Doctor Foster: an apologia for domestic violence?

The BBC TV series Doctor Foster has gripped viewers for five weeks. But it contains some disturbing take-home messages, writes Cath Murray

, 14 October 2015

Warning: Contains spoilers regarding the climax of the series.

It’s hard not to be shocked by the finale of the Doctor Foster series. There is a chilling edge to the final scene, in which the previously erratic main character Gemma, the eponymous Dr. Foster (Suranne Jones), sits with her son, cool and calm, as the ostracised father, Simon (Bertie Carvel), watches from across the square. As a viewer, you can buy into the premise, plot and characters – even Gemma’s increasingly outrageous behaviour after discovering her husband’s affair – and that impact is still there.

There are many ways to read this show, but one of the more worrying interpretations is as an apologia for domestic violence.

While Doctor Foster does combine masterful writing and acting, it also contains some uncomfortable messages about domestic violence and the legal system. This may not have been writer Mike Bartlett’s intention, but here are some of the messages that can be drawn from the series’ finale:

● Women provoke violence.

The myth that women provoke violence is a dangerous yet common one. Many abusers claim that their partner’s behaviour was so outrageous, manipulative or deliberately provocative that they were driven to hitting them.

Gemma is portrayed to be driving Simon to a state where he not only believes she has killed their son, Tom (Tom Taylor) but also fears for his own life. Viewers cannot help but feel empathy for Simon at this point. Gemma even cuts off a lock of her own hair to trick Simon into thinking it is the child’s and then menacingly tells Simon she could never have let their son grow up to be like him. However, as he then runs for the door, he sees his son and collapses in tears. Simon is now like a puppet in Gemma’s hands. She is enjoying torturing him, relentlessly.

● The law is on the side of women.

Gemma works her husband into a frenzy. Then what happens? He pushes her into a glass door and the police are called.

As soon as he has pushed her, Simon immediately recognises his own fate in the eyes of the law. The resignation in his voice as he tells his neighbour to call the police can be read as a poignant and deliberately-constructed criticism of the injustices of the legal system.

The take-home message here is that a woman can get away with any level of psychological abuse, but as soon as a man raises a finger, the law protects her and penalises him.

There is no discussion of the court case, the ambiguities of the situation or Gemma’s behavioural history. The scene of provocation and violence in the kitchen is the climax of the series, after which everything else is an epilogue.

The ends are tied up neatly for Gemma – she is reinstated as a GP and given full custody of their son. Simon is forbidden from contacting them.

● Mothers can’t cope with the idea that the child prefers the dad.

Gemma’s son tells her that he prefers his dad, as he spends time with him, while she is always working. The moment the boy makes this confession to Gemma, she flips from impulsive and unreasonable behaviour (driving into a field, apparently with no destination in mind) to hatching a calculated plot to destroy Simon. It is at this point that she is seen menacingly taking out her scissors from her bag.

So another message of Doctor Foster is that mothers – even those who apparently don’t engage with their children – get really angry if they find out their children prefer their fathers and may even take extreme revenge.

● Society favours the mother in custody battles.

Gemma’s case implies that a woman can be professionally irresponsible and even be hated by the child, but despite all this, she will still win custody and the father will be demonised.

Gemma’s behaviour stretches belief throughout

Of course there is nothing to suggest Bartlett is making a universal claim about women. Doctor Foster could, after all, be seen as a one-off case of a woman reacting disproportionately to her husband’s infidelity.

What is disturbing is its implication that the legal system backs women to the detriment of men, and mothers to the detriment of fathers.

Gemma’s behaviour, especially her professional indiscretions, stretches belief throughout. It begins with her paying off a patient with drugs, to act as her personal spy. She later persuades a GP colleague to let her treat her husband’s girlfriend, then breaks patient confidentiality by announcing at a dinner party that the girlfriend had an abortion. Finally – and horrifically – Gemma leads her husband to believe that she has killed their son.

Regardless of whether you think Gemma’s outrage at Simon’s infidelity is justified, it is clear that she has crossed several lines, both professionally and personally.

