archie panjabi, elisabeth moss, gillian anderson, helen mirren, jane campion, jodie foster, kyra sedgwick, law & order: svu, major crimes, mariska hargitay, mary mcdonnell, mireille enos, prime suspect, the closer, the fall, the killing, top of the lake, veena sud
This is a guest post by The Odalisque.
Raise your hand if you love chicks with authority. Now raise your hand if you love chicks with authority on your TV screen. Raise them even higher if you love chicks with authority on your TV screen who are seriously challenging the patriarchy of entertainment and genre fiction. My friends, look no further than the lady homicide detectives of primetime cable and network television. Kicking ass and taking names with guns and badges while making strides for women’s representation is all in a days work.
The detective fiction genre is a staple of our entertainment. As women increasingly entered male dominated workforces, the faces in our favorite primetime shows also began to change. In a study of female characters on screen, researchers found that in the past five years women only constituted 39% of speaking roles in prime time television. When women are given speaking roles, their value is closely tied to their adherence to a narrow, predefined “sexiness”. Another study found that women behind the camera in prime time television also make up a minority with only 27% of executive producers, 24% of creators, and 34% of writers.
By bringing more women into the detective genre we can not only improve women’s representation in prime time television, but also fundamentally change the sexist images the genre has a tendency to produce. But this is Hollywood and the mere existence of a female lead detective show does not guarantee the female friendliness of its substance.
To help the readers find and enjoy, or even avoid, I offer up my own Clarice Starling* (the ultimate lady law enforcement icon) rating system for some of the best known lady detectives shows:
- How does the character and the show treat cases of violence against women?
- How realistically good is the character at their job? How does the show portray the character’s relationships with other women?
- Does the character ever sleep with a male superior (a common trope), and if so how does that play out?
- Bonus round! Are women of color or LGBT women included in the cast? Are there women leading from behind the scenes? Has there been any notable activity off-camera?
For each positive answer, one full Starling is awarded. Half Starlings are awarded in the bonus round.
Detective Olivia Benson, Law & Order: SVU
DSI Stella Gibon, The Fall
Detective Robin Griffin, Top of the Lake
Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, The Closer
Captian Sharon Raydor, Major Crimes
Detective Sarah Linden, The Killing (US)
DCI Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect
This is only a smattering of some television’s top lady-led detective shows. There are so many incredible cop dramas out there and I can only handle so many of them at a time. Who are your favorite and least favorite lady detectives? I have yet to see a show led by a woman of color, so if you know of any or just want to tell me how awesome a supporting character from a male-led show is, tell me and use the Starling rating system in the comments below!
Benson is a seasoned New York city detective investigating sex crimes while dealing with the challenges of being a child of rape, dating, and balancing work and a personal life.
How does the character and the show treat cases of violence against women?
A long-running show like this that takes the “case-of-the week” route is bound to fall into the trap of trying to keep viewers by presenting ever more shocking crimes. Maybe that works for a show about bank heists, but for sexual assault? For all the empathy and professionalism Olivia Benson gives the victims, the show cheapens them through its “rape-of-the-week” formula and does little to advance any understanding of the trauma and its long term effects. Negative one Starling.
How realistically good is the character at their job? See above. One Starling.
How does the show portray the character’s relationships with other women? Olivia is pretty cool with other lady folk, especially those she encounters through her job. Mariska Hargitay has even gained a queer following because of the chemistry her character has with her co-workers. One Starling.
Did she sleep with a male superior? No, at least not in a scenario that made a difference to the plot. One Starling.
Bonus Round! Actress Mariska Hargitay has spent almost 14 years of her career as this character and has won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her performance. In 2004, Mariska’s work on SVU inspired her to found the Joyful Heart Foundation, dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. In 2012, she landed a deal with NBC that nets her $500,000 per episode making her one of TV’s top paid actresses. One half Starling.
Gillian Anderson is too good to be limited to American law enforcement. She had to take that sexy, icy woman with a badge on a mission across the pond to play a British detective in Belfast, Ireland. Like many other British and European shows, the plot of the crime(s) take up an entire season. The show takes an intriguing approach by simultaneously focusing on the serial killer and the detective pursuing him.
How does the character and the show treat cases of violence against women? The victims are all attractive, sexually active, single women and their murder appears to give the killer some sort of sexual gratification. Stella deftly steers the investigation, and the show, to focus on catching the killer instead of sensationalizing the sexual elements of the crimes and moralizing against the victims’ lifestyles. All while simultaneously deflecting the judgements of her male colleagues who are confounded, and on some level deeply offended, by her choice to engage in casual sex. These are some especially deliciously written scenes that elevate the show from a police procedural to a drama about women’s sexual agency. One Starling.
How realistically good is the character at their job? Pretty good, except for the scenes where it appears she has some psychic access to the killer’s script. One half Starling.
How does the show portray the character’s relationships with other women? Stella is always polite and professional but to the point where we wonder if she has a personal relationship with anyone. We’ll see if the second series explores that, but for now no Starling in this category.
