In anticipation of next week’s lecture about gender, crime and popular culture, I decided to blog about some of the things I like/dislike about female detectives on television.

[Just as a precursor, I’d like to point out that this post isn’t meant to be what I think the formula for creating the perfect female detective is, because I don’t think that exists. These are simply my opinions – the trends I notice and the things I like and dislike about female detectives on television today.]

Female Cop Tropes:

  • The Bachelor Pad: Female detectives are often portrayed as a little bit messy. They live alone, they eat greasy take out, they don’t pick up after themselves. They don’t have time for feminine nonsense like hygiene and cleanliness. Granted, this is a pretty dodgy stereotype even for male cops, but it’s just lazy when female detectives are written this way.
  • Relationships: They’re loners. They don’t really have many friends and romantic relationships rarely last because they’re more committed to (married to?) their job. This is not to say that female cops/detectives in real life don’t actually face these problems (I don’t know), but it’s usually a device applied to male detectives in pop culture and as such stands out more to me.
  • “Manly” Women: Many female detectives tend to adopt very masculine qualities (because obviously highly feminine women are naturally inept at police work?). To be a detective is essentially to be more masculine.

Example: Maria Bello’s character on Prime Suspect. I’ve only seen the pilot (and it’s way better than I expected), but NBC went head first down this route with their marketing campaign for the show.

  • Bait: They’re not damsels in distress (they’re trained and wielding guns!), but 99% of the time the best sure-fire way to trap a suspect is to have the female detective pretend to be one. (Which, naturally, requires that she wear as little as possible) Example: The below mentioned Covert Affairs, has its lead female detective posing as a prostitute to catch a bad guy in its pilot episode.
  • Barbie Cops: If they aren’t masculine women, they inhabit the complete opposite end of the spectrum and become sort of Barbie detectives. They chase down bad guys but they do it in runway heels (something akin to the infinite possibility principle). They can kick the ass of just about anyone, but dammit they better look smoking hot while they do it.
  • Specialties: Oftentimes when we’re being introduced to a female detective there’s some heavy-handed reference to her being almost other-worldly skilled at something (be it shooting, interrogating, profiling, intuition, whatever). Personally, I assume that anyone capable of being a detective has all those skills in abundance anyway! However, the Chief always makes sure to let us know “She was top of her class”, “The best of the best”, or “One of a kind!”. Presumably, we’re whacked over the head with her extra specialness because how else did she get this job while being female?! Having the skills of a regular male cop alone certainly isn’t enough to qualify here.

Example: Piper Perabo’s character on Covert Affairs is one of the first that comes to mind. Within the first five minutes of the pilot we learn that she did better on her driving exam than any female trainee they’ve ever had, did better at deception than anyone in the last decade and her language skills are so crucial that she’s thrust into the CIA months before her training is to formally end. (Overall, the character wasn’t that bad. I think my main problem with the show was that it was so achingly boring. But I digress.)

Specific Portrayals:

Sarah Walker
[Chuck | played by Yvonne Strahovski]

PROS: (How they got the character right) Unfortunately, there aren’t many. The first two seasons showed promise for a strong-willed, savvy, layered character who gave everything to her job and guarded her emotions. We saw a glimpse of a complex backstory and a well-rounded character emerging. Since the third season? Virtually gone.

CONS: (How they got the character wrong) Slowly but surely the show has all but erased the character they were developing and turned her into a blank slate onto which they could project whatever joke/personality the episode called for. She wasn’t her own character anymore so much as a plot device. Then we get into the objectification. Chuck has always been pretty sketchy in this area (a significant number of reoccurring female guest stars are brought back simply to star in slow-mo montages that look more like Victoria’s Secret ads than substantial television). More and more, the show seems to be trying to one-up itself, getting Strahovski to fight bandits in less and less clothing. For instance, for every scene of Sarah besting a baddie, there’s at least one of these in each episode:

Finally, the show’s namesake: Chuck. Since episode one the audience is painfully aware that Chuck and Sarah will end up together. There were two seasons of a transparent half-hearted will they/won’t they routine and that was fine, but when the show finally made them a couple Sarah was no longer her own person. Regardless of my own personal bias against them together, my concern is not with female characters wanting love, marriage or a dozen babies in a baby carriage, my concern is the way the relationship affects the individual characters. In this particular situation, Sarah has become defined entirely by her relationship with Chuck. She literally says:

“Without you, I’m nothing. I’m just a spy”

Without you. I’M NOTHING. What?! That’s not romantic, that’s just sad. Her worth as a character is completely dependent on Chuck, the man. That’s when I start to lose respect for a show.

Olivia Dunham
[Fringe | played by Anna Torv]

PROS: When she shoots at things, she usually hits them! (This may be an odd detail to focus on, but it’s honestly frustratingly rare for any cop character!). I also love that Olivia is the lead character (Shows driven by female leads that last more than a season are also frustratingly rare).  Not only that, but the central mythology of the show is completely built around Olivia. Sure, this fits the super special talent trope perfectly, but the show has taken that and expanded upon it and made it work.

CONS: This show has had some of the same missteps as Chuck (albeit not as glaringly). Again, after a couple of seasons, Olivia being the driving force for the mythology seemed to be not enough for the writers. They had to make her story dependent on her male counterpart/possible love interest Peter (played by Josh Jackson). Essentially the fate of two universes rests on Olivia’s ability to make Peter fall in love with her. I kid you not. The show still had a fair amount going for it when I stopped watching, but I just could not get over that. Gross.

Diana Barrigan
[White Collar | played by Marsha Thomason]

PROS: Even though she’s a minor character, she’s given more personality than a lot of lead characters are. (I will say this for USA, they live up to their “Character’s Welcome” slogan) She’s smart and funny and vibrant. She’s also a lesbian and a person of color – two things lacking on tv in general, not just in female detectives. What’s even better is they actually show her relationship with her girlfriend. It’s not just a passing remark made to satisfy statistics, but an actual dimension of her character.

CONS: She does seem to fill the Girl Friday role to the main character, Peter Burke. But still, a well written minor character is better than a horribly written main one. I’d say it’s a step in the right direction.

Debra Morgan
[Dexter | played by Jennifer Carpenter]

PROS: In my opinion, she’s probably the best female detective portrayed on TV right now. She’s the youngest cop to ever make Lieutenant in her department, she’s got real human flaws that the show never shies away from, she swears like a sailor (probably worse than one), she’s has realistic relationships, and the list goes on. A+ character from top to bottom.

Again, these are just my personal opinions. Also, these are just the female detectives I watch. I know nothing about the way other female detectives are depicted (Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order: SVU, Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer, Angie Harmon on Rizzoli & Isles, to name a few). I just know what makes certain characters stand out for me.

[Written by: Dayln Grossklaus]
[I’d like this to count for my third require blog post please]