Season 8, Episode 12 (The Devil Wears Whalebone)
As if women’s undergarments were not deadly uncomfortable enough in 1902, this week’s episode turns a corset into a devious murder weapon that suffocates the unfortunate wearer to death within minutes. What unfolds is a multi-layered conspiracy wherein the victim appears to be the unintended target, the murder seems to be brought about by vandalism (a brick thrown by a radical suffragette), and fierce business competition creates a web of suspects who all have viable motives and means. In the midst of the investigation, Brackenreid and Crabtree end up on opposite sides of a fight between Brackenreid’s son and the stepson of Crabtree’s girlfriend. With much of the station backing Crabtree’s potential step-stepson, the poor constable faces a lot of wrath from his boss. Is it me, or has Brackenreid become the butt of jokes lately? So far, he has starred in the comedic B-plot in the last two consecutive episodes.
Back to the main plot, this conspiracy of lingerie, corsets, suffragism, women’s rights, business competition, and modelling makes for a good story. It is reflective (as it does cause one to pause on how much the rights of women have advanced in 112 years) and it is entertaining. The plot is well-paced and, unlike last week, the overall theme of women’s rights does not overshadow the story. All of the “corsets are bad” criticisms are historically accurate. Drs. Ogden and Grace both reflect on the fact that they wear corsets (albeit not of the extreme variety) as a matter of course. Corsets were seen at the time to be no different than bras are today – necessary undergarments for decent society. As they especially want to be respected as professionals among men, Dr. Ogden and Dr. Grace wear corsets as part of their normal clothing. They do not think of them as highly restrictive – rather, they are part of what gives them social mobility.
The early 1900s also saw innovation in women’s clothing that included more comfortable and loose-fitting corsets. Fashion changed over the next twenty years in a way that eliminated the corset altogether in normal wear, but tight-fitting garments have continued to worm their way into modern apparel. What was once considered necessary as an undergarment is now considered appropriate outer-wear. Whereas in 1902, women hid their shapes behind corsets, in 2014, women strive to get their actual shape into a set structure, be it with artificial implants, ab workouts, or diets. We still maintain the mindset that a woman’s body should be a certain set shape that does not bounce or move or deviate from the norm. Women are still unhealthy and still worried about how they are seen by men…and other women.
Which brings us to the final point of this week’s story – namely, that women have the most competition from other women. Despite all of the “sisterhood” rhetoric and sentimental “women stick together and understand each other”, it is women who perpetuate unrealistic notions of beauty, steal each other’s spotlight, compete for male attention, and try to put down other women when men put barriers in their way. Hence the final scene, in which Dr. Grace seems to be seduced by a militant suffragette, is extremely troubling. I cannot see this working out well for either of them.