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Should We Be Concerned About the Treatment of Women and Minorities on Hannibal?

[This post contains major spoilers for the three most recent episodes of Hannibal. You’ve been warned.]

I’ve made no secret about the fact that I love Hannibal. It’s a rare that a show has the ability to marry horror, comedy and style and still have room left over for organic character development. In short, it’s hard to get right and while Hannibal doesn’t always stick the landing, it still gets consistently high marks for the performance as a whole.

A still image from "Hannibal" of Hanibbal sitting on a couch with a red haired woman.

Beyond its technical genius and great writing, the first season was applauded for the fact that it offered an even gender split among the main characters, prominent minority actors in roles that didn’t capitalize on their race, the creator’s promise that no female characters would be raped, and a gender balance among the show’s many murder victims. The last two points are especially important given the number of procedural shows that seem to revel in the horror of women being raped and killed week after week. To instead make it solely about murder and not the humiliation and defilement of women also allows Fuller and his team to focus on the killers rather than the victims. It also gives them a little more creative license to present the bodies as “art” rather than torture porn. There’s nothing sexual about a man attached to a tree with flowers bursting out of his chest, nor does a dead woman covered in mushrooms or folded into a human totem pole seem exploitative.

A picture from "Hannibal" of a tower of bodies on a beach.

The funny thing is that as much as people complain about “political correctness,” it often seems like the shows that do strive for a realistic mix of race and gender are just better overall. That’s a subjective statement, sure, but in my mind it makes little sense to create a show that you expect a variety of people to watch while only representing a tiny fraction of the viewers. I don’t need to mention particular shows by name, but any time you see a city like New York represented as predominantly white, male and straight, you might as well have set it on Mars for all of the realism that it depicts.

So why now is Hannibal being accused of racism and sexism?

Well, in short, the disappointing reality is that the three major character deaths on the show thus far have consisted of two women and a man — Abigail Hobbs, Beverly Katz, and Frederick Chilton — one of whom was played by Korean-American actress Hettienne Park, and another by Cuban-American actor Raul Esparza.

It hardly needs mentioning how little representation the Asian and Hispanic communities get on television as it is unless they’re playing small roles as tech geeks, maids or restaurant workers. Now, this being Hannibal, it’s hard to state with any certainty that Hobbs and Chilton are definitely dead, especially after the reveal that dismembered FBI agent Miriam Lass was hanging out in Hannibal’s basement for a few years. In fact, I’m almost certain that Chilton isn’t dead, but Beverly, whose body was sliced into pieces and displayed in individual glass cases is probably not going to make a comeback.

A picture from "Hannibal" of Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford.

And Beverly’s death is where most of the controversy has been centered. It should be noted that the actress herself released a written statement in which she said the following:

Fuller cast me in a role that I didn’t think I had a chance in hell of getting. I rarely if ever see minorities, women, minority women, let alone Asian women, get to play characters like Beverly Katz. I rarely if ever see characters like Beverly Katz period. And her last name is Katz for Christ’s sake. Pretty open-minded, non-racist, pro-feminine writing and casting in my opinion.


Yes, Fuller could’ve kept me on for longer and if he had, my character would’ve probably remained in the background processing crime scenes regurgitating technical exposition. Instead – albeit not for very long – he wrote enough for Katz to make people get to know her a little better, actually identify with her, and like her enough to care when she gets killed. If people can identify with this character regardless of the color of her skin, or like her regardless of her sex without her having to play the qualities we usually see chicks play, then that’s a good thing in my opinion. If you are upset about not believing Katz would be so careless, I agree, though part of the fun of the show is its homage to the horror genre. And finding the writing unrealistic may not be enough damning evidence of racism or sexism.

I recommend that you read the whole statement, but for my purposes those two arguments are where I’ll keep my focus.

My personal feeling is that Beverly’s death was stupid and I agree that a smart, trained professional would never have put herself in that situation. It was a cheap way to kill off a character, and it did unfortunately contribute to the “man pain” of several of the lead and side characters. Beverly’s death is, without question, meant to serve as a catalyst for both Will and Jack to work harder to catch “The Ripper.”

With that said, would I call it racist or sexist? Not particularly. If anything, Fuller had to kill off a character you cared about in order for it to matter. I love Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams, but neither of their characters’ deaths would have much of an impact on the show because the audience hasn’t been asked to invest in them. We were asked to invest in Beverly and, as a result, were given more of her story and experience than that of her two co-workers. As Park says above, if they had kept her alive, she would’ve carried on being a random lab tech spewing scientific-sounding data and not contributing that much to the show as a whole. Instead, she got to be a prominent character for several episodes.

One point I feel obliged to correct Park on, though, is that it was not necessarily revolutionary for Fuller to cast her in the role of Beverly Katz. Katz in Red Dragon (the book) is implied to be an Asian woman, though admittedly has not been portrayed as Asian in either of the movie adaptations. Fuller definitely gets points for making Katz much more interesting and developed, however, since her presence is almost non-existent in the book until she’s needed to decipher a Chinese character left by a killer because, according to Jack Crawford, she “knows Mah-Jongg.”

In any event, while I feel that Katz’s death felt cheap, I’m not convinced that it was intentional or unintentional racism. I think that a side-effect of striving for equality in your cast when you’re writing for a horror show is that men and women, white people and minorities, run equal chances of being killed off unless his name is in the title.

That’s not to say that I’m thrilled with the fact that two women have now been killed off. It’s also hard not to notice that without Abigail, her therapy with Alana and interviews with Freddie, the show feels far more male-centric this season than it did last season. Fuller could’ve worked harder to incorporate Freddie and Alana into the earlier part of this season, or even give them a few scenes together, but at the moment the story is about Will and Jack trying to catch a killer and I have confidence that the show’s gender pendulum will swing back soon enough.

A picture from "Hannibal" of two dark-haired woman facing each other.

That brings me to the last major complaint: Alana. Alana being used as a sexual pawn between Will and Hannibal isn’t great. And on paper, the idea that Hannibal is seducing her specifically to put his thumb into his rival’s eye is disappointing and most shows would have handled this plot point poorly. So far, I think Hannibal has done a much better job of at least giving us some insight into Alana’s choices — and making them feel like genuine choices rather than just her falling in and out of different beds. Alana has been friends with Hannibal for a while, is confused about her feelings for both men, has an unfortunate desire to help “wounded” people and remains conflicted. We get an awful lot of her reasoning, thoughts and emotions on the matter where I think most shows would instead focus more on the two men fighting over her. While Hannibal may be trying to use Alana as a trophy, the show doesn’t treat her character that way — and it’s an important distinction.

Now maybe I have this all wrong, or I’m defending something I love and, as a result, I’m ignorant to why so many people have labelled the show sexist or racist this season. If that’s the case, please feel free to yell at me in the comments and I’d love to discuss this further.

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