Bad Girls Takes on Law and Order
by Jennifer T.

It seems almost too obvious to point out that Bad Girls, a show about prison, offers a message about the treatment of criminals and crime in our society.  The show makes certain things quite clear: prison is a very bad place that helps almost no one; the criminal justice system is often unfair; women in particular suffer both through their mistreatment in the courts and during their time in prison.  This last point is more complex, especially the issue of how women are treated by the judicial system.  The show offers a unique take on both court cases and criminal investigations.  Bad Girls depicts women at special disadvantage in a system which is dominated by men, and which is invested in protecting the power of male-dominated society. It's a system which has little interest in understanding the complex reasons women resort to extra-legal solutions, particularly when those reasons reflect women resisting and threatening male authority and power.  The show also suggests that the dominance of the judicial system is reinforced by traditional representations of crime and criminals on television shows about these subjects.  It does so by depicting an alternative mode of justice, embodied both in the stories told on the show, and the manner in which those stories are told.

For a television program about prison, Bad Girls includes very few court cases among the stories it tells.  Matters juridical are often featured as backstory (new prisoners arrive straight from being convicted in court, longstanding prisoners go out to their appeals or other trials), but very few are actually depicted onscreen.  In all eight seasons, Bad Girls dramatizes only three cases argued inside the courtroom. [1]  Of the three, justice prevails only once: Nikki's appeal. In the other two instances, Yvonne testifying against Charlie in his drug trial in season 3 and the Julies being convicted of Grievous Bodily Harm in season 4, a severe miscarriage of justice occurs. Taken together, all three offer a statement on gender and power.

In all three cases, women have attacked men in response to a moral or physical transgression on the part of the man in question. Nikki attacks Gossard, a bent cop, for attempting to rape her partner, Trish. Yvonne testifies against her husband, Charlie, because he has betrayed her by having an affair with Renee (and was therefore the reason she wound up in prison, having contracted a hit on Renee's husband at Charlie's request).  The Julies attack the pimp who has seduced Julie Johnston's daughter, Rhiannon, into prostitution. Together, these three cases encompass the three major variations on sexual crimes against women (rape, adultery/marital betrayal, forced prostitution).

Why does Nikki's appeal have a different outcome from that of the other two cases[2]?  In Nikki's case the male side (Gossard) has no voice. In fact, the prosecutor explicitly introduces this idea when he reminds the court "We cannot ask the man in question, DC Gossard, to defend himself can we?  Because that man is dead." Instead, Nikki is surrounded by women supporting and reinforcing her:[3]  She has a female barrister.  Sally Ann Howe, Gossard's previous rape victim, provides testimony.  Trish, her ex-girlfriend, cheers her on from the gallery.  Claire, her solicitor, rushes over to congratulate her immediately after the verdict.[4]  And Helen, although off-screen, has sacrificed her career in an attempt to protect the success of Nikki's appeal.

In contrast, Yvonne and the Julies have little support and have to face the active and vocal efforts of their male adversaries.  When Rhiannon's pimp testifies against the Julies for pouring boiling water on his lap, the focus of his testimony is that his manhood has been damaged; he can no longer perform sexually. The excessive sentence the Julies receive is both a miscarriage of justice, and a direct punishment for their attempt to castrate the pimp, to deprive him of the source/foundation/essence of his power.  Similarly, Yvonne falls victim when she attempts to undermine male power, although unlike the Julies and Nikki, she mistakenly thinks she can do so within the structure of the courtroom itself.  But Charlie has outmaneuvered Yvonne.  He sits in the courtroom and witnesses her betrayal of him, but has already bribed at least one juror, and has no qualms about lying his way through his testimony in order to reassert his control and authority.  Yvonne recognizes his seemingly unconquerable power when, outside the courtroom, she thinks for a moment that he has hired a hit on her in revenge: when the hit man shouts "Atkins!" Yvonne turns in fright before Charlie himself is shot.  Yvonne comes out ahead in the end only because, like Nikki, she has the support of a woman, her daughter Lauren, who ensures that justice (although not the official sort) is served.

These three cases reveal that the courts do not look kindly on women who try to wrench male power away, even when that power is abusive, illegal or both. Women's voices are only heard when there is no male voice to be heard. Ultimately, all these women are being condemned for the same thing: rage against their male oppressors.