This is a portrait of a woman in need of help for her distress. Yet this issue is barely addressed and when it is, it’s often in ways that serve to sideline her. For example, Gemma’s colleagues become wary and collaborate with the GMC to have her temporarily barred from practicing medicine; they also try to push her into relationship counselling, but no one person fully understands the sum of Gemma’s problematic behaviour. Only the audience has this perspective.

The omission of any sign of remorse in Gemma has to be seen as a deliberate move by Bartlett

To the audience, the injustice of the situation is made plain: Gemma’s retribution is disproportionate to Simon’s crime.

Despite this, Gemma ends the series restored to her former positions of responsibility: in the eyes of the law and society, she is a ‘respectable’ mother and doctor, while Simon is banished to London with his girlfriend, Kate (Jodie Comer), unable to contact his son.

None of this is problematic per se; drama is a time-honoured format for dealing with the sticky questions of human behaviour, and Bartlett is adept at doing so. But the way the series wraps up in 10 minutes is carelessly – or perhaps deliberately – provocative in the implications it creates.

Up to the moment with the scissors, Gemma could be interpreted as a woman distraught by Simon’s betrayal – lashing out at everyone (first Simon and his girlfriend’s family, then the neighbours, whose marriage she tries to destroy). But the neat 10 minute epilogue leads the audience to another interpretation.

After the dramatic finale in the kitchen, the series wraps up neatly in what is, in effect, an epilogue. We’ve moved on several months and Gemma is seen calmly sitting with her son at a cafe table, while Simon climbs into a car to leave for London. We learn that he is barred from contacting them.

The omission of any sign of remorse in Gemma has to be seen as a deliberate move by Bartlett. It eliminates the interpretation of Gemma (on the day of the kitchen scene) as a victim of her own distress. It also suggests that Gemma whisking their son away from school in the middle of the day, along with tricking Simon into thinking she had killed him, were not the continuation of a spiral of despair, but in fact a calculated ploy to gain full custody.

My main beef with the series finale is the way it hands abusers a justification for violence

As menacing as this suggestion is, we can still read Gemma’s story as an isolated case. No doubt there are similarly unjustly treated fathers whose stories could be told. However, my main beef with the series finale is the way it hands abusers a justification for violence that is remarkably easy in a society that stigmatises mental illness: “She pushed me to the edge”, “You don’t see her when she’s being a crazy bitch”, “She went totally mental.” All these are ways an audience could imagine Simon describing the climax in the kitchen and are also excuses used by men who physically abuse women in real life.

Bartlett may well have felt it necessary to present the father’s side of the story, but in a culture in which justice for domestic violence victims is hard to come by, I can’t help feeling this ending is either a deliberate challenge to the justice system or downright careless.

By painting a picture of a woman who can deliberately provoke her partner into violence for her own legal ends, Bartlett is – whether unwittingly or not – perpetuating a dangerous stereotype.

The risk is that, instead of seeing their behaviour challenged, an abuser watching Doctor Foster would see an apology for their own violence within it.

Whatever its intentions, this show has, in effect, ended up perpetuating the old stereotype that women are at heart unstable and unpredictable, yet can be calculating in their provocation of male violence.

[Image information. Picture shows Doctor Foster (Suranne Jones) in a dark brown/black evening dress at a food and wine laden dinner table, looking over at an out of shot guest. Credit: Drama Republic/Ed Miller. Photographer: Ed Miller. Image Copyright: Drama Republic. Obtained from the BBC Pictures website and shared under fair dealing.]

Cath Murray is a journalist and translator, who has lived in France, Spain and Costa Rica. She now lives in her native UK with her partner and three children and is Managing Editor for Netmums

Comments From You

D H Kelly // Posted 15 October 2015 at 11:51 am

I have to strongly disagree with part of the criticism here.

I don’t believe the viewer is led to believe that Gemma provokes Simon to assault her. She is not a sympathetic character – she’s not a nice person and Simon has abused her to a point of despair. He has financially abused her, lying about money, forging her signature in order to spend her inheritance and involving the family finances in illegal practices. He has psychologically abused her, both through his infidelity and his attempts to gaslight, embarrass and humiliate her while covering it up.

