Why Hannibal has a Huge Female Fanbase


NBC ‘s show Hannibal recently renewed for a second season, might be running on the will of a female fanbase. With a writer, Bryan Fuller, whose shows usually end in cancellation in the first two season (Pushing Daises and Dead Like Me), Hannibal has found a way to tap into viewership that only ABC Family and the WB seem to cater to. But how does a crime procedural show that tops Games of Thrones in excessive, post-modern art installation-esque, gore attract the attention of this audience:

An Empathy Disorder

Thursday to Thursday, we watch as Will Graham, a man with an Empathy Disorder, (because that’s the sort of person who’d be looking at pictures of human corpse totem-poles, and the FBI would be totally comfortable with that) is psychologically beaten with the horror of a world that’s inhabitants are 2 serial killers for every 1 civilian. Ironically, Hannibal is the only comfort Will Graham can find that isn’t part of his dog pack.

An Empathy Disorder is female bait. Why?

"Ugh. So much guilt for killing the husband who beat me. I think I'm having a heart-attack."
“Ugh. So much guilt for killing the husband who beat me. I think I’m having a heart-attack.”

Empathy is something that is stereotypically feminine. Especially when it gets you into trouble, as all the women in 1940s-50s films find out with their mysterious heart conditions/illnesses that end their lives when too much empathic emotion overwhelms them (Les Diaboligues, Letter from an Unknown Women, the entire genre of the Woman’s Film).

This psychological victimization of men, the reversal of media tropes, becomes a safe zone for women to play out problems that stereotypically connected to women (something that Suzette Chan from the goes into in “Supernatural” bodies: Writing subjugation and resistance onto Sam and Dean Winchester” in the online journal Transformative Works and Cultures). That’s why shows like the WB’s Supernatural keep getting renewed with small, concentrated audience of female viewers.

Hannibal Lecter is a Feminist

In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is the only male character that does not objectify Clarice Starling, and seems to respect her skills as a FBI agent without expecting a hand-job. And atypical of the serial killer, his female body count is rather low and those outliers never carry any sexualized violence. This carries on in the television adaptation, with his only onscreen female body count the carbon copy of Clarice in Miriam Lass (great foreshadowing), and only out of desperation of being caught after she sees his Wounded Man drawing (the piece of art that helps Will in the book Red Dragon unveil Hannibal’s darker side).

The face of a romantic lead.
The face of a romantic lead.

The feminist Hannibal Lector has strangely attracted women even when he’s portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in a muzzle. Now that Mads Mikkelsen (a Dannish sex-god,whose often at the top of those Danes’ s sexiest man alive breed of polls) plays him as a more timely suave, will attract all that perverse attraction that lends itself to the Hannibal character.

The Hurt/Comfort Plotline

Fandom’s swift pickup of Hannibal, and the hurt/comfort plotline (any show that depends on one character getting “hurt”, and the other one “comforting” to keep the character progression and plot moving; for example, Supernatural, arcs of The X-Files, episodes of Star Trek, Grey’s Anatomy, etc have all relied on this type of storytelling) has made the show into trending female fanfare.

For Hannibal, this looks like Will struggling through another psychological blow ever episode, and then Hannibal (or any other body on hand) helps put Will together again for the next grime murder scene. It moves the plot along considering the show doesn’t actually follow the investigation step by step.

Hurt/Comfort in action.
Hurt/Comfort in action.

Shows that rely on the Hurt/Comfort plot, tend to gather female viewers (just ask Camille Bacon-Smith, an academic writer, who happens to think the Hurt/Comfort plotline is a secret weapon in gaining female audiences). Hannibal just happens to be a show that looks like a rip-off of HBO’s Dexter with a twisted procedural cop show plot and graphic gore, but really it’s more comparable to Grey’s Anatomy or any soap opera where someone hides their terminal cancer.

And on the topic of terminal cancer…

The Female Cast

For supporting characters, Freddie Lounds, Abigial Hobbs, Special Agent Katz, and Bella Crawford are all pretty round and dynamic and interesting. The cast is allowed to be smart, pretty, rude, sometimes disgusting, and altogether entertaining with lives that can be imagined in the non-diegetic (Lounds is reading Fifty Shades of Grey in a bubble bath while Hobbs is eating E. L. James and grinding her bones into bathroom grout).

My beef only comes down to Dr. Alana Bloom, who the writers forgot to develop (maybe they accidentally elbowed the delete button, and figured nobody really cared that much anyways). All we know of the therapist, is really only if she’s romantically available to Will Graham, a huge travesty in feminist media.

The show is ultimately running on the exhaust of fannish activities. Viewership and fandom might be considered two different things, but with ratings pretty low for Hannibal the renewal just might be traceable to the very loud and growing fandom.

In a time when television programing is being threatened (and eventually will be devoured by) Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon’s original programing, a show of quality being canceled over ratings is going to hit harder considering the cancellation history of these big television players. NBC is probably trying to get some quality credit with a pretty bland line-up (Chicago Fire, Parenthood, the ever dying Community), and will appreciate even a demographic that has been historically marginalized.

If NBC’s Hannibal creative team can keep this up, they could easily ride on the viewership and support of a strong female fanbase.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. amanda baker

    the conclusion is much stronger this time round with the addition of the television programmings future. I really enjoyed this review and critic and find it interesting that the threat of cancellation and viewership decline may act as one of the most influential motivators in tailoring television to a female audience.

