By Leila A. McNeill
In our previous issue, I wrote about The Knick’s caesarean patients as objects for progressive male medical science and how this simplistic representation of female patients reinforces a misleading historical progress narrative. Despite that objectification of women and women’s medicine, I found The Knick to be a fascinating look into the surgical methods and medical breakthroughs at the turn of the century. However, now that I’ve finished the entire first season, I see only a fetishizing of brutality toward women, a typification of the ways women were stripped of their agency, and a whole lot of missed opportunities to tell powerful stories about women and their unique experiences. In other words, I’m sick and tired of seeing women beaten, sexually harassed, experimented on, or killed for no meaningful end other than to advance the stories of men.
Along with the three previously mentioned caesarean patients, women constitute the majority of patients that suffer from debilitating injury or disease and make up the largest death toll on the show. Why exactly is this?
Okay, yes, caesarean patients have to be cis-women, obviously, but what about the others? The patient who lost a nose to syphilis was a woman whose story intersected with Thackery’s as his ex-girlfriend. She sheds light onto Thackery’s past and his character, but then she simply goes away and we see and hear nothing of her again. Eleanor, Dr. Gallinger’s wife, loses her baby to meningitis, goes insane, accidentally kills another baby, and is subsequently forced into an asylum where the doctor removes her teeth as part of her psychiatric treatment. In a flurry of paranoia brought on by cocaine, Thackery experiments with blood transfusions on an unnamed girl and kills her. These are only a few instances of note, and by no means all of the female patients and female deaths.
History shows us that women were often experimented on and treated inordinately worse than men in hospitals, especially mental institutions. Indeed, that would be an interesting story to tell. Yet, the fact that these patients are women in no way changes or enhances the plot of the show, or if they do serve any purpose, it is to highlight the stories of the men. Nothing in The Knick leads me to believe that the continued brutalization of women in this show is for historical accuracy. Instead, I find an odd and troubling preoccupation with victimizing women through medicine.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity to tell women’s stories in this show is the storyline with Sister Harriet, a nun and midwife at The Knick who administers clandestine, illegal abortions. Her character presented the writers with an opportunity to not only show the historical importance of midwifery in the lives of women but to tell the stories of the socially disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged women that saw abortion as their only option. Instead, Sister Harriet’s story is hijacked by Tom Cleary, the lewd loud-mouthed sweaty ambulance attendant. He goes from condemning Harriet’s actions to joining forces with her (for money) when he becomes ‘moved’ upon witnessing a woman die from a botched self-inflicted abortion. This woman’s death serves only the purpose of bringing about Cleary’s superficial change of heart. When Sister Harriet asks Cleary if he then understands why she does what she does, he says that he still doesn’t approve but does want to save lives. Understanding why Sister Harriet does what she does never really gets answered or fully fleshed out as we only get glimpses and sometimes not even that much of her clients whose stories remain silent and untold.
By the end of the first season, this show had become a breakfast sampler of all the different ways women could be stripped of their agency: women committed to an asylum, women being experimented on, women being forced into having an abortion and entering a loveless marriage- would you like that marriage with or without a side of rapey father-in-law? Rather than pushing these issues further or bringing these underrepresented experiences to the fore, the writers decide to carry out Thackery’s uninspired and unoriginal drug addiction storyline to the bitter end, making him nothing more than a twentieth-century unfunny version of Hugh Laurie’s House M.D.
Telling women’s stories is important, and telling their stories in the history of medicine is, I believe, especially critical because women’s bodies continue to be a battleground of power and control. When the only stories writers tell are the ones in which women capitulate their power to male doctors without resistance or question, then they reinforce the idea that women’s bodies are best understood by men alone.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "What Are the Dangers of a Single Story?," NPR Radio Hour, 2013.
Vikeniy Viressayev, The Memoirs of a Physician, trans. Simon Linden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1916).