So she’s completely desperate, and of course, this is not a model of how to behave in any circumstances. However, Bartlett has created a supporting cast of women with very different relationships and attitudes, which I think helps balance out any suggestion that Gemma’s behaviour is typical.

Yet the point about violence is that it cannot be provoked without a physical threat. If Gemma had a knife to the boy’s throat or was beating Simon when he snapped and smashed her face against a glass door, it would be different. But she didn’t. Simon took the step that Gemma – in all her bad behaviour – did not. Quite rightly, physical violence is taken far more seriously by both the law and society at large than anything else because it so easily can (and so easily could, even in this case) cause lasting unrecoverable damage or death. I think the drama gives us this message early on in the concern we feel for Carly, the abused patient who Gemma exploits to help her uncover Simon’s affair.

It’s so crucial to understand (as I dearly hope most viewers would have) that physical violence cannot be provoked by even the most outrageous non-violent behaviour. Apart from anything else, assailants *always* justify their violence in terms of their victims’ behaviour. Very often, victims have argued, raised their voices, laughed inappropriately, lied, been sarcastic or acted in a way that might have genuinely hurt or humiliated their abuser – but none of that stuff makes the violence okay. There aren’t very many Gemma Foster’s about, but to portray victims of domestic violence as entirely faultless, virtuous people is to create a representation where no victim will ever recognise themselves (even when they are incredibly good people, they’re unlikely see themselves that way).

We combat abuser’s excuses by rejecting such excuses altogether – which I think Bartlett achieves; Simon says to phone the police because, despite self-justifying all manner of dishonesty, he knows he has now done what cannot be excused.

There is no mention of a court case, but there may not have been one. Assaulting someone is quite enough to justify an injunction to keep the assailant away from his victim and his victim’s children for a period of time, even if the assault has not resulted in a conviction.

Holly Combe // Posted 19 October 2015 at 1:23 am

[Additional spoiler alert added for subplots]

I changed my mind a number of times about the possible point being made when watching this, but there does sadly still seem to be a potential for a certain kind of ‘Bad Woman’ to send some viewers hurtling down a misogynistic path. I guess it’s the old question of what the dominant reading might be? I personally tend to think drama becomes stilted if it avoids exploring bad behaviour from characters in oppressed groups because of the conclusions bigoted viewers might draw, but it’s sometimes hard to tell if a drama is simply doing its own thing despite these readings or endorsing/encouraging them.

Still, I actually think Gemma is portrayed quite sympathetically in parts, particularly in relation to her interactions with her suicidal friend and the divorce lawyer (who seems to pretty much endorse her lack of professionalism in relation to his health dilemma, albeit after a bit of token outrage). My overall impression is that she is a heretic with a potential for heroism who loses her way.

On a related but also separate note, I think it is significant that Gemma calls out her son, Tom, when he refers to Kate as a ‘slut’. If it wasn’t for this moment, I would be getting a lot of alarm bells about him being positioned as some sort of ‘truth teller’ in his resentment over Gemma “getting in so late” and not making sandwiches like “other Mums”. Meanwhile, Tom is forgiving towards his father’s absences, admiringly saying “Dad works so hard” when Simon rushes away from a family get-together for an apparent ‘work’ matter. This indicates that he has clearly absorbed some very sexist double standards. Gemma’s reaction is over the top but I think her frustration with Tom’s crappy attitude, on top of her husband’s duplicity, is entirely understandable.

Mercury97 // Posted 19 October 2015 at 10:48 pm

First of all, I’d like to make clear my starting perspective: physical violence is never acceptable or excusable in a relationship in any circumstances.

