Between Victimhood and Power: The Female Detectives of Television’s Crime Dramas

By Annie ManionJune 22, 2015

Between Victimhood and Power: The Female Detectives of Television’s Crime Dramas

IN THE FIRST EPISODE of the latest season of Castle, Detective Kate Beckett rushes to the scene of her fiancé Rick Castle’s burning car wreck still wearing her wedding gown. She tears her dress and ruins her carefully coiffed hair as she tries to find him and pull him from the car. She finally gives up, falling to her knees as the fire department soaks the wreckage, along with Beckett and her dress. Not two minutes into the episode, however, once it is clear Castle is in fact alive, she whispers her desperate need to take part in the search. But before she can do so, one of her male co-workers tells her she’s “useless dressed like that” and to “go and change” before she joins the investigation. Within the scene, the comment is clearly meant to be practical; nobody can go hiking through the woods looking for injured loved ones while trailing a wedding dress. It nonetheless speaks to the contradictions built into television characters that are cops and women at the same time — the implication that they must choose between being one or the other because it is difficult, if not impossible, to be both at the same time. Beckett changes her clothes quickly (the symbolic shedding of her bridal whites reinforcing the lack of compatibility between “the job” and her personal life). Her male co-workers, on the other hand, spend the rest of the opening scenes still in their wedding finery, because, symbolic or not, one can still do police work in tuxedo pants.

Detective Beckett is hardly alone in this regard. Over the last several years, most crime dramas offer female representation in the squad room: from youthful, but hardened characters like Kono (Hawaii Five-0) and Victoria “Vic” Moretti (Longmire) to no-nonsense tomboys like Beckett and Sarah Linden (The Killing) to warm, intuitive authority figures like Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer) and Olivia Benson (Law & Order: SVU), women law enforcers are a familiar trope in the contemporary television landscape. But despite a closing gender gap, these crime dramas remain heavily masculine.

There is an uneasiness that underlies on-screen female detectives. They are tough, but sometimes uncomfortably vulnerable and easily victimized. They are not girly, these shows insist, but they are often effortlessly beautiful in spite of their ineptitude around things like make-up and hair dryers. This teetering balance between the masculine and the feminine stems from cultural assumptions: our expectations for characters that work in law enforcement contradict our expectations for characters who are women. Unlike their male counterparts, the women who work in law enforcement must reconcile their femininity with the skills necessary for police work — such as physical strength and emotional stoicism, traits that are traditionally associated with male, rather than female, identity.

This is not terribly surprising, given the fact that police work today continues to be seen as men’s work. Many police departments nationwide are still dominated by male employees, with only 12–15 percent female representation on average. The LAPD, for example, has made an effort over the last several years to staff a 20 percent female workforce and so far has only managed to achieve 19.2 percent. In all likelihood, television presents us with a more diverse picture than a glimpse into an average homicide or vice precinct in any city might offer. Many shows are moving away from mere tokenism toward a more nuanced form of representation that incorporates women from different ranks and ethnicities, and as some have pointed out, representation itself is an important part of the process toward gender equality; female characters in fictional police departments may encourage more young women to pursue careers in law enforcement in real life. Despite the progressive image that television presents on its surface, however, there is still a long way to go toward dismantling harmful gender stereotypes and offering audiences examples of women (who are able to unapologetically be women) in power.


Genre plays an important role in determining how characters behave on screen, as does the medium itself. Characters who appear in a sitcom, for example, aren’t subject to the same rules as those who appear in a spy drama. The same is true for feature films versus television, which operate under different standards of censorship. And this is especially true of crime dramas. The settings, stock characters, and even costumes and lighting that are fundamental elements of the genre codified in the mid-20th century, when police work and criminal justice were unquestionably male-dominated fields. They take place in the nightclubs and back-alleys that represent the seedy, criminal underbelly of modern life on the one hand, and the interrogation rooms and squad rooms that make up the grittier side of law and order on the other. These are masculine spaces that can be difficult, if not downright dangerous, for women to infiltrate. Where male characters can swagger right in, guns blazing, female characters must first establish that they are an exception to the generic tradition — that they will not be limited to one of the expected stock characters: “the spunky secretary,” “the helpless victim,” or “the femme fatale.”