One could argue that there is a fourth court case depicted onscreen in Bad Girls.  In season 7, when Pat Kerrigan arrives on G-Wing, she initiates an improvised court trial against the nun who abused her when she was a child. Pat doesn't want to kill Sister Thomas; she wants to condemn and convict her.[5]  To create this "court room" Pat insists that she have an audience (a jury) to hear the case, objecting immediately when the officers try to deprive her of this by putting everyone on lockdown in their cells.  She presents her own testimony (which is not generally believed by the jury—not surprising, given the way all courtrooms, official or not, regard female testimony with skepticism), and then evidence from her friend's journal, a piece of physical evidence which has much more credibility with this "jury" of prisoners and peers.  Pat then cross-examines the defendant, and when she calls for an additional "witness" (a priest who participated in the abuse), Grayling (the judge) actually insists that this witness be found and brought to Larkhall to participate in the "trial."[6]

It's significant that Pat wins her case, because unlike in the official courtrooms, which represent miscarriages of justice, in this improvised courtroom, her voice is actually heard. Her ability to tell her side (unlike the Julies, Yvonne, even Nikki—who we never hear testify) means that justice prevails and the nun and priest who abused her and her friend are punished. It's also significant that the "trial" takes place in the private realm, the prison, not in the public realm, the official judicial system.  But even in this private sphere, Pat is forced to use violence and intimidation to make sure she is heard over her abuser, providing another example of violence sometimes being the only avenue available to women in this patriarchal society.

Pat's "trial" puts forth the idea that informal justice is more effective and potentially more fair than the externally imposed and enforced justice of the official legal system.  There are other storylines in which prisoners take it upon themselves to essentially act as judge and jury as well as "executioner." The Julies take on Rhiannon's pimp in season 4, someone who never would have been punished by the actual court system. And then, of course, they also inflict a very just punishment against Fenner in season 7. But not on a whim: they weigh the testimony from Di, from Kris, as well as their own observations, and they decide Fenner was guilty of murdering Yvonne. They didn't kill him for any of his other immoral and abusive behavior; they punished him specifically for this one offense.  Similarly, in season 8 Pat observes Natalie using a child as a drug mule, and based on this evidence, as well as Natalie's earlier admittance of running a child prostitution ring, Pat determines that Natalie deserves to be punished.  She carries out the punishment she thinks is just: death.

But this informal justice has its problems as well.  It depends on the judgment of the individuals, and while some have good judgment (Yvonne, Nikki, Pat, the Julies sometimes), others show poor judgment (Denny, Shaz, the Julies sometimes). And motivations matter more than anything. Some people are looking out for the good of the community (Nikki, Yvonne, the Julies, Pat) while others are looking out for themselves (Shell, Natalie even more so).  When the Julies and others start crank-calling Barbara's stepchildren in season 3 (the stepchildren are using the courts to try to get their deceased father's money back from Barbara), we cringe at prisoner-driven "justice" running amok in a very destructive way, all due to very poor judgment on the part of the Julies.

No matter the shortcomings of informal justice, it's still more effective than the official channels open to women.  By demonstrating the way justice is often not served, and by refusing to valorize the judicial system (both by not highlighting its function, and by only showing its overwhelmingly negative effects), Bad Girls offers an alternative, almost reverse narrative, to the stories we usually see on television. Cop shows and law shows have been popular for decades. The common narrative strategy on all those shows is that once the criminal is arrested and/or convicted, the story is over. These programs almost never show scenes in jail, and if they do, they are related to the character's court case, not related to the character actually serving time after conviction.

Bad Girls
is the opposite. The show almost never depicts anyone being arrested for their crime (over eight seasons we see Crystal arrested for harboring Denny and Shell, the Julies being re-arrested right after their initial release in series 3, and Tina being arrested for her arson stunt). And although Bad Girls does occasionally show cops investigating a crime, the cops rarely actually uncover the true story of what happened, and they never manage to arrest anyone, as epitomized by the numerous murders committed at the prison over the years, all of which are investigated, none of which are solved.

In fact, the entire concept of forensic evidence, or physical evidence in general, as the key to unlocking the truth, is continuously undermined.  Bad Girls conforms very little to the traditional story-telling techniques of law and crime shows, where the police investigate evidence and figure out the answer, and where the actions of the courtroom provide a dramatic climax.  Bad Girls argues a consistent case: in its alternative narrative it demonstrates the inability or refusal of "law and order"-oriented television shows to reflect or be answerable to reality: to what has led to the trial in the first place, or to what happens after the trial is over. 

In the world Bad Girls dramatizes, evidence is often misleading, or not sufficient to discern the truth. Renee Williams's murder is mistaken for an accidental allergic reaction to peanuts.  The key Kris dropped outside the cell where Yvonne was left to die, wound up distracting, rather than helping, investigators in their search.  Evidence is also too easily lost or destroyed.  Karen manages to build up a dossier against Fenner, only to have him break into her apartment and destroy everything of substance in the file (much of which was manufactured or staged, since authentic evidence was impossible to find).  And in the most satisfying unsolved (or, rather, mis-solved) crime, Fenner's murder, the ephemeral nature of the weapon (an icicle) belies its potency.  The police were left with nothing other than a puddle of water.

As a viewer, watching this investigative ineffectiveness, I found myself repeatedly impatient with the show for ignoring forensic evidence in order to (it seemed to me) serve the needs of the plot.  How could the police not realize Fenner had killed Yvonne, for instance?  My annoyance arose from a conflict between the show's seemingly lazy treatment of evidence, and my expectations around the traditional crime and law storytelling formula—which until this show I had accepted without even thinking: investigation and evidence drive the plot and its conclusion. (It's a conventional modern, Western model: science = truth.)  I had unconsciously assumed that a show which tells a different kind of story, which doesn't privilege hard evidential facts, is in some way badly (or illogically) written.  But in fact, Bad Girls questions the very primacy of this type of evidential logic.

