender and power roles in these dramas — the increasing presence of women detectives, for example, or non-white or non-men victims — the effect is a strengthening of the global reach of the original agenda or idea (i.e. European colonialism).

And it’s interesting to me that white feminism is at the center of all these tropes, from the beginning of the 20th century to the latest example of what Klinger describes. White feminism — and I think I’ve said versions of this before — has always really been in the service of white patriarchy when looked at from the scale of global colonialism.

A good example might be the Valhalla Murders, which I wrote about a bit already on this blog. The detectives in that series are a divorced mother and a gay man who is a product of the foster system in Iceland. These gender and sexuality identifications add some appeal and cultural currency to the 2019 “nordic noir” crime series.

Kata struggles to be a responsive mother while chasing down a serial killer and dealing with office politics at work; Arnar battles personal trauma awakened by the targets of the murders — men associated with a boys home that was closed down decades before — as well as by an estranged family member who draws him back into a toxic family and religious structure. They both make costly mistakes during the investigation to track down the killer. They are both revealed as vulnerable. And then, [spoiler alert], they overcome these problems to finally catch the killer after brutal physical fights that leave them in hospital. [/end spoiler alert]

Screenshot from 'Valhalla Murders' (Icelandic, 'Brot'). Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir as Kata and Björn Thors as Arnar.
Screenshot from ‘Valhalla Murders’ (Icelandic, ‘Brot’). Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir as Kata and Björn Thors as Arnar.

But besides the positive examples that these characters provide (Arnar reaches out to another young kid and shows how masculinity can also mean listening and nurturing, not just abuse or competition, and, by the way, that a queer man can also play the dark and mysterious detective role; Kata does her job well and succeeds physically and emotionally in situations that have destroyed other characters), the show also circulates “safe” messages for white patriarchy.

Kata’s femininity is still enshrined in her blondeness, her struggles to be a good mother and a good subordinate at work. Arnar’s masculinity is preserved in his taciturn and cis-masculine presence. In an early scene, before the show reveals his sexuality, he uses his physicality to intimidate a woman witness, pushing her back closer to a wall without ever touching her; and the woman clearly thinks that there is heteronormative tension between them that she might be able to use to manipulate the situation to her favor. But who is manipulating who?

There’s just enough in the series to attract and keep throngs of white women who are the top consumers of crime dramas on media platforms. The lead characters might be *just* edgy enough to make “Karens” feel empowered.

But the “gateway” opened by these transnational crime narratives is really a kind of enclosure. The tropes circulate images that retain the pathways of the first European colonizers (from European centers to the colonies, or from colonizer settlements out to the forming nations, and from the colonies back to the centers), especially when thinking of Klinger’s list of exemplary series in the transnational crime drama genre. And the currency on those colonial pathways is, yet again, white women demonstrating the way to be properly productive.

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