Now that I have that out of the way, I’d like to say that I do believe that emotional or verbal violence is often overlooked or disregarded. Having spoken to some who have resorted to physical violence (a whole range of ages), it would appear that it was at the point where they felt thoroughly outmatched verbally and that the other person’s intentions were primarily to outwit or make them feel the other person’s pain that they resorted to a physical act – pushing, grabbing, slapping usually (not necessarily anything more sinister). This is not to say that the physical violence is excusable in any way. It is not and there are methods for people to learn to withhold the urge. However, saying that the physical violence is not acceptable no matter what the other person’s words or actions should also not make the verbal violence acceptable. It is not. And I have also found that when a person realises their superior strength of mind and /or tongue, they are tempted to resort to that more frequently and almost taunt or lord it over their partner. This is likely to inflict much pain on their partner but can be overlooked and leave the partner feeling powerless. Feeling powerless for a man or woman can lead them to seek in themselves anything they have as a strength to defend and attack and use it. It is a viscous cycle. The source is not the actions or words, but the broken relationship at the heart and the methods of dealing / resolving this require mending trust and openness first, which is difficult.

So I suppose what I am saying is, that it is easy to label the person who has resorted to physical violence the ‘bad person’, but although their actions are inexcusable and damaging – so are sometimes the actions and words of their partner. Resorting to violence brings with it greater risk of death – hence the laws protecting victims and punishing perpetrators. But violence and carelessness of tongue can also be very damaging and should not be easily dismissed or excused.

There are also the scenarios of misunderstanding, unprovoked violence, exaggerated response to a short burst of verbal violence, and drugs / alcohol effecting behaviour. So each case is unique, and each side should examine their hearts and actions (verbal or physical).

Holly Combe // Posted 20 October 2015 at 12:14 pm

[@Mercury97] I’m a little taken aback by the framing of not condoning physical violence as something to be “got out of the way”. I also disagree that emotional or verbal violence is generally disregarded. Indeed, I’d say it is quite common for it to be used as an excuse for those who ‘snap’ and attack physically. I agree with you that it’s important to talk about the damage that non-physical abuse can do to people but I also tend to think that discussing this in the context of physical violence can very easily stray into a form of apologism for abusers who react with violent rage to perceived slights. (After all, unless we’re clear about what constitutes emotional or verbal *violence* in the first instance, it is very easy [for a DV apologist] to end up defending the all-too-familiar scenario of a man exercising physical power over a woman who is perceived to be ‘nagging’ and apparently needs to be put in her place.)

I note you’ve been very careful not to bring gender into your point. In one sense, I think it’s important to also look at situations individually and acknowledge the capacity for people who don’t necessarily possess structural power to hurt or dominate others. However, adding “or a woman” to a statement that reads like something of a defence of those who use greater physical strength in retaliation doesn’t stop it also reading like a form of apologism for violent men.

D H Kelly // Posted 20 October 2015 at 3:34 pm

“Having spoken to some who have resorted to physical violence (a whole range of ages), it would appear that it was at the point where they felt thoroughly outmatched verbally and that the other person’s intentions were primarily to outwit or make them feel the other person’s pain that they resorted to a physical act – pushing, grabbing, slapping usually (not necessarily anything more sinister).”

Forgive my frankness but please, please believe me; you are listening to the wrong people about physical violence. Unreformed offenders are the most unreliable sources of why offences are committed; of course it’s someone else’s fault, of course they are the real victims! That applies to folks who park illegally, let alone people who beat up the people they claim to love.

People hit (or push, grab, slap etc.) because it provides a release of endorphins and wins any argument against someone who can’t or won’t hit them back harder. This is a pleasurable release and an enormous power rush, which is why they are likely to do it again and again, needing less of an excuse and increasing in violence over time. It’s not that victims get more and more clever with their words, the more often they are hit.

This was one of my abuser’s favourite excuses and there’s no doubt, I was more articulate than him. But it wasn’t me calling him s-head, s for brains, the c-word, bitch, screaming those words in his face. It wasn’t me saying he was stupid, ugly, useless and lazy, insulting his friends and family, telling him those people didn’t give a toss about him. That’s verbal abuse. But to that person and the folks you’ve been talking to about this, any kind of contradiction is a major problem, any criticism at all is an act of deep disrespect.

