phryne fisher heroine

Two reasons why Phryne Fisher is a heroine I love so much

[Phryne playing tennis. The image will make more sense later in this post.]

I have been thinking more about Phryne Fisher and why I love her so much, and I have two more things I want to add (to my first post of why I love Phryne Fisher so much). Both concern what Phryne Fisher IS NOT – how she is something completely different to some old standard cultural patterns or models about femininity.

1) The female sexuality

One of the things that struck me first when I started to watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was Phryne’s free sexuality and enjoyment of the sensual, and how she is never ever punished for it. This is a wonderful part of the show. She is never punished for it – and further, she is never even defined by it. Sex is something Phryne has, with different men and at her own pleasure, but it doesn’t decide her character or limit who she is. This matters so much, and the consistency of this must be due to the female and very conscious producers and writers behind the show and the novels.

This means that in MFMM the sexuality is not a dark source for things evil and revolting, it is not something shameful that needs to be suppressed and hidden. It is not something that is first defined as a sin and then defined as inherent in woman. To get a feeling of that at times quite insistent view, Franz von Stuck’s painting “Die Sünde” (”The Sin”, 1893) can suffice as an exemplary image. 

[Image from Wikipedia: Franz von Stuck, “Die Sünde”.  Woman depicted as the sin, with a snake around her neck.]

This model I would interpret as follows: the woman is dark and tempting, the man succumbs. The woman is a kind of blank (albeit dark and tempting) page where the man can first inscribe his pleasures, his distate of his own pleasures and his double standards, then he can love the woman as she is defined by him, and when he has had enough he can see the temptations as an inherent part of her and loathe her while he himself can move on, clean and virtuous. The woman is the body, the flesh, that which symbolizes sexuality, sin, decay and mortality, and the man can put a distance towards this by renouncing the woman.

Ok, that was probably enough ranting about that, but it is an old cultural meme (so to speak) and it is something that is so very much not in question in Miss Fisher’s universe. MFMM has an extremely healthy rendering of sexuality, not allowing it to have any of those images and connotations, but at the same time without ever turning it into something boring or too proper. It is healthy AND hot.

In MFMM, the woman is not a passive blank page for a man to inscribe his ideas about sexuality and femininity. She is a vibrant, active, self-conscious person with her own thoughts and aspirations. Sexuality is a play, but the metaphor is competely turned upside down: Sexuality is not the man playing on the woman as on an instrument; it is not a woman playing a man to tempt him into something he does not want. Instead, it is two people engaging in a play as equal playing partners. Phryne is a witty flirt, not a dark temptress. When she presents herself as sexually available, it is as an invitation to this kind of play. It is like a serve in tennis, and if the other person doesn’t want to play, he just doesn’t return the ball – no harm is done, there is no shame or deprecation, just a tennis game that could have been fun but never was to be (see image above).

2) Luxuriating in the beautiful and the sensual

The comment above I have thought about for a while, the second struck me forcefully as I today went to the cinema and watched an opera from the Met, Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut" (some months ago I also saw Massenet’s version, “Manon”). Manon is a young girl, in her teens, who is sent off by her father to a convent. On the way there, she instead captures men with her beauty, and ends up eloping with one of them. She is young and immature and in love with beautiful things, and (a bit differently in the two versions) chooses a rich man she does not love in order to enjoy being celebrated and given expensive clothes and jewelry. Of course this is a tragedy, and she dies in the end. My point here is that she is presented as a foolish girl, and her love of beautiful things is her downfall. (Her foolishness then is seen as the cause, though for me as a modern viewer, the problem is rather that she is a girl that is seen as a possession, a beautiful toy to own; that she has never had any education in how she could be an independent person; and that her only way to have any possessions at all must go through a man. The opera is interesting, beautifully sung, and very well staged, and it allows more nuances to Manon than I give it credit for here, even though this is the central characterisation, and the opera is of course a child of its time.)

[Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais as Manon, promotional picture from the Met.]

Manon might, if one concentrates on her looks in the second act when she is at her height in Puccini’s version, resemble Phryne Fisher a little on the surface. A beautiful and self-assured woman, with beautiful clothes and admirers, living a leisurely life (here is one song on Youtube where you can see her beautiful clothes). Yet she is as far from Phryne Fisher as is possible to be. Manon is completely at the will of the men in her life. She has no power, no possibility to have ideas of her own. She has in a sense been sold by her brother to her lover. As soon as she doesn’t please the man, she has nothing, and even gets sent away into exile where she dies. Phryne Fisher has the same love of beauty and beautiful things and clothes in opulent materials, but nothing in her life is lived only on the surface, in nothing is she dependent on a man, and never would she not follow her own ideas and ideals. This is wonderfully done, and the fact that she combines her own agency, intelligence, wealth, competence and humour with this part of the old female pattern of loving the sensual and beautiful I would say makes it thrice as wonderful: her competence and agency become more powerful and important because she also has some recognizable things in common with this older female pattern, but inverts everything that would speak of passivity, compliance, or loss of control.

I think this is also an important part of why I love the fact that when Jack is giving Phryne presents in season 3 (a swallow brooch, a pin), it is things that have no pecuniary value whatsoever, they only have sentimental value and value in what they are saying and representing. This is to me the fulfilment of Phryne not being Manon.


[I hope the PirArt girls of Collingwood and all my other clever readers don’t think I messed up my art part too much in this post :-)]