  2. Sophie Wise

    Fantastic article here, completely agree with everything you have discussed. It is without a doubt that the female ‘Fannibal’ community have written a vast amount on hurt/comfort fan fiction, especially after the latter episodes!

  3. Sebastian Bible

    I feel that the female cast is the weak link in an otherwise outstanding psychological drama… I’m talking about Will’s fling and that East Asian character working with him… there are other female characters too that need to polish their performances. So amazing to see Gillian Anderson though, god do I wish that they will expand her character and screentime.

    • Amanda Gostomski

      I feel like there is this correlation to how a show gains a female fanbase and the lack of female characters. like many of the shows i use as an example dont have primary female characters.

    • It is the only thing the frustrates me about this show really: the criminally underused Gillian Anderson. She agreed to do your show, now for heaven’s sake, use her!

  4. Overall a good review, I agreed with all your major points especially the women in the show and Alana Bloom. Some parts were a little bit weak but you made up for it with your humor. I enjoyed reading it.

  5. now that i think about it this is pretty true. my dad was the first person i knew that watched it but everyone else i know that watches it now is female. i suppose we are suckers for handsome men who are messed up in someway.

  6. I like the article and find it very intellectual and informative, but my problem is this. There isn’t a voice. It has a very matter-of-fact type tone, which makes it a little bit of a slog to get through. I think it would benefit from having more character, and just more humor in general. Delivering information is one thing, but keeping people interested requires a little razzmatazz. It goes a long way. Other than that, I found it a good read. As a self-proclaimed feminist, it speaks to me.

    • Amanda Gostomski

      This is my voice. lol.

      • Right, I mean a “voice” for the article. Like the way TV announcers sound. They don’t talk that way in their lives. They do it because it keeps peoples attention. It’s the difference between “This soup is hot” and “it’s like lava and acid had a baby in my mouth!”. They’re both saying the exact same thing, but one has a lot more character. One good example is the way Cracked.com articles sound. Those have a fairly humorous, and universal voice.

  7. Jessica Koroll

    You bring up some interesting points here, including a few that I haven’t considered before. I’ve become so used to a lot of shows that I watch having a large female fanbase that, I’ll admit, at first I didn’t really think much of it when it came to Hannibal. I think your points on Will’s empathy and the lack of sexualized violence are particularly strong, especially when considering just how common the latter is in film and television. Although I’m still catching up on the show, I’m still hopeful that the development of the female characters will improve over time. Bryan Fuller tends to be solid in that area.

    • Amanda Gostomski

      Im surprised his characters are not fully developed. I havent watched Dead like Me but I’ve been assured of his dynamic female characters in it.

  8. Spencer

    This is a really intriguing article – when I first looked at it I did wonder why Hannibal would have a large female fanbase, but thinking about it, everyone I know who’s a fan is female. I really enjoy the assertion of Hannibal Lector as a feminist and will definitely keep that in mind when watching it!

  9. I think deep down inside many men actually enjoy the hurt/comfort relationship too. I’ve been paying more attention to this since reading this article. Although Men do like stories that have that whole “me against the world” type storyline, these plots almost always seem have some elements of this. The hurt/comfort relationship is actually pretty prevalent in war dramas and even in action movies. “Die Hard” for example has this dynamic between McClane (Bruce Willis) and the cop on the outside (You know, the dad from “Family Matters”). That officer was written in almost entirely for the purpose of supporting McClane emotionally. McClain often returns the favor. I think if men noticed this in storytelling it could only help us appreciate the story more and even help us recognize the importance of moral support, from one bad-ass dude to another.

  10. Bob Loblaw

    I think you didn’t think at all before you wrote this.

  11. FeministDoubleStandard

    “ This psychological victimization of men, the reversal of media tropes, becomes a safe zone for women to play out problems that (SIC! *are*) stereotypically connected to women…”
    Hilarious! Your AMAZING internalized Patriarchal ‘take’ on this show reflects your desire to ‘do to males what I perceive them to do to females’ (your “reversal of media tropes”) and reveals some deep-seated male revenge, anger, and harm fantasies.
    Yay ladies, you get to live out your fantasy of engaging in the SAME harmful behavior you critique? The hypocrisy and irony is most likely lost here.
    Okay, back I go to the real world. Scamper back to your same spaces now!

  12. FeministDoubleStandard

    Hum Amanda Gostomski says they are a “film maker” in 2013? Let’s see how that played out for them…
    It’s 2021 and there’s only 2 Amanda Gostomski‘s on IMDB – one has only 1 credit, they other has 6 (did you write “Secrets of Sorority Row”? Surely that isn’t Feminist!).
    Kinda makes me feel like this is simply another white-girl-latte-feminist who’s full of themselves.
    Hey, I bet you ended up wife’s up and with kids…It’s okay; 80-90% of ALL culture across ALL THE EARTH already know (and scientific studies show!) a nuclear family is best for success. #BelieveScience

  13. I think the attraction to Hannibal Lecter seems to be similar to that of Charles Manson, in that there seems to be an allure and curiosity of danger (a sort of bad boy effect.

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