True Crime

The Effects of Underbelly’s Feminine Underpants

How are women represented in Australia’s true crime series Underbelly? What “local” appeal do these women embody? Or are they for international appeal?  Does the female sex appeal on the show contribute to Underbelly’s success? How is Underbelly a masculine weapon against the feminization of suburban space?

The recent emergence of true crime television has revolutionized Australian drama. The success of season one of Underbelly was due to the fact that Melbourne audiences were fascinated by the Melbourne locality depicted in the show. This “celebration” of local and glamourous ‘real-life’ celebrities, however, has overlooked the objectification of the female stars within Underbelly. I argue, that we must look past the local streets and towards the implications of way in which Underbelly’s objectifies the Australian female body. The sex appeal on the show constructs the female television stars as powerless figures. It can be said, therefore,  that Underbelly’s portrayal of women can be seen as a misogynistic weapon towards the feminization of Melbourne’s suburbs.

Underbelly developed from a dense history of  “masculine” crime influences. (ie. American “Hard-Boiled Fiction” (i.e. Sam Spade), American film noir (i.e Glenda), Radio serials (i.e. Dick tracy 1934-8), early American crime Dragnet (1951-59), and of course the first Australian television crime series Homocide). Underbelly, which began on Channel Nine in Melbourne, continues this “macho” tradition. The difference, now, I argue is the amount of hyper-masculine empowerment and degrading sex that accompanies the crime. Gregg and Wilson note that Channel Nine has excessively hypermasculinised their station. They wrote, “the station moved towards an increasingly hyper-masculine programming flow, which itself echoed the macho, even misogynist, corporate culture at Nine. In programming advertising during free-to-air celebrities in a mock line-up with Underbelly characters to emphasize a ‘bad-boy’ image. Here the link between celebrity, criminal, and sport star is made explicit in Nine’s marketing strategy.” (416).  To highlight this bad-boy image, actresses such as Anna Hutchinson and Kat Stewart, have been given roles that compromise female agency.

Several of their “sex” scenes have been downloaded by internet users and posted online.  In one youtube a clip, called “Madeleine West Ass”, Danielle McGuire, played by Madeleine West, while dressed in lingerie tells Mark Moran, played by Callan Mulvey, that she has been a bad girl, she then proceeds to willingly let him “spank her.”  The comments under the video reveal how the show’s focus has turned from crime to hyper-masculine degrading sex. One comment says, “OMG i have been waiting for the day to see madeline west in underwear wow she is soooo sexy.” In other words, Underbelly’s underpants is one of the reasons of the shows extreme popularity.

These increasingly hyper-masculine sex-scenes, however, have also caused controversy. Religious groups have written to the show requesting that the show’s sex be turned down (Gregg 216). The writers for Underbelly, however, refuse to omit nudity. Peter Gawler, one of Underbelly’s screenwriters, said that he got an email that said “omit public hair.” He said, “I sent a one-word email back – ‘no.’ There will be male nudity and female nudity” (McWhirter). Why have the nudity?  Some people, argue hat the nudity and sex scenes help provide a balance to the degrading violence. In an article from The Courier Mail, a Dr. Janet Hall, a Melbourne psychologist, claims that the raunchy sex scenes on Underbelly are acceptable compared to the violence on the screen (Vickery). Dr. Janet Hall said, “The violence on [Underbelly: The Golden Mile] also erodes our rule-keeping standards and makes us think we can get away with crimes that we see on TV” (Vickery). Hall has a point, local violence on local television teaches audiences that crime is acceptable and glamourous, but to ignore the fact that the ‘sex” on Underbelly is not a crime is a problem. I argue, that the raunchy sex scenes on television are as much as a problem as the violence because it perpetuates the image of women as being powerless, immoral, and subservient to men.

The question is, are the sex scenes necessary? Or are they just ways to glamourise a show for popularity? McWhirter reported that Joe Lopez, the Australian Family Association representative, was concerned about the about the amount of sex during an 8:30 pm time slot. He said, “There’s no excuse at anytime to show excessive pornography or violence like they do in Underbelly. They are trying to put a dramatic representation of how crime was in relation to the illicit drug trade in that time by glamourising it with sex. If you are trying to show that illicit drugs are a driver for criminality, why lump the whole thing with pornography? This isn’t soft porn, it’s pornography” (McWhirter). CSI, a popular American crime series, has some sex, but its popularity relies on its CGI effects and crime drama. Therefore, the porn on Underbelly is unnecessary and misogynistic. Furthermore, the effects of Underbelly’s pornography on the Australian female image, is not even properly understood by the actresses that conduct them.

Emma Booth, who plays Kim Hollingsworth in Underbelly: The Golden Mile, claims that she would be more comfortable playing the “sexy” part she had a better body. She said, “There are times when I feel completely dirty and that’s hard because it doesn’t always feel comfortable and it doesn’t always feel nice, especially where you’re not feeling that great in your body. I go up and down with my weight so if I am having a great day great, but sometimes when you feel bloated it’s horrible to have to do” (McWhirter).  From Booth’s remarks, it seems that doing her “raunchy” role is okay for  her if she looks good, but not okay if she feels “fat.” In other words, Booth would not mind playing a prostitute if she had a body fit for the male gaze. Therefore, she defines her own happiness based on the way media constructs the “perfect” female body. Furthermore, just as Muriel Steinbeck, who played the lead protagonist in Autumn Affair, relied on men for her happiness, the female stars in Underbelly rely on the “male gaze” to approve of their roles. Therefore, besides the amount of explicit sex on shows now, the roles of females have not changed much since the beginning of television.

Underbelly’s success has greatly improved Australia’s drama production, but its lascivious sex scenes have degraded the popular image of women. Therefore, it is important to look at the ways in which Underbelly constructs and alters female national identity. On my blog, I recently posted an entry about the dispute over the lesbian kisses on the shows Neighbours and Home and Away. This controversy over a harmless kiss received more contestation than all the sex on Underbelly combined. What are the implications of this? What does this say about the way media constructs female sexuality?  The corporate owner of Channel Nine needs to re-evaluate the ways they they construct female sexuality on screen.

Works Cited:

Gregg, Melissa and Wilson, Jason, “Underbelly, True Crime and the Cultural Economy of infamy. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 11.3 (2010): 407-423. Print.

“Madeline West Ass.” Youtube Video. Online video clip. youtube.com. Accessed on 13 June 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_y1h-sMoTc>

McWhirter, Erin,“Women love true crime stories on Underbelly, City Homicide,” The Daily Telegraph. 1 April 2009. Web.  7 June 2010.

McWhirter, Erin, “Underbelly’s bare breasts and sex scenes called soft porn.” The Daily Telegraph. 18 February 2009. 7 June 2010.

McWhirter, Erin, “Underbelly sex controversy.” The Daily Telegraph. 24 January 2009. Web. 7 June 2010.

McWhirter, Erin, “Underbelly 3 nudity and sex scenes left star Emma Booth feeling dirty.” The Daily Telegraph. 14 December 2009. Web. 7 June 2010.

“Underbelly has become a sex show, says former New South Wales cop Roger Rogerson” The Herald Sun. 10 May 2010. 5 June 2010.

Vickery, Colin, “Sex on TV ‘less harmful’ than violent programs.” The Courier-Mail. 17 February 2010. Web. 13 June 2010.

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