Did she sleep with a male superior? Yes, a married one. For Stella it was just about the sex but he can’t seem to let go. She feels sorry for not reading him correctly, but takes no responsibility for the man’s choice to be unfaithful. One half Starling.
Bonus Round! Gillian Anderson is apparently coming back as an executive producer for series two because. The show also includes a lesbian cop on Stella’s team and a woman of color medical examiner, Archie Panjabi, who many of you may recognize as the Emmy winning queer private investigator Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife. One full Starling.
A New Zealand town in a remote mountainous area is rocked when the twelve-year Tui, daughter of a local druglord, is discovered to be 5 months pregnant and then shortly thereafter disappears. Detective Robin Griffin, visiting her hometown to be with her ailing mother, is called in to handle the girl’s case. She simultaneously has to solve the mystery of the baby’s father and Tui’s possible homicide while investigating her own horrific youth.
How does the character and the show treat cases of violence against women? As a seven hour mini-series, the show has a narrow enough focus to fully explore Robin’s experience with sexual assault as a teenager while looking at the pervasive misogyny of her hometown that culminates in Tui’s pregnancy and disappearance. One Starling.
How realistically good is the character at their job? Robin sees herself as an avenging angel and the show is happy to let her to do it and even show how she slips up. Her true strength is in getting a morose and tight-lipped Tui to actually talk about what has happened to her, even though the young girl doesn’t even understand it herself. One Starling.
How does the show portray the character’s relationships with other women? The town has almost no women in its police force, but there are plenty of other female characters to be found. Especially fun is the commune of cooky postmenopausal women led by an androgynous mystic Holly Hunter. Not only do we see Robin’s relationship to these other supporting female characters, but how the relationship of the supporting female characters to each other. One Starling.
Did she sleep with a male superior? Turns that creep down continuously. One Starling.
Bonus Round! Elisabeth Moss, who plays Robin, is no stranger to strong independent characters and neither is her co-star Holly Hunter. Even better is the series Oscar winning writer and director Jane Campion, an old pro at creating these kinds of characters and stories. Including an Outstanding Actress nomination for Moss and multiple nominations for Campion, the show received a total of twelve nominations at Emmy’s, the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild combined. Moss would go on to win the Golden Globe for her performance. ALL THE HALF STARLINGS!
Georgia peach Brenda, a former DC policewoman trained by the CIA in non-”enhanced techniques”, accepts a job offer from her former married lover in Los Angeles and must fight against her outsider status to be accepted among her mostly male colleagues. A couple of them make some sexist comments, but they all mellow out their chauvinism when she displays her talent for getting confessions out of suspects.
TNT has a really loose definition of “drama” and this show spends a little more than half its time going down screwball comedy plot lines and workplace ribbing. When things do get serious we see Kyra Sedgwick really flex some acting muscles in tense interview-room scenes. Its too bad that the rest of Kyra Sedgwick’s time is spent being an awful girlfriend/fiance/wife, daughter, and cat parent (though this, and only this, role improves over time). Brenda’s character flaws aren’t played to make her an anti-hero, but rather as a by-product of her dedication to catching the bad guy that almost never has any real consequences.
How does the character and the show treat cases of violence against women? The show doesn’t actually spend a lot of time putting Brenda on cases involving sexual violence, but when it does I have no complaints. One Starling.
How realistically good is the character at their job? Her interrogation scenes are brilliant, delivering the kind of action and suspense usually reserved for intense chase scenes. However, Brenda is more of a comedic character overall and thus judging her for her “realism” seems out of place. Certainly that super cute wardrobe isn’t realistic. When she’s not belittling or warring with her female coworkers (see below), she is a lot of fun to watch as a detective. One Starling.
How does the show portray the character’s relationships with other women? Brenda encounters many different women but has very few meaningful relationships with any of them. For a long time The Closer displayed little interest in giving time or development to any other regular female character. The first time a substantial female character is presented, that is not her token embarrassing mother or a suspect/victim, the show decided they must immediately hate each other. Although this situation gets better by the series finale, it doesn’t make up for the fact that it existed in the first place. No Starling.
Did she sleep with a male superior? A full blown affair with a married man where he broke her heart after refusing to leave his wife for her. Boring, played out, and a little unbelievable when you see who they cast as her former lover. No Starling.
Bonus Round! Kyra Sedgwick, and quite possibly only Kyra Sedgwick, is what made this show a frequent guest at the Emmy’s and Golden Globes and popular among critics. She did it not only as the lead actress, but as the executive producer. One half Starling.
A direct spin-off of The Closer, Mary McDonnell (formerly President Laura Roslin in Battlestar Galactica, squee!) picks up the job that Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh Johnson left behind. Significantly, Sedgwick made the decision to leave the show, TNT chose to continue it and made McDonnell’s Emmy nominated recurring character the new lead.
How does the character and the show treat cases of violence against women? Almost no difference from its predecessor. One Starling.
