Dissecting Masculinity in Hannibal


The second season of NBC’s Hannibal has received critical acclaim for the way it’s pushed boundaries on artistry, violence, and depth on television. But one of the most integral and perhaps overlooked aspects is the progressiveness of masculinity in this series. In what is an increasingly male-centric series we see a distinct comfort and openness with homosocial intimacy, and challenging depictions of male sexuality. Hannibal is not only delivering a fresh take on a popular and well known franchise, but further expanding on the trope of the male anti-hero.

Male anti-heroes and morally gray men are not only the norm on TV today, but the hot trend. Some even say it’s a tired trope, taking up too much space at the cost of other characterizations. Personally I still thoroughly enjoy characters that make me challenge my own ideas of morality and ethics. The typical heroes of shows rarely speak to me the way flawed characters do. Even as a kid I preferred to root for Faith over Buffy or Pacey over Dawson. But it’s impossible to miss the growing uniformity in this trend and how the representation of female anti-heroes lags far behind. This is why it can be easy to skim over the way gender works in Hannibal.

One of the many things that makes this critic and fan favorite special in season 2 is the fact that its two male leads are both protagonists and antagonists in their own right. Of course Hannibal the Cannibal is obviously the villain. The whole premise of the book series and all the adaptations that followed is that the center of this fictional universe is the horrific yet somehow appealing psychiatrist turned cannibal. In Bryan Fuller’s TV series Hannibal is fleshed out even more than in the source material. The audience is finally able to see what others saw that allowed him to elude capture for so long. But the second season also develops the darkness and ambiguity in the characters we’re supposed to cheer for. Will Graham approaches Walter White levels of boundary blurring. Jack Crawford and Frederick Chilton justify their own questionable actions with dubious logic.

It is in part this disregard for conventional characterization that allows the show to also transcend some of the usual trappings of masculinity. One major difference between Hannibal and other shows is the comfortable inclusion of homosocial relationships. How often are men seen spending time together just to enjoy one another’s company on serious TV dramas? Male friendships are a common feature of comedy series where they can get into hijinks together or talk about the women in their lives. But it isn’t normalized to a portray men just hanging out without the pretext of a joke. One of the primary features of this show is Hannibal having his friends over for dinner. Women talking over cocktails or a coffee is a given in these post-Sex and the City days, but not the reverse. Sure the meals are used to frame his cannibalism or subtly discuss major themes in the series, but it also goes a long way in showing male friendship is not only okay but a regular part of life. No homophobic jokes necessary. This is incredibly important because it helps to break down the depictions of men only in each other’s lives for beer, boob jokes, or competition. Even on a horror series that often stretches plausibility, representation matters.

Sexuality is also more fluid in Hannibal than its counterparts. Fuller intentionally wrote in homoerotic subtext between Will and Hannibal. He has suggested that Hannibal is a sexually flexible person with attractions that go beyond gender. While unfortunately Fuller has not been explicit with expressing various characters’ queerness on or off screen, he has them room to exist in non-binary ways. Not even the creator himself has been able to silence the debate surrounding Will’s sexuality and the nature of his relationship with Hannibal.

Another notable aspect on Hannibal is the sexualization of male characters. Season 2 features the first overtly erotic moments and sex scenes of the series, but the gaze is focused more on men than women. Whether or not this is problematic is a whole other conversation in itself, but it’s significant that the female and queer gaze is being acknowledged. But the most meaningful aspect is that the violence of the series is not eroticized. Bodies belonging to problematic men? Yes. However the common link we see in the media that fetishizes male violence and violence against women is not present.

Nonetheless, how progressive is the show really if it still leaves its female characters underdeveloped? In comparable series like Mad Men and Dexter women are featured as leading characters and are crucial to the stories being told. While characters in horror series are all potentially expendable, women on Hannibal seem to be particularly disposable. The issue isn’t female characters dying or taking extended absences, the problem is that Fuller offers them so few moments to shine. No woman gets as much screen time as the three leading men. Still in its infancy, there’s room for improvement. But if Hannibal wants to continue developing its unique bond with fans it needs to give the women in the show and the audience more consideration.

Athena G. Csuti is a young writer and feminist from Edmonton, AB. She is currently studying English Honours with Creative Writing and History at the University of Calgary. When she’s not writing poetry or essays, she’s curled up with her partner and her cats watching a horror film. Follow her for weird anecdotes and debates @AthenaGenevieve.

Photo Credit NBC Channel 

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