Penny Dreadful is Pretty Dreadful – Part 1

(It was after I started writing this that I realised just how long this post was, so I decided to break it up into two parts. Today’s post focuses on women in the show Penny Dreadful;  tomorrow’s post will focus on people of color, specifically Chinese characters, in the show.)

I know a lot of people were excited about the new show Penny Dreadful. Based on the classic horror dime novels of the Victorian era, Penny Dreadfuls (or Dime Novels as we called them in States) are seen as the predecessors of today’s Steampunk genre and other books, tv shows, and films set in the Victorian era today. When I saw the promos for it, I was intrigued. After Copper and Ripper Street were cancelled last year, there was a huge gap in the Victorian-setting entertainment field. However, in spite of the mountains of praise I have seen for it in my Facebook feed and other places on the internet, Penny Dreadful is pretty dreadful (trademarked :)) and there are a lot of reasons why.

Part of the reason why Penny Dreadful comes off as so awful is probably because of the brilliant shows that came before it. Copper and Ripper Street were not just great period shows, they were great shows, period, and largely because they scoffed in the face of mainstream media with regards to how women and people of color are portrayed in media. Penny Dreadful toes the line and is a huge step backwards when it comes to women and characters of color.


Women are not sufficiently represented in media today. Even though women are woefully underrepresented in almost every field, our representation in media is disgusting. It’s even worse in period pieces, especially Victorians and Westerns.

In Victorians and Westerns, writers are stupidly uneducated about the roles women played during those times. In most Victorians and Westerns, women have two roles – Lady or whore. You see this dichotomy over and over again. The latest Lone Ranger adaptation might be the most egregious example of this (in addition to its millions of other flaws), with Rebecca Reid as the Lady and Red Harrington as the whore. Even Ripper Street fails in this regard (though it does a great job in other areas). Long Susan is the whore while Mrs. Emily Reed is the Lady. If you look at films, shows, and books set in this time period, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t fit this trope. Sometimes the two types of women will be merged into one, think Irene Adler in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, or Dixie Cousins in Brisco County Jr. In family friendly titles, the whore will sometimes be eliminated (think Back to the Future III or Star Wars), leaving only one role for a woman to play.

ripperThere are some period shows that ignore these stereotypical roles for women. Copper absolutely blew these roles out of the water with not just two anti-stereotypical women, but a huge cast of women. You had:

  • Elizabeth Haverford – the Lady who was also a terrorist
  • Eva Heissen – the whore, business woman, brothel madam, and murderess
  • Annie Riley – the child with the mind of a woman
  • Sara Freeman – a black, middle-class seamstress (I’ll get to THAT point later on)
  • Ellen Corcoran – the protagonist’s wife, an insane adulteress who murders her own child

and a whole bunch of other minor female characters like Sara’s mother and the women who worked for Eva.

Hell on Wheels also does a pretty good job of showing the diverse roles that women played at the time. Lily Bell and Louise Ellison both fill the role of the Lady, but both have careers, Lily as a surveyor and Louise as a newswoman. Eva fills the role of the whore (what is the deal with whores named Eva?), but there is also Ruth Cole who works as a pastor when she takes over the flock for her preacher-father.

Penny Dreadful has only two female characters, but that is a pretty generous count. Vanessa Ives is the Lady and Brona Croft is the whore. But after three episodes, Croft has barely been seen. She was not in the first episode at all and in the third episode she was on screen for less than two minutes. She is nude for the entirety of the scene, and for most of it, she is doing her job. Penny Dreadful reinforces the myth that women only had two roles in the Victorian world, Lady and whore. Not only is this untrue, it’s boring, played out, and does a huge disservice to women who actually did other things in their lives throughout time. It’s also ridiculous for any show today to have such a gender disparity. This post is a really good take down of a graphic novel that commits the same crime against women, but applies just as aptly here.  It brings out that

There was a world of professions and roles available to women in the Victorian age. Of course, aristocrat was one, but not all aristocrats are equal. For example, a duchess would live a very different life from the daughter of a country squire. The Victorian age also saw the rise in the merchant (or self-made) class, men who had no land but acquired great amounts of wealth through business. These men (and, thus, their families) often received aristocratic titles without land. So the daughter of a wealthy tea merchant would be a “lady,” but not of the same caliber as the daughters of earls or barons who may have had less money, but had landed titles. Aristocrat might not have been a “job,” but they did have responsibilities, mainly in charity work.

There were millions of women “in service” in the Victorian age, women who worked as cooks, maids, housekeepers, nannies, and governesses. This was a perfectly respectable profession for a woman of lower class.

Any woman whose husband or father owned a business was most likely well skilled in that profession as well. Women helped their husbands and fathers run shops, bakeries, haberdasheries, pubs, hotels, post offices, repair shops, pharmacies, and farms.

While women were not allowed officially in some fields, you could still find them working in related capacities. Women couldn’t be doctors, but they could be nurses, midwives, and natural healers. Victoria Thompson has a brilliant series of gaslight mysteries starring a midwife, a profession that allows the heroine to interact with people of all strata of society. Similarly, women couldn’t be police officers, but they were often used undercover or as consultants. Women also weren’t politicians, but they certainly were politically active. Many women spoke about women’s rights, helped widows and orphans, and campaigned for their favorite candidates.

Women also worked in creative fields. Women were artists and writers, though they often worked under pseudonyms since they could be denied jobs based on their sex.

Women were also teachers, dancers, singers, actresses, and models. They were hairdressers, seamstresses, and cobblers.

In the Victorian age, anywhere you found men, you also found women

Long story short, Penny Dreadful is unacceptably deficient when it comes to women.

Come back tomorrow to read about why I can’t stop fuming over its representation of Chinese people in Victorian London.