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Guest Post | The Killing, The Bridge, The Fall: The Rise Of the Female Detective

Law & Order New York
This is a guest post from Jason Horn of Literary Ramblings

When Law and Order (L&O) debuted in 1990, it was the paradigm of the police procedural, and it was also a paradigm of the ‘old boy club’. Each episode followed Sergeant Max Greevey (played by George Dzundza) and his partner Detective Mike Logan (Chris Noth), as they investigated homicides under the supervision of Captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek). Upon completing their investigation, they would send the case off to D.A. Adam Schiff (Steven Hill), who would supervise Executive A.D.A. Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) and A.D.A. Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks) as they tried the case. The roster was full of testosterone and short of a few X chromosomes. This was the start of a new decade on television, and given that 1980’s had introduced the world to a police procedural that featured a double female lead in Cagney & Lacey, it seemed safe to assume that a police procedurals in the 90’s might be at least as progressive. L&O was a hit and the franchise has been a mainstay on network television for twenty-five years, but it would be four years before they introduced any female leads. A cursory review of police procedural today, however, suggests that there has been a significant expansion in the presentation of women in the traditional police procedural. Female partners are often senior detectives, not just sidekicks, and many shows have circumvented the clichéd romantic subplots and reliance on maternal qualities in the workplace. Indeed, when looking at the structure of popular programs like The Killing, The Fall, The Bridge and the L&O franchise, it is clear that women on police procedurals are no longer relegated to romantic subplots or maternal caricatures, but are oftentimes competent, exceptionally qualified, and professional investigators.

The Killing
The Killing
One of the biggest problems in the presentations of women is their frequent hypersexualization. Whilst programs like Charlie’s Angels boasted multiple female leads, they were perpetually framed as the object of sexual desires. Peripheral characters, like Daisy Duke, of The Dukes of Hazzard fame, were likewise included as an objects of sexual desire in programs the centered on solving crime, but seldom played a significant role in the plot's solution. Most programs have moved away from this kind of hypersexualization, however, perhaps most notably in The Killing. The show follows detective Sarah Linden (played by Mireille Enos) as she tries to solve the case of a young woman who was murdered. In the opening scene, Linden is seen jogging around the parks of Seattle, and though she is wearing yoga pants, the rain jacket she has on extends well below her waistline. There are no gratuitous shots of her backside. The function of the scene is to demonstrate that she takes care of her body and is physically qualified for her job. There are no short shots, exposed midriffs, or shots with cleavage placed not-so-subtly in the center of the screen. In other scenes, Linden dresses pragmatically, with warm, bulky sweaters. There are no plunging necklines, or form fitting tops that accentuates the bust line of actress Mireille Enos. Her attire is strictly pragmatic and professional, and though Enos is stunning woman with exceptional beauty, the writing staff and director do not exploit or focus on her appearance. The character is not hypersexualized, but rather, is a model of professionalism. The same can be said of actresses Mariska Hargity and Kathryn Erbe, who are featured in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (L&O:SVU) and Law and Order: Criminal Intent (L&O:CI) respectively. There is never an attempt to dress these women in attire that is anything short of professional and appropriate for their jobs, so the hypersexualization that was popular in the 70’s and early 80’s is all but extinct in contemporary police procedurals.

Part and parcel with this sexualization, is the clichéd romantic subplot. This template was perhaps most successfully outlined in the show Moonlighting as private detectives played by Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd acted as partners both professionally and romantically. Shepherd’s character was a former fashion model gone bankrupt who turns to running a detective agency she once kept as a tax write-off. She is the paradigm of beauty and the romantic interest of Willis’s character, who is the actual detective. Though she does contribute to the resolution of the narrative, her primary function in the show is as a love interest, negating her contributions. Similar formulas have been used more recently in programs like Bones and Castle, where male/female partnerships are formulated, and romance follows. Though the women in these more recent programs are presented in a more progressive manner in that they are central to solving the crimes, they still function as romantic interests and such subplots can serve to undermine their competency. So while the title character in Bones, Dr. Temperance Brennon (played by Emily Deschanel), can certainly be read as an empowered feminist character, the romantic subplot can serve to dilute this.

Other recent programs have forgone that romantic subplot altogether. In the popular program Cold Case, the senior detective is Lilly Rush (played by Kathryn Morris). Though she is a strikingly beautiful woman, and though the partner, detective Scotty Valens (played by Danny Pino), is an attractive man, there is no office romance. The show instead focuses on Rush’s ability to crack cold cases that others were not able to bring to trial. In L&O:CI, though Vincent D’Onofrio’s character, detective Robert Goren, is the lead character, it is Erbe’s Alexandra Eames that is the senior detective. Though the two work together for a decade, there is never any hint of a romantic relationship between them. Theirs is a strictly professional relationships. This mirrors the relationship between detectives Olivia Benson (played by Hargity) and Elliot Stabler (played by Christopher Meloni). Stabler is the senior detective, but Benson is the show’s lead, and there is never any hint of a romantic relationship between the two. Like Eames and Goren, Benson and Stabler are supportive and respectful of each other, but romantic subplots simply never enter the equation, allowing all the characters to focus on the job at hand while letting their aptitude for solving crimes to be the focus of the audience. A similar template is employed in both The Killing and The Bridge, as male and female partners navigate their professional lives and keep their romantic lives separate.

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