My downfall was often sarcasm. Not witty, cutting sarcasm, just saying “Okay, fine.” when I’d had enough of being shouted at, but without enough sincerity and I’d get hit for it. And then afterwards I’d hear about how I had been verbally violent.

And of course, in ten years, I was not never unkind – in anger, I occasionally said things with the intention of causing hurt feelings, but honestly, those things never got me hit. Even if they had, it would be no excuse – I only mention the fact to drive home the point; people who hit their partners will lie about why and how and all the circumstances surrounding it, and then only if they cannot or don’t feel the need to deny it all together. People can and do reform themselves but honestly, they wouldn’t be saying these things if they had.

Forgive me for another long comment, but this also has to be said: Pushing, grabbing and slapping are deeply sinister dangerous behaviours. People can choose not to attack, but no enraged person can control the force and direction of an attack in such a way that minimises the harm they do, ensuring that the person doesn’t fall awkwardly and crack their head open (although again, talk to your violent acquaintances and they will insist that – despite having little choice but to lash out – they would never hurt their partner badly, they would never take such a risk!).

Meanwhile, violent people are scary as hell. Once your partner has hit you, your entire relationship proceeds with a different power dynamic. Can you leave? If they grabbed your throat over an argument about the washing up, what would they do if they found a packed suitcase? And if you stay, then you need to consider what subjects are worth arguing about, worth risking your own (and maybe your children’s) physical safety over.

Wild threats – I’ll kill you, I’ll kill myself – become viable. Many people say desperate, ugly things in arguments, but when someone has already physically hurt you, you believe them. And you should. The only difference between someone who pushes, grabs or slaps their partner and someone who beats their partner to death is escalation. Which can happen over years or, in the right circumstances – if life unravels for the abuser in some way – in the space of minutes.

And of course, people who kill their partners say much the same things as people who push, grab and slap their partners; she was violent with words, she was cold, she was unfaithful, I couldn’t help myself.

Holly Combe // Posted 22 October 2015 at 11:20 am

Pushing, grabbing and slapping are deeply sinister dangerous behaviours. People can choose not to attack, but no enraged person can control the force and direction of an attack in such a way that minimises the harm they do, ensuring that the person doesn’t fall awkwardly and crack their head open (although again, talk to your violent acquaintances and they will insist that – despite having little choice but to lash out – they would never hurt their partner badly, they would never take such a risk!).

Thank you for underlining this, D H. As you say, if we’re talking about an emotional response and if there’s a claim there was little choice but to lash out, it makes complete sense to say that danger would have been increased.

And, anyway, what if that’s not the case? What if we’re actually talking about a more controlled “push, grab or slap”? If so, I’d say “sinister” [as mentioned in Mercury97’s original comment further up the thread] doesn’t even cover it because then we’re talking about a direct attempt to punish, which is abuse of the “It’s for your own good” and “I’m teaching you a lesson” variety.

Liz Smith // Posted 25 October 2015 at 10:31 pm

Realise I’m a little late to the party here, but I just wanted to say that I’ve experienced a “Gemma Foster type” as the former partner of a man who was involved in a custody dispute, and I do know how utterly soul-destroying it can be when a person sets out to cut a parent out of their child’s life through manipulation.

My ex-partner did not, however, resort to any violence, I must make that clear and I would never ever condone it.

I guess where Dr Foster falls down for me is that it’s just a bit of a tired trope. There are many many men who experience this post-divorce/separation with child custody issues – the Gemma Foster figure is not perhaps as rare as we’d like to believe, if you’ve ever spent any time working around the family courts and support services (I was involved in Family Group Conferencing as an advocate around 5 years ago) you get to see the same stuff every day. Fair enough, there are few women who will go to such lengths to use the system in the way Gemma does, but there are plenty of parents, usually mothers, who use their children to punish unfaithful partners, or punish them for leaving the relationship for whatever reason. Or even decide that they want to move on with their lives and their exes are an inconvenience.

Dr Foster doesn’t do any favours to victims, but it also paints men in a pretty crap light too.

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