November 8, 2011 Leave a comment
Underbelly: Razor is a 13-part Australian television mini-series detailing real events that occurred in Sydney between 1927 and 1936. The series depicts the “razor gangs” who controlled the city’s underworld during the era and the violent war between the two “vice queen” powers, Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh.
It was pretty easy to get me into it, I mean, you’ve got a show about women, led by women, who actually existed, and I’m a shamelessly easy hook.
However, it’s as triggery as all get out and hard to watch most of the time.
Are the women as fierce and awesome? Yes. Very much so. Would I recommend it? Well that depends, how much are you willing to put up with for a show with awesome women who are smart, quick, and dangerous?
Things to hate right at the start of the series:
1) Introducing Tillie’s business, brothels, one of the prostitutes in the house gets pregnant (not for the first time according to her and she looks appropriately apprehensive about it). Turns out she’s not apprehensive because she’ll have to deal with not being able to work but because her boss takes her outside and has her repeatedly punched in the stomach to induce a miscarriage.
2) Tillie’s lover/boyfriend/lackey is a domestic abuser. He cheated on her in this episode, she called him on it and he beat her. The next day, she confronted the woman he cheated on her with, one of the girls in her house, and threatened her while making it clear that it wasn’t her lover’s fault. So there’s that psychological mindfuckery that comes with domestic abuse.
3) A bit unbelievably, there’s only one POC, a black man who apparently goes by the name of n****. Yeah.
4) Antisemitism; a local crime thug known as Phil the Jew, and his Jewishness is called up as a derogatory attribute pretty constantly.
5) There’s a thug called the midnight raper who’s apparently discovered a penchant for slicing up women in the middle of the night, just for kicks.
And all that’s just in the first two intro, get to know your players, episodes.
I’m hooked by the female characterization. There’s a woman who’s not penalized for having sex how and when she wants to, a woman who’s had to deal with rampant sexism to become a respected officer of the law, and two crime queens with major personalities. So I kept watching.
By the end of the show, I wasn’t as angry at myself for putting up with as I thought I would be. I need to examine whether that’s a matter of being deadened/slowly numbed to all that was wrong (this is the problem with marathoning through a show).
2) Tilly and Kate seemed to have come to some odd little understanding at gunpoint. She also seemed to have gotten rid of her abusive husband down the road.
3) Forever annoyed at the side-eye constantly thrown to Lillian Armfield (the only female officer) for being single. I also highly doubt that she was just devoid of any life outside her work life, despite her dedication to her job. Would have loved to see more of how she navigated gender and straight relationships (she seems to feel very strongly about identifying as straight when confronted with a different possibility). However, her politics on rape were refreshing to see on tv: consent can be revoked even if consent has been given. Fuck yes! Now can we hammer this in again and again on more media, please?
4) There was a canon lesbian! I didn’t expect them to even bother (yes, I’m cynical) who tried to hit on Officer Armfield but was unfortunately rebuffed; she ended up marrying one of the male cops. That’s a matter of the time period though, so I won’t fault the writers too much.
5) Nellie. Oh, Nellie, this lady here is fascinating to watch. Like a train wreck is fascinating to watch. However, she owns it even as she fools other men into thinking that they can posses her. Her sexual politics were extremely fascinating to watch. There was a side of how problematic it was that she got involved with men who ultimately wanted to own her, but I appreciated the bits where she got to express who she was sexually. She wanted sex, as many times as she wanted it and she wanted it kinky.
In the end this show had some truly complex and VIBRANT female characters; from the crime queens to the ladies working the streets and houses and salons. The women had their own mind, the queens showed incredible agency, and they knew it and made sure everyone else knew it. Even with their less than great decisions I love that it didn’t vilify them for their weaknesses or their strengths.
The show was also flawed, very much so.
Take all compliments and criticisms with a grain of salt, and all that.