The New TV: Female Detectives
Leila A. McNeill offers some insightful analysis on the function of women in the american crime drama in her essay “Gender and Forensic Science on Television”. Her thoughts center on the institutionalized masculineness of the detective model of literature and television and the sexism present in each. Working from examples of the male dominated Sherlock Holmes stories: stories in which the main character refuses a married life, and claims women are “never to be entirely trusted”, and then bringing the focus to a more modern lens, Leila uncovers the often demeaning role of women in television of the genre.
Leila credits CSI as a primary influence in shaping the modern crime drama as television that grotesquely sexualizes the victimized women, and may even work to “blame female victims for their own suffering”. Leila brings to light the twisted eroticism of how the postmortem bodies of women in this show are set on full display and “objectified and sexualized”. In Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, the show Leila is lauding for its female-centric cast and feminists’ approach to the detective show, the women are given strong roles, essentially occupying the roles of the traditionally male detective character. In the episode Death and Hysteria the “hysterical women” are transmitted to a sanitarium because they are “consumed by lust” or disrobe in public. But Leila claims these are not the actions of hysterical women, but women who live in a culture where their sexuality is stigmatized and they crave sexual freedom, which ultimately cannot be granted. In this manner they are like “caged birds that couldn’t survive free in the world”. This metaphor serves to underlie the greater significance of how the femininity is exploited or discarded in the crime drama genre. Therefore, when a show like MFMM is released, Leila would naturally applaud it’s mainly female cast: females who aren’t sexualized and who can uncover mysteries on their own.
Like Leila, I also feel a sense pride for this show and its role at this time in history, in regards to sociopolitical climate in the media. We live in a time where, more than ever, women are seeping into the zeitgeist of pop culture as subjects of heroic crime specialists instead of objects to be exploited. But, while Leila’s exegesis on the crime drama and particularly CSI’s portrayal of women is timely and poignant, I would claim that a positive portrayal of the female detective has permeated western culture for a significant amount of time. Nancy Drew, Cam Jansen, Supergirl, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jane Tennison, and more recently Olivia Benson in Law and Order: SVU are each powerful female detectives or vigilantes who not only match but outperform their male counterparts in their respective shows. While the Supergirl of the seventies may have not escaped being sexualized (she was a cartoon after all) the Supergirl of the 2010’s is toned down in her appearance. Her dress and demeanor aren’t as revealing and this doesn’t distract from her duty as a superhero. Jessica Jones, the recently released television show centers on a Private Eye with special capabilities, much like Sherlock Holmes.
The role of women in the crime drama has come to reflect the role of men in the crime drama. Females are now being given more and more attention as crime fighters or detectives instead of the hapless victims of the genre. I enjoy Leila’s arguments and side with her, but urge the author to see that the media portrayal of women in crime dramas has been historically positive and is burgeoning in the 2010’s.
Leila here. Thanks for reading my article and for your comments. There are a couple of things in your comments that I’d like to respond to. First, when looking at the genre of detective fiction, which has an obvious cross-over with forensic science, we are looking at the genre as a whole, both historically and in the present. So when I make the statement that the genre is a masculine genre, I am making a statement based on a quantitative analysis– there are far more works written by men and featuring male leads than there are works written by women and featuring female leads. This is true historically and in the present As I say at the beginning of the article, there are of course exceptions, but they are just exceptions, not the norm. Second, in regard to things like Supergirl, Jessica Jones, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, each of those are not considered part of the detective genre, thus, they remain outside the analysis that I do here (even though I love all three of them). Thanks for reading!