The fictional world has always featured women who solve crimes, from Nancy Drew to Veronica Mars. Although men crime-solvers outnumbered women on TV, women detectives have increasingly become more commonplace. This trend includes the policewomen depicted on CSI and Law & Order: SUV as well as private detectives like Veronica Mars and Miss Phryne Fisher who are the chief protagonists of their series.
There are a number of dimensions to the trend toward women investigators on TV crime programs, but we focus on four features that are especially notable: (1) depiction of women’s struggles to make it as detectives; (2) forensics and technology as important tools to women crime-solvers; (3) women crime-solvers with troubled pasts; and (4) women crime-solvers dealing with issues of race, ethnicity, immigration, social class, and sexual orientation. We also suggest that contemporary issues of social justice are ever-present on these programs.
In many ways, the struggles of women detectives in TV crime dramas parallel the experiences of women entering and advancing in real world policing. They confront sexist stereotypes and harassment. On TV’s The Closer, notwithstanding being a high ranking and smart detective, Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) faces unsupportive male subordinates who openly question her abilities. In Prime Suspect, Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) experiences organizational warfare that ranges from insubordination to sabotage. Both protagonists exhibit intelligence and a laser-like focus that resolves cases and ultimately garners respect from their colleagues. Nowadays, these struggles are depicted less often, but on Tennison 1973, a prequel to the award winning series, young police constable Jane Tennison (Stefanie Martini) is relegated to fetching tea for her male superiors. The prequel is a good reminder not only of “the way it was” and for many women, the way it still is.
Forensics and technology
Perseverance and intelligence are traits that help women crime-solvers survive and thrive, but another weapon in their arsenal is their use of science and technology. Beginning in the 1990s in Prime Suspect, Jane Tennison ushered-in crime drama that demonstrated the importance of forensics and other technology like surveillance videos. This opened the floodgates for later programs like CSI and its progeny. CSI women excel in their work: conducting lab experiments, accessing national crime data bases, or skillfully gathering evidence at a crime scene. Even in The Pinkertons, a historical detective series set in the 1870s, Kate Warne (Martha MacIssac) conducts scientific experiments—to the amazement of her male colleague—that yield important information, e.g., the poison that killed the victim. Interestingly, Kate Warne was a real Pinkerton operative and one of the first women detectives in the US.
The women in these programs exhibit rational thought, an approach that often openly challenges the “hunches” that characterized male TV detectives for years, and also transcends the stereotype of “women’s intuition.” These women are a virtual ad for the importance of STEM: science, technology, engineering, and medicine. Indeed, universities and communities increasingly work to attract women to STEM fields.
Protagonists’ backstories have become increasingly popular in TV crime shows, suggesting perhaps that this is now a crime genre element. Thus, many women protagonists are supplied with backstories loaded with problematic emotional baggage. For example, we learn in the first episode that crime-solver Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) was drugged and raped at a party. This angers her and causes her to help other teens who are victims of crime or bullying. In Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) is a “modern woman” (a 1920s flapper) who is in charge of her life. However, we learn that during WWI she drove an ambulance and experienced shell shock, a condition that re-appears in high stress situations, like confronting a killer. Overcoming this baggage is another accomplishment for these women crime-solvers.
Although there were many women in the crime genre, until the past three decades, most detectives and police were white, heterosexual men, and most plots centered the perspectives of such protagonists. Today’s women-centered shows, however, feature stories and characters in which issues of race, ethnicity, immigration, and sexual orientation are part of the story, and white, heterosexual, masculine perspectives are challenged. Veronica Mars is a white, heterosexual teen, but one of her best friends is an African American student whose experiences and perspectives are centered in some episodes. Other peers and clients include Latinos/as and students who identify as LGBTQ+ who are harassed because of their social class, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Phryne Fisher, a wealthy white, heterosexual woman solves cases in which we learn of the historical experiences of laborers, immigrants, and the poor. Her best friend, a doctor, is lesbian, and we learn of the discrimination she faces. Jane Tennison, a white, heterosexual woman is tireless in her pursuit of justice for victims who are immigrants, homosexuals, or transgendered people. Because of her rank, Tennison forces subordinates to act in a similar manner notwithstanding their own views. However, we also see the flaws of women protagonists and the justice system: both are sometimes insensitive to the issues their clients face. Moreover, the stars of these series still tend to be white and heterosexual even if female. The 1974-1975 TV series Get Christie Love, offered a brief, but rare exception to this pattern wherein an African American actress, Teresa Graves starred as a fearless, undercover police detective. Two recent hit TV series feature African American women as lead protagonists. The first is Scandal, staring Kerry Washington as a highly paid crisis management consultant in Washington, D.C. Second, the series, How to Get Away with Murder, staring Viola Davis, presents a brilliant criminal law professor and students who become interwined in a murder plot. These series feature consultants and lawyers rather than more traditional crime sleuth protagonists such as police and private detectives.
TV crime stories that feature women crime-solvers are characterized by their struggles to survive and thrive as detectives, their use of forensics and technology, emotionally loaded backstories, and a greater awareness of the multi-faceted identities that comprise all phases of modern life, including crime and victimization. These presentations not only expand the scope of who is included in the sense of justice that crime-solvers produce, they reflect contemporary criminological thinking about crime and its victims and expose contradictions in the justice system and those who work within and around it. In this, the crime genre often both reflects and sometimes even leads our thinking on issues of justice.
Featured image: Prime Suspect, with permission of Rex Images.