This concept is quite radical, this rejection of the idea that hard science and rational investigation are the key to understanding crimes, and that they should drive the storytelling inspired by crime.  Instead, by putting investigations, forensics, and court trials in a secondary role in the storytelling, Bad Girls privileges relationships and emotional connections as the key to understanding crime in our society. The show offers viewers information about the sad childhoods of many of the characters as one of the factors that led them to end up in prison, suggesting that the answer to who committed a crime and why is often a long and complex one.  The only time when forensic evidence proves the truth is when Shell escapes and her diary placing the blame on Helen is shown to be a fake.  Significantly, the only reason the diary is even forensically analyzed is because of Helen's knowledge of Shell, her awareness that "Shell Dockley keeps grudges, not diaries.[7]  Similarly, it's not possible for investigators to find out that Yvonne murdered Renee Williams if they're unaware Renee had an affair with Yvonne's husband.  And who would suspect the Julies were the orchestrators of Fenner's demise, unless they were aware of the Julies' loyalty and love for Yvonne?  Certain crimes only make sense when viewed from this emotional level, when the web of history and relationships and personalities are comprehended, rather than when the crime is viewed from the analytic, evidence-gathering, puzzle-solving perspective.  But the emotional point of view is only possible for those within the community, not to outsiders like the cops and investigators.  The Julies and Colin know that Fenner killed Yvonne, even if the police can't figure it out. 

Bad Girls
therefore suggests that investigations and justice are both executed most effectively when they're conducted by those who are emotionally involved, not when they're conducted by the traditional ideal of the objective outsider.  Bad Girls rejects the authority or dominance of the courtroom and the police, just as it rejects the dominance of the courtroom or crime-based storytelling techniques of so many other television programs. The show exposes courtrooms and criminal investigations as fallacies, not an effective means to arrive at the truth, particularly when it comes to crimes committed by women or against women. Women must create an alternative mode of understanding, an emotional, relationship-based framework, and when necessary, serve their own justice.
 

A big thank you to E. Kline for her suggestions and tireless editing of this piece.  It would have been far less rich and clear without her.


[1] There are two storylines whose exclusion from consideration here might be questioned.  However, both fall outside the focus of this essay, each for different reasons.  The first is the tribunal in season 6 which considers Fenner's accusations of sexual harassment against Grayling.  This tribunal is an internal one: not part of the UK justice system, but a tribunal of the Home Office.  In addition, it involves two male characters, both in positions of authority.  It's an incredibly interesting storyline, and worthy of analysis, but doesn't contribute to an overall understanding of the show's perspective on how the legal system affects women.  The second is Tina's trial for arson in season 8, which leads to her being released from Larkhall for the second time.  This trial was for a petty crime, one which Tina had committed simply so that she would be sent back to jail.  The trial was a plot device to enable the show to address the problem of institutionalization.

[2] It's worth pointing out that Nikki's case is actually an appeal, not her original trial.  In her original trial, the outcome was just as poor (if not worse) than the Julies' and Yvonne's, which only reinforces the show's stance that it is near-impossible for women who have fought back against men to receive understanding or justice in the courts.  In fact, the biggest threat to the success of Nikki's appeal is her original police statement, where she insists she didn't "regret one drop" of Gossard's blood.  This line embodies all her rage against this man, and thus threatens her success in the courts.

[3] Thanks to campgrrls for articulating this idea and for her willingness to discuss this topic ad nauseum

[4] Note that in the scenes at the trial (S3E16), all of the reaction shots are of women (Trish, Nikki, Claire etc).  The only exception, the only man whose reactions are deemed significant and worthy of inclusion is, of course, the judge himself, the one holding all the official power.

[5] It may seem at first that Pat's crusade against the nun doesn't relate to the other trials, because she is seeking justice against abuse perpetrated by a woman.  However, the nun was supported and protected in an ongoing way by the patriarchal Catholic church and its institutions, as embodied by the priest who knowingly supported her abuse.

[6] This moment reflects Grayling's journey from a closeted gay man selfishly obsessed with rules and power to a more integrated, empathetic out gay man, concerned with caring for and rehabilitating the women in Larkhall.  His sexuality seems to be a key factor in understanding his sympathetic role at this "trial" (which shocks the other prison officers): as an out gay man he has less need to preserve any power and authority over women.

[7] To give Helen even more credit on this front, she was also able to discover (although not prove) why Rachel committed suicide in season 1.  She learned of Denny and Shell's bullying of Rachel, and of Rachel's affair with Fenner.  Unfortunately, all of her discovery was based on knowledge of relationships, which is the key to understanding a crime, but sadly makes it tough to pin down those culpable.



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