Mindhunter and Toxic Masculinity

Illustration by Juliet Halasz

Warning: Discussion of rape and murder

Netflix’s Mindhunter explores the advent of character profiling as an approach to criminal investigation, a change which spurred the coining of the phrase 'serial killer' which is now so ubiquitous within our popular culture. It follows the story of Holden Ford (Jonathon Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they travel across the states and interview some of the most infamous serial killers of that period in order to determine ‘the why’. The show explores some dark and potentially distressing concepts in nothing short of explicit terms, but one of the overarching themes throughout the series is an exploration of toxic masculinity. This concept is examined, in particular, throughout the character arch of the series’ protagonist, Holden Ford.

(Spoilers throughout)

We start the series with a hostage situation; Holden Ford arrives on the scene to find a man holding a woman hostage and demanding to see his wife. Here, we see a situation wherein Holden empathises with his subject in order to de-escalate the man’s emotional responses . Why open the series this way? Because it establishes how Holden does his job – he empathises with his subjects and sees things from their point of view, no matter how different that perspective is from his own. It’s this ability to absorb perspectives, possibly verging on impressionability, that creates a shift in Holden’s ideas about masculinity as the series progresses . He absorbs different perspectives like a sponge, believing that immersing yourself fully into a different way of thinking is the only way of truly understanding why people do what they do; what drives people to commit crimes, what drives them to take hostages and what drives them to kill, and kill again and kill again, ad infinitum, until they are caught or die.

He is set on a path that allows him to investigate serial killers through face-to-face interviews, understanding their perspective and using that information in order to create psychological profiles of the criminals he is pursuing . In his first ever interview with Edmund Kemper, he’s nervous, uncomfortable and visibly intimidated. Over the next few interviews, he tries to get Kemper to open up about his murders by attempting to relate to him: Ford says some derogatory things about his girlfriend and shares anecdotes about his mother from his childhood. These are things that Kemper seems to respond to, as it is revealed that his main motivation for killing was bitterness at his own inability to participate in consensual sex. “Women were initially indifferent to me,” he states. This proves to be a running theme for all of the serial killers in the series – they kill out of a desperate desire to assert their masculinity. Monte Rissel, for instance, murdered and raped sex workers because he knew his own partner was sleeping with another man but felt powerless to pursue emotional recourse through any other means. It’s profiling the motives of these killers that allows the duo to solve a number of ongoing investigations: a man is convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend after she lost interest in him sexually and romantically ; another man is found to have murdered a series of old women after his own mother began a romantic relationship which he disapproved of and resented. Here we see toxic masculinity at its destructive peak; these are men that are acting on their possessive objectification of the women around them in unthinkably violent ways. 

Eventually, Agent Ford develops a personal connection with his interview subjects and topic of study, which allows for him to achieve a clearer perspective. It’s a tactic that Holden uses more and more brazenly as the series goes on. During the later part of the season, during an interview with Richard Speck (convicted for the murder and rape of eight nursing students), Holden asks how he could reconcile himself with having selfishly taken “eight ripe c***s out of this world,” a comment that understandably shocks everyone in the room (with the obvious exception of Speck). Holden’s attempts to relate to his subjects become more and more assertive. During the season finale, Holden goes as far as to talk in sexual terms about a deceased 12-year old girl in order to trick the suspect into a false sense of security. His methods work, but it means Holden has to infringe upon his personal ethics and those of the organisation he is employed by, as well as socially imposed dictations of decent conduct. He absorbs the perspectives of his subjects and even though he utilises what he learns effectively, their problematic ideologies (particularly regarding women) begin to influence his own behaviours. He even acknowledges the risk of this happening himself in episode 3: “I can’t let this guy rub off on me,” he tells Debbie (his girlfriend). “The way they view sex…” Debbie corrects him: “the way they view women.” 

Holden’s relationship with Debbie puts a magnifying glass up to his own toxic masculinity. Debbie, a postgraduate Sociology student, is intellectually challenging, witty, sarcastic and opinionated. From the moment they meet, she constantly calls Holden out and revels in making him uncomfortable. During the earlier phase of the series, Holden has no problem with this. In fact, he’s attracted to it. He is a conscientious (albeit slightly inept) lover, eager to provide oral sex; and even asks for direction to make sure he’s doing it right. You don’t need a PhD in Film studies to grasp the symbolism here. But, as the series progresses, we see Holden become less and less empathetic towards Debbie. We see him pay her less attention, oversharing about his work but not really listening to her concerns or input. More and more, we see a disintegration of the relationship; he is absent a lot of the time, both emotionally and physically. This leads Debbie to cheat on him and ultimately to end the relationship altogether (interested viewers may take note of the fact that Holden was literally speaking for Debbie and putting the words in her mouth during the actual break-up scene).

