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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.

Stella Gibson - The Fall
Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson in The Fall

Not all contemporary detective shows have opted to exclude sex from the programs, but many of the shows that do include it use it to challenge the double standard linked with sex and gender. In The Fall, a BBC production starring Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson, a Detective Superintendent tasked with tracking down a serial killer, Anderson’s character indulges in a casual sexual relationship with a subordinate officer. That officer is soon killed, and when Gibson reports the nature of her relationship with the officer to her supervisor, he questions her professional judgement. She is quick to fire back at him that he had no issue with such behaviour when it was him having sex with her, despite the fact that he was married at the time, and then questions the nature of his objections. The Scandinavian production of The Bridge likewise features a female lead, Saga Norén (played by Sofia Helin), who adopts sexual behaviour that is more traditionally associated with masculinity, as she has casual sex with men she meets in bars, but this behaviour does not impact her professional life. She does not pursue romantic relations with her partner, and it is frequently Norén who uncovers key pieces of evidence and links them together. While programs like L&O:SVU and L&O:CI buck past trends by removing romantic subplots, programs like The Fall and The Bridge serve to challenge gender stereotypes by drawing attention to the double standards.

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.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
Cast of L&O: SVU

The last twenty-five years has also seen a growing diversity in casting. When L&O was cast twenty-five years ago, all six leads were male. Ten years later, in the first season of CSI, two of the five lead characters were female. Of the six actors who have appeared in 180 or more episodes of NCIS, two are women. The program Bones has even better numbers: three of the five actors who have appeared in 160 or more episodes are women. Even roles traditionally written for men are being replaced by women as the most recent incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, Elementary, has cast Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson. The L&O franchise may be the best litmus test of all, given that there were literally no female actresses cast as regulars in the original production. The only show in the franchise that is still running is L&O:SVU. Of the ten actors who have appeared in 74 or more episodes, five are women. The franchise has seen significant improvements in terms of the representation of women. There are only eight actors who have appeared in over 260 episodes, three of whom are woman: S. Epatha Merkerson, Mariska Hargity, and Leslie Hendrix (who has appeared in four different installments of the franchise). Merkerson holds the title for most appearances, while Hargity may rank second in the franchise for most appearances by the end of this upcoming television season depending on how many episodes are scheduled for L&O:SVU this year. Pretty impressive considering the franchise’s men had a three-year head start on any of the actresses involved with the various shows. The number of lead roles given to women in detective shows is also promising; L&O:SVU, The Fall, The Killing, The Bridge, Rizzoli & Isles and Bones are all current shows that have female leads and each are successful programs. Though The Killing has just completed its run, other recent shows, such as Prime Suspect, Saving Grace, The Closer, Medium and Top of the Lake, have also had female leads.

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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