How realistically good is the character at their job? Sharon’s character is nowhere near as quirky as Brenda. If you put a suited bespectacled Mary McDonnell in front of me in and told me she was in charge of sh*t, I wouldn’t question it. One Starling.
How does the show portray the character’s relationships with other women? A hundred million times better than The Closer! There are more women appearing regularly, with lines and personalities (!), that Sharon has positive if a little shallow interactions with. However one of these characters, a Latina Deputy District Attorney, is a huge disappointment. Not only is she ridiculously well styled but she doesn’t have the ability to convince an audience that she’s been to, like, law school. Even worse, she makes some pretty cruel and homophobic remarks about a homeless young boy who turned to prostitution in order to survive. One half Starling.
Did she sleep with a male superior? Almost certainly not, though I’m very optimistic it won’t happen one of these days. One Starling.
Bonus Round! The introduction of a regular female cast member, Detective Amy Sykes, is also a welcome change from The Closer. She’s black, she has lines, she’s funny, and she acts and appears like a law enforcement officer. Her character does an excellent job of overshadowing the aforementioned problematic Latina DDA. One half Starling.
Based on a Danish series, the American version of The Killing uses the original character and basic premise to go in a very different direction. Sarah Linden, played by Mireille Enos, specializes in homicide cases involving children and teenagers, drawn to them by her own past as troubled kid in the foster care system.
How does the character and the show treat cases of violence against women? The murder of Rosie Larsen, which takes up the first two seasons, has almost nothing to do with sex or violence against women. Implications are made, but are revealed to be false by at least the next episode. The third season tackles gender issues much more head on through its focus on homeless teenagers and the dangers that young girls face on the street. These girls get ample screen time and are shown as much more than just helpless victims. One Starling.
How realistically good is the character at their job? Linden is actually not that great at her job, but her drive to find the truth and protect the kids involved is what makes us want her on the case. Almost certainly nobody else in her Seattle precinct is going to give it 110%. While Linden’s compassion for the victim and the family that’s been torn apart by loss is admirable, the time and emotional energy she puts into the case has profound consequences for her personally. She loses custody of her son and, at one point, her own freedom as she’s locked in a psych ward. Its the tradeoff that I find the most realistic about her. She also spends a lot of time wearing fugly sweaters and looking pretty damn average. The wardrobe and hair and makeup department for this show is refreshingly low key. One Starling.
How does the show portray the character’s relationships with other women? Although she spends most of her time working with men, the writers still found opportunities for Linden to have a positive, meaningful relationships with a woman who is not related to her cases. What I found most intriguing, though, is the character primary relationship in the show with her male partner. Specifically the complete and utter absence of sexual tension between them. They’re an incredibly entertaining pair to watch, thanks especially to Joel Kinnaman’s off-the-cuff performance. For a male-female cop duo to deliver that kind of chemistry without making googly eyes or hate-flirting is almost unheard of. Only once is it ever addressed that these two, who eventually form a deep emotional bond, might conceivably want to have sex with each other but it is quickly shot down. They even laugh about it, later. Sorry, fandom, its just not going to happen. One Starling.
Did she sleep with a male superior? Yes, and he was also married. This is the only element of Sarah’s story I truly had a problem with for spoiler-ish reasons. No Starling.
Bonus Round! The American version was developed by Veena Sud, and a woman of Indian and Filipino descent. Queer women are included throughout the series through Linden’s maternal figure Reggie and a young butch street teen nicknamed Bullet that stole the entire third season. One full Starling.
This is the apex lady detective to which all other lady detectives must bow down to and pay homage. Helen Mirren cemented her status as one of the UK’s great leading ladies through this role, granting her 3 BAFTA’s and 2 Emmy’s. First broadcast in 1991, the show immediately tackled gender in law enforcement and set Jane Tennison up to be a trailblazer in her own right.
How does the character and the show treat cases of violence against women? Watch out misogynists, Jane is going rise the ranks by putting you behind bars! I especially loved the way she interacted with prostitutes in the first series, no judgement just concern for their safety. One Starling.
How realistically good is the character at their job? Similar to how I feel about Mary McDonnell as Captain Sharon Raydor, I’m not going to offer any objection to Helen Mirren’s authority. However, its worth noting that as the show goes on and Jane’s alcoholism and personality flaws become more marked, the effect on her career is negative. She makes mistakes and she pays for them. One Starling.
How does the show portray the character’s relationships with other women? Jane has horrible personal and professional relationships. The only time we ever see her having positive interactions with other women is when they are victims related to her cases. However, the show is smart enough to demonstrate that Jane’s remorse over this fact. One half Starling.
Did she sleep with a male superior? Yes, a married one. She predates Stella Gibson, mentioned above, but has a similar attitude toward sex and married men. Although its implied she’s not completely happy with this choice of partner. One half Starling.
Bonus Round! Helen Mirren. HELEN F&^$%*# MIRREN! Also a really great second series dedicated solely to systemic race and sexual violence issues that, like in real life, are not solved by one white female police officer. One full Starling.