Holden’s response to the end of the relationship is mainly based on repression - one of the central components to the toxic masculine mind-set. Presenting vulnerability is considered a weakness; making emotional pain visible is out of the question. We see it throughout the series, not just during this episode. During the pilot, Holden shows remorse at his perceived failure to save the gunman before he committed suicide. He is assured that he did a good job. No hostages or bystanders were killed and “that’s how we define success.” To accept Holden’s emotions regarding the incident would be tantamount to rejecting that notion of success wholesale. We see it again when Holden catches Debbie cheating: instead of confronting her, or ever addressing how he feels, he simply leaves without uttering a word or even looking back. Throughout the series, Holden becomes visibly colder and more emotionally detached. Obviously this is not a sleight on his character - infidelity can create some terrible feelings - but Holden’s unwillingness to confront his emotions says a lot about the change that’s happening in how he processes the things going on in his life.

What is the result of all of this, by the end of the series? In the final episode, we see a changed Holden in an interview with FBI internal investigations, who are interrogating him with regards to the breach of ethics displayed in his behaviour during the interview with Speck. He is actively defiant of authority, visibly exasperated and not even willing to see the interview out to its completion. His behaviour starts to mimic that of the subjects he has been interviewing; hostile, uncooperative and manipulative. He’s headstrong, always believing that the ends justify the means. Yes, he broke numerous ethical codes, but did he achieve results? The version of Holden we see here is the same, sheepish man we saw in episode one, but his values and methods have been pushed to the extreme in order to ensure his research progresses. These extremities allowed his subjects to feel more comfortable talking to him - to them he was curious, but also relatable. It could be argued that he even validated their behaviour and perspectives. But it was these same behaviours that put the project, his relationship, and even his health in Jeopardy.

Unable to trust his colleagues and without Debbie to go to for emotional support, Holden visits the one person who still actually wants to see him, the one person who still considers him as a friend. Edmund Kemper, the original interview subject; where it all started. Alone in a hospital ward, face-to-face with a serial murderer, Holden suddenly becomes aware of his vulnerability. The result of all of this is that Holden reaches his breaking point and runs into the hallway. The series ends with Holden collapsed in the throes of a panic attack, unable to breathe. I think this scene is where Holden finally realises, maybe too late, that his behaviour has brought him to where he is now: completely alone and isolated from everyone around him. The people he can relate to most are the same ones who rape and kill women with pride. Men who represent the apex of toxic masculinity. These people show no regret and no remorse; in fact, they wear their criminal records as badges of honour. I think that’s what causes Holden to panic. It was the sudden realisation that he was being manipulated by Kemper, that he was actually incredibly vulnerable and that, in reality, he had very little control over his own life. But, above all of this, it was the realisation that Kemper was the one person he had left. The one person who he relates to the most was committed for the murders and rapes of ten women, including his own mother.

Mindhunter, much like Holden Ford, observes the criminal mind in an intellectually curious way. The show explores the scientific details of criminal psychology and forensics as well as the impacts of crime on wider society. I think that one of the overarching themes that the show seeks to dissect and analyse is this idea of toxic masculinity. Perhaps one of the points the show is trying to raise is how virulent this kind of behaviour can be. Thinking about misogyny in this way allows us to analyse the ways in which men communicate with each other in real-world male-exclusive and male-dominated spaces. We've probably all heard derogatory and objectifying jokes made about women and non-binary people in our lives, and it's simply a fact that language like this is more prevalent in such male-dominated spaces. Very few men - including, for a long time, myself - see that it's necessary to find the courage to consistently assert themselves and go against the grain to make it known that language like this is unacceptable and degrading to everybody involved. While interactions which centre around and normalise objectifying and making derogatory remarks about women and other non-masculine people may seem to be “harmless banter” to some (most of us are certainly socialised to believe as much), to what extent are such interactions just enabling a way of thinking that has the potential to lead to some dark places? Problematic ideas and perspectives, when left unchallenged, are permitted to grow until they become something much more sinister, the likes of which we often (erroneously) relegate to the realm of ‘monsters’ like Kemper. Worse still: if we aren’t able to assert ourselves, we run the risk of absorbing some of that thinking ourselves.

Many men, and certainly also some women, feel pressure in particular social circles to permit, or even contribute to, the expression of behaviours and perspectives that we know are problematic. This could be because we want acceptance from our peers or maybe, like Holden, we want something out of the person or people we are pandering too. It may be that we genuinely see no harm in what are, after all, ‘just words’. But, it is important to recognise the impact that those words have, not only on the person saying them but on everybody exposed to them. If we are not able to find the strength to assert ourselves and challenge what we know to be problematic perspectives then, much like Holden, we may find ourselves in places we realise we don’t want to be in.

6 years ago by James Thorpe