What if the heroine doesn’t have superpowers? What if the savior doesn’t come in brandishing a shiny sword or – more likely, being in a tv drama – with a series of quotable witty remarks and a charming persona?
Here comes Elizabeth Moss and her quiet but fierce detective Robin Griffin from the British/Australian/New Zealander tv show Top of the Lake, whose driving force seems to be just being human and not even dreaming of apologising for it. Moss’ collected performance is a match made in heaven for a character that doesn’t like to show her emotions that easily. Every tear, every sound she makes becomes a painful struggle for Robin, and rightfully so considering what we learn about her past throughout the first season. Somehow, though, the softer she speaks, the louder her feelings echo in our heads.
This “performative coldness” is what caught my attention on the first (of countless) binge watching sessions, and it almost kept me from pinpointing Robin’s most distinctive trait, ‘what makes Robin my Robin’: she shows an impressive lack of smiles. As a young female with a generally positive attitude, I was taught to be polite first and foremost, and smiling comes as a natural weapon to me – to pacify a stressful situation, as a mean of self-persuasion when things get bad, and, most importantly, it is an effective defence mechanism to avoid being perceived as a threat by someone way more threatening than myself. However, like any weapon, it can also backfire spectacularly, trapping you in an endless circle of forced politeness and fake apologies. You know when someone bumps into you on the tube and you say sorry, right?
Robin doesn’t care. Robin never forces herself to smile or to be polite. Most of the time, the show is indeed bleak and emotionally violent, giving us and Robin little reason to smile. And yet, there would be room to play nice(er), to be accommodating towards those middle-ground characters who are not either inherently bad or good, and who could become potential allies. Any of that strategy is lost on Robin, who walks into other people’s lives embodying the antithesis of victim blaming: the violence she experiences during the show is not up for negotiation, and she refuses to thank those who gave a good beating to her perpetrators while they never lifted a finger to get them arrested. She will never take less than what she deserves just because she is scared she might end up with nothing. She must be sad when she has cause, and smile at no man’s jests; laugh when she is merry, and claw no man in his humour.
Her status as ‘the victim’ has definitely shaped the person she is today, but the way she embraces it is quite different from any representation I have seen. Robin disintegrates the ‘Madonna-whore’ narrative by being the most unfiltered and unapologetic version of herself: she is smart, rude, a bitch, a good detective, a terrible fiance, someone who is just having a bad day. She doesn’t allow her flaws to be used as a justification for other people’s behaviour, and, in doing so, she redefines the power dynamic between the victim and the jury. Every time Robin doesn’t smile, every time she refuses to be grateful when she doesn’t feel grateful, she is simultaneously proving that you don’t need any other qualification for being a victim than just being a victim, and that a victim is still a person.
There is much more power behind that unimpressed look then in a thousand explosions. Although, speaking of fandoms where people claim back control over their smiles, I would love to see what Robin could achieve after swallowing an Infinity Stone.