Female detectives were not wholly absent from classic mystery; as early as the mid-19th century, lady sleuths were solving crimes in British and American literature. But familiar characters like Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, or even television’s first female private eye, Honey West, operated outside of the formal system of law enforcement. Theirs tended to be a domestic space, with mysteries that took place in boarding schools, manor houses, or hotels. Operating outside of the system gave these characters freedom from male bosses or co-workers who might overshadow them, and it also freed them from any obligation to follow legal protocols. But their marginal statuses ensured that they also lacked the power to follow through and bring criminals to justice themselves. It was enough at the time that they were able to contribute to solving mysteries, as private detectives laid the groundwork for their successors to believably work within the system itself and wield the weight of its power.

Naturally, contemporary television offers a considerably wider range of characters than midcentury noir literature, film, television, and radio. Even limited to the context of crime dramas alone, women now play medical examiners, crime scene investigators, district attorneys, police officers, and detectives. TV’s women entered the police force around the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, when audiences were introduced to women like Sgt. Suzanne “Pepper” Anderson (Police Woman) and Sgt. Christine Cagney and her partner Detective Mary Beth Lacey (Cagney & Lacey). Shows with male leads such as T.J. Hooker and Hill Street Blues started to include at least a token woman on the force. Of course, these women didn’t look like Miss Marple; they were always attractive, tall, and slim with long flowing hair — the result of old-fashioned genre conventions meeting the media specific expectations of women who appear on television. That old standard for physical beauty continues to be a prerequisite for TV detectives today. For every actor sporting a practical ponytail or a sensible outfit, there are several more with flawless mascara and eyeliner that never smudges, wearing an unnecessary pair of high heels. Times are changing, but American television still has trouble imagining attractive women without luscious eyelashes and impractical footwear.

Sexuality is perhaps the murkiest aspect of representing female cops. In some contexts, it can be interpreted as a form of power: attractive female characters can access information or locations that a man would not be able to. Kyra Sedgwick’s Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer) would sometimes fall back on a ditsy, flirtatious Southern belle persona in order to dupe suspects into a false sense of security. Gillian Anderson’s Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (The Fall) wields quite a bit of power, not only due to her rank, but also the effect she has on men. She never needs to flirt or seduce anyone in order to get information or move the case forward; she floats from scene to scene bewitching the men around her, evoking the aura and influence of the femme fatale. But there is also a tendency to regulate and even punish female characters for sexual behavior that is either normal or even encouraged in male characters. For example, in Chicago P.D., Intelligence Unit hopeful Officer Kim Burgess is rejected from the unit, even though she is the more qualified applicant, because she has a budding relationship with fellow officer Adam Ruzek. Her career suffers for their attraction; he suffers awkwardness for a few episodes.

The restrictions placed upon female characters by their physical attractiveness are not always so explicit. Vic Moretti is often on the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention from suspects who make comments or obscene gestures in her direction. Longmire is set in Wyoming, and the suspects’ behavior is intended as local color, or as a means of rendering a particular guest character unpalatable, but the casualness with which it is used is part of the problem. Lead characters are also not exempt from sexual policing. The Mysteries of Laura’s title character, Detective Laura Diamond, suffers harassment at the hands of her ex-husband Jake, who is also the captain of her precinct. Laura is an otherwise strong character, who actually has a better handle on her work-life balance than most on-screen detectives are able to manage, male or female. But her agency is whittled away whenever she tries to move on romantically, because her ex has no qualms about using his influence over her professional life in order to get in the way of her private life. In one episode, he makes sure Laura is working a case when she made plans for a getaway weekend with a new boyfriend. In another, Laura’s agency over her own love life is side-stepped entirely when Jake prevents an interested FBI agent from asking her out on a date. This constant revisiting of her romantic availability as a salient plot point is evidence enough that the power female characters in crime dramas have over their lives is constantly and quietly eroded.


