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  • Feminist Filmmaking on TelevisionLacan, Phallic Enjoyment, and Jane Campion's Top of the Lake
  • Hilary Neroni (bio)

Jane Campion's series Top of the Lake (season 1, 2013) and Top of the Lake: China Girl (season 2, 2017) mark her second foray into television since An Angel at My Table (1990). They reveal once again that television is a medium that accommodates Campion's long-time career concerns exceedingly well, especially her interest in narratives that wander as they follow the main female protagonist's passions. Taking full advantage of television's serial potential, Campion chases down not only multiple narrative strands but also the desires of Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss). Putting a woman at the center of a detective series also fits with Campion's long career of films that have women characters driving the narrative. In both seasons, Robin is a detective trying to solve a case while also trying to solve a mystery in her personal life. Both of these narrative threads become necessarily entwined at different points throughout the season. Robin's specialty is crimes against young women, especially of a sexual nature. Her defining feature, like that of every Campion hero, is her driving passion, in this case, for her work as a detective.

It is not just that she is good at her job but that the passion she has for her job dictates the contours of her life. When chasing down a mystery, she can think of little else, and the other aspects of life—romance, family, health, even food—become less important. In the episode "The Loved One," for example, Robin has just met her daughter, whom she gave up for adoption.1 The pathologist working on Robin's case calls her to his home in the evening to tell her about something strange he has found. Instead of wanting to hear the information, she uncharacteristically [End Page 115] shares that she just met her daughter and shows him a photo. He seems excited and then tells her the information that he discovered about the case: the fetus in the deceased victim's body doesn't match the mother's DNA. Robin leaves but then halfway down the hallway turns back and calls the pathologist out and tells him excitedly that she has just realized that the fetus was a surrogate baby. The pathologist is impressed but then kindly suggests that Robin come in for a drink. As a viewer, it is a touching moment, and you feel a wave of relief for Robin that someone has reached out to her. She grabs his head, kisses his forehead, and says, "Not now, I'm working," as she walks off with a glow to her and a bounce in her step. Robin's passion for her job is a passion that outstrips everything else in her life.

This type of female passion has been a trope in most of Campion's films. Campion's heroes include writers, pianists, and teachers, but they are all women whose passions express who they are and dictate the shape of the film. Robin, however, is Campion's first female detective, and she is utterly committed to her passion for the job. As in the example given above, it is clear that Robin's passion also allows her to avoid difficulties in her private life. This is also a trope in Campion's films, but each Top of the Lake season and each film demonstrate that what appears to be women avoiding private difficulties (family problems, children, past traumas) is instead an ethical commitment to their passion. The private eventually bends to the will of these passionate heroines. It is still unusual to see a central female character whose passion outstrips all for her, but Campion takes this one step further and leaves her main female characters within a community or family. Often, high-powered, passionate women do not have to continually deal with family or community; for Campion's heroines, however, this is precisely the point. In fact, Campion seems most interested in seeing how the family or community responds to such a woman. Not surprisingly, the reaction is not always positive, but this still does...


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pp. 115-135
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