Guest Post | The Killing, The Bridge, The Fall: The Rise Of the Female DetectiveThis 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.
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.
|Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson in The Fall|
There are, of course, gender stereotypes outside that of sex, most notably found in the maternal caricatures that often creep up in fiction. Even in Cagney & Lacey, whilst Christine Cagney (played by Sharon Gless) was a single, career-oriented woman, her partner, Mary Beth Lacey (played by Tyne Daly), was a maternal figure and working mother. Hargity’s character in L&O:SVU, though not a mother, portrays motherly instincts in the show, so many programs have and still do indulge in such tropes. The issue with this is that it reinforces stereotypes, though it does simultaneously demonstrate the importance of characters traits deemed ‘feminine’. This maternal figure, however, is not a uniform archetype in all programs. Anderson’s character in The Fall makes no effort to coddle those who work under her. Likewise, L&O’s Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (played by S. Epatha Merkerson) does not project ‘maternal’ instincts. Van Buren, though short in stature, is an assertive and demanding, but fair supervisor who has expectations of the detectives in her charge and is not afraid to put pressure on them to perform their job. Perhaps more importantly, the men under her command never question her and always respect her authority. When she asserts herself, there is no bemoaning when she’s left the room or misogynist terms used to belittle her. Even in The Killing, though the lead character is in fact a mother, she displays an utter lack of maternal instincts, frequently forgetting familial obligations in favour of professional ones. This is not a positive portrayal of womanhood, but it is one that serves to highlight the flaws we frequently see in men. When male leads forgo familial obligations for work, there is seldom an issue associated with it. In The Killing, the narrative demonstrates the impact this absenteeism has on a family and highlights the double standard, whilst at the same time demonstrating that women, and even mothers, are not defined strictly by their roles as a parent.
|Cast of L&O: SVU|
While these numbers may be promising, they are still not ideal. The overwhelming majority of lead roles still go to men, and women still make up well under 50% of the regular roles in detective programs. There are also still programs, like Castle and Bones, that rely on romantic subplots to push their narratives, and the trope of the maternal figure is still central in shows like L&O:SVU, though this is not an entirely bad thing. The recent success of the program True Detective seems to fly in the face of this progress, given that it had an exclusively male police outfit, but creator Nic Pizzolatto has acknowledge this flaw and is consciously trying to include female characters moving forward in the series. So while not all the news is good, the future looks promising. At the very least, we can be thankful that women no longer have to wear daisy dukes, see-through tops, bikinis, and miniskirts while investigating crime on television as they did in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and even in the 90's.
Written by Jason Horn. You can check out more of his work at Literary Ramblings or follow him on Twitter.
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