Sometimes, that powerlessness is far less subtle: the victim’s shadow is not far from any female character in a crime drama. No matter how successfully a program manages to construct its female leads, they are incessantly juxtaposed against the ubiquitous female victims. Many crime dramas have been criticized recently for the ongoing prevalence of the “body of the week,” often an attractive young woman in some stage of undress. Victims are not always young women, but even an informal survey would reveal that the majority of them are. They represent the pale, vulnerable underbelly of noir as a genre, the polar opposite of the gritty, masculine hero. Their feminine vulnerability is precisely what he needs to protect. Their sacrifice is for the reassuring nature of crime dramas, especially for “crime of the week” procedurals.

Every show with a female detective or police officer works hard to distance her from the hapless victim, to repeatedly remind us that she can safely navigate the dangerous locations where crime dramas take place. Often a scene early on in an episode will establish these characters as “atypical” women — notably different from the victims who populate the opening scenes. They might need to run down a perpetrator or resist a sexist comment from a co-worker in order to demonstrate that they can hold their own in a man’s world without getting emotionally or physically harmed. Merely fitting in socially among her male co-workers can serve as proxy for police skills. The Killing, for instance, situates Sarah Linden as “one of the boys” in the first episode when her male co-workers throw her a bachelor party, complete with female blow-up sex doll, to celebrate her upcoming marriage and retirement. The party is a sign of their respect for her, as well as the comfort level she enjoys in her department. She is celebrated for the extremity to which she has distanced herself from the “the helpless victim” — for being like a man.

In addition to making female cops seem more masculine, many shows portray these same characters as inept at being feminine. Early episodes work to establish a character’s “grit” by showing us her inability to navigate personal grooming products and high fashion. In the very first episode of Castle, a snarky CSI tells Det. Beckett that people might like her better if she made the effort to put on a little make-up — a line that’s delivered at a crime scene literally over the dead body of a young woman. Even overtly feminine characters like The Closer’s Brenda Leigh Johnson are awkwardly accused of failed womanhood; while investigating the death of a Hollywood starlet, a series of stylists, make-up artists, and spa technicians comment on her split ends, dry skin, and bushy eyebrows. By the end of the episode, Johnson has submitted to a series of painful beauty treatments and been pressured into purchasing an arsenal of beauty products she has no idea how to use. There is no direct connection between someone who does not know her way around concealer and someone who can defend herself in dangerous situations, but there seems to be an assumption that women who are worse at performing femininity can better handle themselves in the masculine world of law enforcement.

In spite of all the effort to distance female leads from the “victim of the week,” it is nonetheless a strategy of crime dramas to put these strong female characters in vulnerable positions. And in these situations it is impossible to wholly erase the gender politics and step away from the normalcy of female victimhood. They might be “one of the boys,” but on the surface they are TV women: beautiful and feminized. This is compounded by the fact that many of the crimes against these women are sexual in nature. The opening episodes of Law & Order: SVU season 15 show Det. Benson’s brutal kidnapping at the hands of a serial rapist. She ultimately escapes under her own power, beating the kidnapper near to death, only to be kidnapped by him again later in the season. Rizzoli of Rizzoli & Isles is another recurring kidnap victim. The very first episode of the series sets her against the man who kidnapped her years before. In these cases, the vulnerability serves to add dimension to the characters, an essential element to any drama. But such dramatic tension often codes as old-fashioned rather than edgy, as in the series Beauty and the Beast. A valiant effort to adapt the 1980s series starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, the reboot changed the female lead from a lawyer to a detective. Her new job automatically makes her more powerful, at least on the surface, as we see Det. Catherine “Cat” Chandler engage in hand-to-hand combat and interrogate witnesses. But the conceit of the show requires that her “beast” love interest, Vincent Keller, step in and rescue her on a regular basis, rendering her aura of strength somewhat dimmer. When a detective is victimized, it brings her one step closer to the “body of the week” victims that make up the foundation of many of these stories, complicating her carefully constructed image of power.


