The first moments of Top Of The Lake: China Girl follow the journey of a mysterious blue suitcase from a brothel in Sydney, Australia, to a deep, dark watery grave. I use the word grave, because that’s exactly what the suitcase turns into a: a makeshift grave. Throughout the miniseries’ debut, “China Girl”, viewers check back in on the suitcase, eventually realising a long lock of black hair has escaped from inside. Considering Lake is a murder mystery, of course it’s eventually confirmed a woman’s dead body has been crammed inside the suitcase. With the series’ main set-piece literally being a murdered woman's corpse bobbing in the water, it should come as no surprise that sexism is the true theme of China Girl, which, in and of itself, is an obviously misogynistic moniker. Even when the miniseries isn’t dealing with dead “girls”, as the title puts it, misogyny lurks below the surface of every second, much like the suitcase just below the waves.
If we’re going to deal with the sexism of China Girl, we need to start with detective Robin Griffin (an Aussie-accented Elisabeth Moss). This is a real thing a coworker says to her: "If I had a bigger penis I would've tried to marry you." Somehow, Robin doesn’t punch her coworker in the neck. Instead, she later kisses him on the forehead as if he were just a sweet, charming older man, versus someone who had sexually harassed her in the workplace. It’s possible pathologist Ray (Geoff Morrell) believes this kind of behaviour is normal — and Robin doesn’t even seem insulted by it — because of how much worse everyone on the police force treats her.
In the first few seconds of China Girl, a group of mostly male cadets-in-training are unable to stop giggling in Robin's presence, seemingly just because she’s a woman in authority, and, gee willikers, isn’t that cute. When she blows up at one particularly egregious student, her superior Adrian Butler (Clayton Jacobson) calls her out for being an “asshole”. If a man treated a rude subordinate in the same way, it’s unlikely he would get condemned in such a manner, or be reminded to be “encouraging”, as Robin is told.
Somehow, Robin’s very gendered dressing-down isn’t the most misogynistic interaction she has with her boss. Instead, that instance arrives later that night, when she has what’s meant to be a post-work heart-to-heart with Adrian. It becomes an uncomfortable lesson in what, exactly, sexual harassment looks like. During drinks, Robin’s boss prods her about why her wedding was called off, which is already a tad uncomfortable. Then, Robin explains, “I’m celibate now.” While that may be a TMI thing to tell your employer, hey, it’s good she’s proud of her decision. That’s why it’s so cringeworthy to hear Adrian respond, “Well, that’s a waste.” The conversation gets worse seconds later, when they’re talking about a man who sexually assaulted Robin and drugged her. She explains the man “forced her head to his.” Adrian, asks, “What, like a kiss?” Adrian is clearly forgetting a kiss, like sex, can only be called that when it’s consensual. The man’s comment is so infuriating, Robin storms out of the restaurant.
The rest of the police force treats Robin in an equally alarming manner, as we see when she arrives at the crime scene to see the body of the titular murdered “girl”. One officer asks the detective, “Are you single? You’re new aren’t you? Are you single?” When Robin reminds the guy her relationship status is “personal”, he keeps pushing, saying, “Yeah, I’m trying to be personal.” It is effectively a miracle Robin hasn’t sued the entire Sydney police department for sexual harassment.
While Robin’s experiences with misogyny are obvious and sexualised, her new partner-slash-mentee Miranda Hilmarsson (Gwendoline Christie) also faces her share of sexist problems. That same officer who is obsessed with finding out if he can get “personal” with Robin immediately demands Miranda “fetch his jacket”, despite the fact she’s a constable — not someone’s assistant. The pull of the patriarchy is so strong, Miranda goes to get the jacket, even after Robin tells everyone the task is “respectfully not her job”. When Miranda returns with the jacket, Stally says deeply sexist platitudes like “attagirl”. It’s so insulting, Miranda drops the detective’s jacket right in the sand in front of him. Unfortunately, that’s not the first time Miranda’s coworkers have been jerks to her during these first two episodes of "China Girl". After she walks out of the room in her first "China Girl" scene, two other male officers snidely note with crude laughs, “That is an actual woman, by the way.” Someone please add Miranda as a co-defendant to my imagined harassment suit.
Although Sydney PD seems to be a hotbed of sexist activity, the fringes of the story are equally steeped in misogyny. The main source of this disrespect comes from the brothel where the murdered woman, who is more than likely a sex worker named Cinnamon, was employed. Alexander (David Dencik), the 42-year-old “tutor” who works there, is dating Robin’s 17-year-old daughter Mary (Alice Englert), whom she gave up for adoption right after giving birth. There is already an obvious level of manipulation between this adult man and his teenage “girlfriend”. But Alexander’s dislike for women becomes more obvious and alarming when he explains a previous research project he worked on. The title? The Destiny Of Man: Is To Enslave Women. While you would assume it would be hard to get more misogynistic than that name, Alexander does, saying Aussie feminist writer Germaine Greer “just wanted to shake her titties at the world. And by middle age, these very same titties are getting droopy and nobody really wants to see them any more.” That right there is simple Misogyny 101.
We see a similarly woman-hating vein from the group of men who spend their days around a coffee shop’s table rating sex workers they visit. They criticise one woman’s “one-dimensional oral”, another one’s “bad attitude” and which workers are “fucked up”. It’s possible these men are forgetting they’re the ones routinely going to these ladies to pay for sex — not the other way around.
In all of these instances, Top Of The Lake isn't glorifying misogyny, it's simply reminding us it's lurking everywhere, even in the places that should hypothetically be paragons of justice. While we fight the patriarchy out here, we guess it's Elisabeth Moss' job to keep doing the work on our TV screens.
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