Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

‘Killing Eve’ isn’t guilty of queerbaiting – but it is keeping us on our toes

For Sandra Oh to deny the possibility of romance between Villanelle and Eve is absurd, but it doesn’t mean the show has intentionally exploited the relationship to attract new viewers

Joanna Whitehead
Sunday 09 June 2019 14:41 BST
Killing Eve Season 2: Official trailer

Anyone with a heart couldn’t fail to be moved by Villanelle’s agony at having to slide her feet into a pair of Crocs in the first episode of season two’s Killing Eve, which hit BBC One screens last night.

Murder, deceit, cruelty, a dagger to the gut – nothing comes close to the pain this fashionista with a firearm appeared to feel upon realising that her sartorial choices were to suffer if she wanted to survive. Such are the compromises this irrepressible assassin may have to learn to endure.

The return to our screens of the charismatic Killing Eve character who gives zero f*cks is long overdue. Here is a woman who meets the beauty standard, but whose lack of interest in male sexual attention in a society where women’s acceptability is so often invested in their ability to conform to sexual and gender norms, is wholly refreshing. Rarely has a female character been less in need of “saving” than she. In almost every sense, Villanelle is deviant and I’m an absolute sucker for the underdog.

While the award-winning show has been critiqued for being yet another example of how queer women are portrayed as mad, bad and dangerous, I consider Villanelle to be an indisputable delight. Is she a psychopath? Undoubtedly.

Granted – Villanelle is probably not someone you want in your life, but her charm, comic timing and panache leave me, like so many others, utterly seduced. I’m no more excited by violence than the average person, but representations of women with power (even when this is abused) are so rare, that when we’re presented with one – particularly one as compelling as Villanelle – it makes Eve’s obsession with her completely understandable – and she’s not even queer.

Or is she?

In a recent interview with Gay Times, Sandra Oh’s response to the suggestion of romance between MI5 agent Eve Polastri and Villanelle led to accusations of queerbaiting: a term used to describe when a show leads an audience to believe that a character is queer to titillate and attract new viewers without ever developing this beyond hints.

“You guys are tricky because you want to make it into something … but it just isn’t,” said Oh.

To dismiss the palpable sexual tension between these two characters is naïve, and for Oh to categorically deny the possibility of any romance between the pair struck me as bizarre – but I don’t necessarily believe the show is guilty of queerbaiting.

Villanelle is played as an openly queer woman; her ex-partner even makes an appearance in season one. Eve – whose sexuality has never been clarified thus far – is clearly infatuated by Villanelle and I suspect Eve’s feelings for the assassin are as muddied and complicated as the viewers.

When Eve comes clean with Villanelle about her fixation at the end of season one, words effusively falling from her lips, Villanelle’s response clears up any ambiguity about her feelings towards Eve: “I think about you all the time. I think about what you’re wearing, and what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with. I think about the friends you have, I think about what you eat before you go to work, and what shampoo you have, and what happened in your family. I think about your eyes and your mouth, and what you feel when you kill someone, I think about what you have for breakfast. I just want to know everything,” bleats Eve.

“I think about you, too. I mean, I masturbate about you a lot,” deadpans Villanelle.

Eve’s admiration for Villanelle seems to grow in conjunction with her increasing body count and ability to escape evasion, telling her colleague: “She is outsmarting the smartest of us, and for that she deserves to do or kill whoever the hell she wants.” As women in male-dominated worlds, who both share a passion for their work, their similarities aren’t perhaps as different as we might initially assume. Villanelle excels at her work and both Eve and the viewer can’t help but respect her for it.

Romanticising a (fictional) serial killer in this way might sit uncomfortably with many observers, but when she’s as exciting and fun as this, it’s hard to resist. While her behaviour is unquestionably reprehensible, she also represents freedom, however twisted.

Writer and producer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, seems to agree. Speaking to Andrew Marr in March, she said: “Seeing women be violent – the flipside of that – there’s something instantly refreshing and oddly empowering.

“We’re being allowed to see women on slabs the whole time and being beaten up,” said Waller-Bridge, adding that people are “slightly exhausted from seeing women being “brutalised on screen”.

Independent Minds Events: get involved in the news agenda

I’d also argue that fictional violent women on screen simply aren’t as much of a concern as violent men. When it comes to life imitating art, the number of women imprisoned in the UK for violent crime is incredibly low, compared with men. Dr Mark Freestone, a lecturer in psychiatry who was recruited to assist the Killing Eve writing team create a believable psychopath in Villanelle, said that female psychopaths are “as rare as hen’s teeth”.

This doesn’t make their offences any less serious, however, but the joy of programming like this is the opportunity it provides us to suspend reality from the safety of our living rooms. Villanelle’s violence is often cartoon-like, accompanied by her droll comments and childish faux concern. Viewers should also be reassured by the fact that the likelihood of falling victim to a female assassin in real life is mighty slim.

Rather than queerbaiting, Killing Eve is simply continuing to keep its audience on its toes by building tension between its two protagonists, who happen to be women. It’s impossible to say if equivalent friction between straight male and female actors would be as effective, but I’m more than content to watch it play out. A lack of rounded and realistic representations of queer women on our screens means that when they do appear, it’s easy to critique them for their failure to reach the impossible standard of being all things to all people.

A romance between Villanelle and Eve would be undoubtedly thrilling, but I won’t be holding my breath. Life’s grey areas are often the most fascinating and this queer woman, for one, can’t wait to watch how Eve and Villanelle’s intriguing relationship continues to develop.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in