In the end, it is important to remember that, for the most part, television crime dramas are less subversive than they are reassuring. On the surface, they make use of the broken disillusionment that characterize their predecessors, postwar noir film and literature, but they do not carry that disillusionment to their core. Noir emerged from the aftermath of World War II into a society that no longer had faith in the inherent goodness of its fellow humans. It worked to expose the sordid underbelly of the modern social system and fit into a growing culture of existentialism that questioned our place in the universe. Television may exhibit the outer trappings of classic noir, borrowing the look, dialogue, or character archetypes. But television’s goals are less esoteric and, historically, the medium has worked to build rather than undermine a sense of confidence in mainstream culture. A crime drama’s characters may be flawed and the justice system portrayed therein is far from perfect, but the majority of television shows offer closure and resolution. Even the grittiest, most violent antihero serves the cause of justice, protecting those who are weaker than he is. Even should a rapist go free, the system gave the victim a voice and a chance to fight back that she might not have had otherwise. Crimes may go unpunished, but they rarely go unsolved.

Broadcast television will always cater to the safest political sentiments, for fear of alienating the mainstream audience. By this logic, cable and other “for pay” platforms should theoretically offer more progressive material, but even the crime dramas offered by high-end cable like Showtime and HBO have not recently offered examples of strong female law enforcement officers. The Wire’s Detective Kima Greggs is recognized as one of television’s truest representations of women in law enforcement, but it has been seven years since The Wire ended. The more recent HBO crime drama True Detective offered very little in terms of professional women, let alone female officers. Writer Nic Pizzolatto has been criticized for the portrayal of women as helpless or shrewish without offering a counterbalance. While he claims this is exactly the point and the lack of female representation is meant as a criticism for the culture of objectification, the finished product is not as clear-cut as he intended, leaving a wide margin of interpretation. The new season of True Detective features Rachel McAdams as one of the detectives, but she is the sole representative of her gender in the primary cast.

However, just because television and crime dramas don’t offer perfectly progressive female characters doesn’t mean that we cannot view TV cops as positive role models. As mentioned above, most television precincts offer better gender representation than most precincts might in real life. Representation is an important first step, and seeing women in these roles is valuable. But we are beginning to reach a point where sheer representation is not enough. The token female character has evolved, but she has evolved from a pretty face in a uniform (a glorified version of the spunky secretary from the crime dramas of old) into a new stock character, “the tough cookie,” who can hold her own in a man’s world more effectively than even the femme fatale, but who can also slip back into the role of victim as needed for dramatic effect. The reaction to shows like True Detective proves that audiences are ready to see more nuanced female characters on screen. The question remains, then, how to introduce that kind of complexity, particularly since the appeal of procedurals depends so much on sameness and repetition.

It may be a tall order at this point in time, not just for television producers, but also for audiences. One key step would be to undo the assumption that masculinity and femininity are necessarily opposites. People can be tough and feminine as much as they can be weak and masculine. All of the effort to establish that female cops on TV are tomboys and not girly girls is unnecessary, because it reinforces an idea that is artificial. It would be enough to introduce characters with scenes that establish how good they are at their jobs, rather than also finding it necessary to show us that “even though they are girls,” they can fight or can’t use hair dryers. But the notion that women are not suited for certain professions lingers, and the uneasiness with seeing women in law enforcement continues. Solutions are difficult and elusive, but perhaps soon we will begin to see characters on-screen who represent the complex realities of everyday life rather than the comforting, simplified fantasies offered by genre television.


Annie Manion is a media scholar from Southern California who recently completed her doctorate in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

LARB Contributor

Annie Manion is a media scholar from Southern California who recently completed her doctorate in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She has an MA in East Asian Studies also from USC, and a BA in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. Though her research to date has focused primarily on Japanese animation and popular culture, she has also spent many years studying the cultural history of World War II, the history of film, and the relationship between genre and medium. She is also a huge fan of pulp fiction, creature features, and California’s quintessential cuisine, the hamburger.


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