If conservative elements within the Australian screen industry had had their way, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries either may never have made it to the screen, or the protagonist could have been a very different character.

The issue? Some people who controlled the purse strings objected to Phryne Fisher’s free-wheeling, no-strings-attached love life.

Every Cloud Productions’ Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger, co-creators of the popular 1929-set ABC show starring Essie Davis, Nathan Page, Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Ashleigh Cummings, encountered  industry sexism- from males and females-  during development and production of the first series.

“Early in our development process, Phryne’s morality was queried by some in the long chain of investors that Australian television series need in order to be realised,” Cox writes in the latest edition of AFTRS' Lumina magazine, which is dedicated to gender equality in the screen industry.

“Was she too promiscuous? Should her sexual encounters only be with men of a certain calibre and standing? Would we ‘like’ a woman who had casual sex this often?

“We were shocked that this double standard should still prevail amongst educated professionals in the screen industry – and probably even more shocked that it would be voiced in complete ignorance of the inherent sexism behind it.

“We felt Phryne had a moral compass but it was separate to her sexual behaviour… To criticise her morality purely on the grounds of the number or variety of her lovers made no sense to us. It would be outrageous and totally beside the point to suggest that James Bond shouldn’t have bedded so many women.

"A James Bond without his sharp suits, his suave powers of seduction and a beautiful woman to flirt over, is as unimaginable as Phryne Fisher without her sensuous gowns, delicate innuendos and dashing lovers to play with."

Even after the show premiered, the battle against sexism was not over. Cox, who tactfully declines to identify the culprits, tells IF, “We had to guard and protect our vision through the first series.”

A turning point occurred last year when the female detective drama screened in the US on Netflix, sparking complaints from more conservative viewers about Phryne “‘sleeping around”’ or “giving it away to every other guy.”

US feminist website Jezebel defused the controversy by upholding the character’s right to “have her man-cake and have mind-blowing sex with it too.”

Cox writes, “We relished the controversy but it was a reminder that, though the female protagonist has gained ground, that ground still needs defending.

“We’ve had no trouble selling the last three series of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries around the world, so clearly Phryne’s overt sexuality is not a problem from a commercial point of view. For many regions, like France where she’s referred to as a ‘femme fatale’ and other parts of Europe with more liberal views, Phryne’s active sex life is either a non issue or a definite plus.

“On the domestic front, the rumble has dropped to a murmur. Luckily, in the relatively civilised and educated realms of television drama, nobody wants to appear sexist or conservative – so any qualms were eased with a reasoned defence.

“We still feel the occasional ripples though, just gentle reminders that where the line is drawn between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ behaviour for the female protagonist may not be exactly where the line lies for her male counterpart.

"As fascinating and flawed and outrageous female characters now flourish all over our television and film screens let’s hope that imaginary line simply disappears.”

Cox and Eagger say the ABC is keen to commission a fourth series and the logistics are being worked out. A key factor will be the availability of Davis, whose profile got a mighty boost internationally from The Babadook.

Last year she played Caitlin Thomas, wife of hard-drinking poet Dylan Thomas (Tom Hollander) in the BBC America telemovie A Poet in New York.

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9 Comments

  1. As a Worker in the Movie Industry (SFX) and an amateur Historian, I see nothing wrong in Miss Phrynne Fisher’s Portrayal of a Liberated 1920s Lady. Her experiences (fictional) in France during WW I, and subsequently in the series show the true picture of society “as it was then”…the Sectarianism, the Prudishness, the actual underlying “hot passions” of men and women, and so on.
    Of course, for Acting License, some situations are a bit anachronistic, but otherwise, true to the Period of Melbourne and Aussie History.

    The Fashions are simply superb (given Miss Fisher’s Parisian interlude) and since she is an Heiress (both a title and Money) she can well indulge in such things, in a chic manner. As to her “love life”…so what? are the investors all Victorian (era) Hypocrites
    with a “do as I say, not do as I do” attitude.

    Some People in Australia should Wake up to themselves…the Twenties were the “roaring Twenties” because People acted Openly in a way Unthinkable before WWI. Or to use the Vernacular…”Get a Life”

    From a 67 year old ex-Doctor, ex-Barrister, current
    SFX armourer, with over 10 years life in Europe as a student (Italy, France)in many of the Places Miss Fisher would have frequented.

    As to Miss Davis’s acting abilities, it is a shame we don’t have more actors/actresses with her dedication to Professionalism. I wish her all the Best in her Career, long may it be.

    Dr.Astrid M. Vallati,
    AV Ballistics Film Ordnance Services
    Brisbane.

  2. Too bad you’re just a bloggist (today’s Journalist) instead of an activist. With all the hours you have spent writing about laying blame on men you could have written and all female cast, directed and even released it. Problem solved. Cues it’s just easier to hate on men.

  3. I love Phryne as she is. Please don’t tone her down her sexuality. The world will just have to adapt itself to the realization that female fantasy exists: Catching bad guys, protecting those in need, and doing it all in fabulous clothes. Her lovers know the score as well as she does. Keep ’em coming;-)

  4. Phryne’s sexuality is part of who she is and why she is. It feels very reflective of the crazy Twenties when everyone lived for each moment after the horrors of WW1. It seems laughable in this day and age we are still having kittens over women who have casual sex. Phryne doesn’t deceive any of her lovers as far as I know, and nobody gets hurt, not even poor old Jack who seems to accept the situation for reasons of his own.

    On a pedantic note, I wish producers would get titles right. She’s the Honourable Phryne Fisher, or Miss Fisher, or Miss Phryne Fisher. She isn’t the Honourable Miss Anybody. If you use the Hon. you drop the other salutation.
    I love the show and am delighted it will return soon.

  5. Jessica,

    Never once does the author state the roadblocks were only men. Women can also fall into a sexism trap just as your response proves. The writer is a man, Don Groves.

  6. I love Phrynne and Jack. The chemistry between them is nail biting good. Even though this blog was written a year ago, I’m still hopeful for a season 4. Come on ABC. Come on Acorn.

    Do it. You know you want to.

  7. I love this series please continue this wonderful.
    Murder. Mystery
    the actors are fabulous
    One of the. Best. Ever.

  8. My favorite show to watch. I love this series and am addicted to watching it. Please, please, please do a Season 4. You have so many true fans who want to continue watching this wonderful, fun, fabulous acting, plots and gorgeous costumes. We want more of this first class and first rate show!!!!!

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