I find it fascinating when female characters that otherwise tick a lot (if not all) of the Mary Sue boxes are completely beloved by audiences. It only happens occasionally: Nausicaa from The Valley of the Wind, Sara Crewe from A Little Princess, Sybil from Downton Abbey, maybe even Lagertha from Vikings (at least in the early seasons).
Phryne Fisher is another such character, and her list of skills and achievements rival Xena's: she shimmies up drainpipes in high heels, is a perfect shot with a custom made pistol, can pilot an aircraft, speaks multiple languages, and wins the hearts and minds of all who know her. She's witty, wealthy, charming and beautiful, and enjoys complete sexual freedom despite living in the early 1920s.
What is it that protects her from the usual criticism? Perhaps it's simply that she's so much fun. She's practically the embodiment of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," and it's more out of her love of adventure than the pursuit of justice that she opens her mystery-solving business.
And really, who doesn't want to see a 1920s flapper flout society's expectations and embroil herself in a life of solving murders? It's the ultimate in wish-fulfilment, and between her fabulous wardrobe, ride-or-die entourage and beautiful townhouse, the show leans also heavily into themes of female empowerment and solidarity. Among Phryne's inner circle are a lesbian doctor, a shy Catholic maid and her pompous (but good-hearted) society aunt, and more than one case involves one or more of them coming to the rescue of vulnerable women from all walks of life.
That Phryne is an older woman (played by an actress who is currently forty-eight) is another bonus, reminding women everywhere that the fun doesn't stop after a certain age – and neither does romance. Phryne's ongoing flirtation with Detective Jack Robinson is truly one of the show's highlights.
Ultimately, Phryne reminds me of Stella Gibson from The Fall – not because the two have anything in common (besides solving crimes), but because they tap into a specific kind of power-fantasy for women. Whereas Stella was totally fearless and self-assured, Phryne enjoys absolute freedom from the world's judgments and expectations; a free spirit in the truest sense of the world. In the last episode I watched, she was wandering around her garden in a white mink shawl. Why? Cos she wanted to.