Why Can't We Get A Strong Female Lead in a Cop Show Without Violence Against Women?

By Aya de Leon

I see a trend over the past 20+ years: cop shows offer female audiences what we’ve been craving—strong, complicated, brilliant women protagonists—yet there seems to be a sexual violence “trade-off.” Older, more experienced women get to be powerful investigators, but the cases they get to investigate include disproportionate (and graphic) representations of violence against younger women and girls.

The Fall, for example, follows Belfast detective Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), a brilliant, independent female lead who defies convention. According to TV critic Emily Hashimoto, “It is clear that the detective is in charge of herself without any shame and guilt-ridden trappings often bestowed on female characters. Too often, women in TV and film are cast as incapable in their professional lives, waylaid by personal issues or a hysterical abundance of emotions….it is utterly refreshing to see a female character be good at her job without worrying about having a boyfriend or children.” However, the antagonist is “a serial killer…who favors targeting pretty young professional women,” Hashimoto says. “We see the way he stalks and plans; we see his violence.”

In The Bletchley Circle, we have a 1950s historical drama about four women who must return to civilian life after cracking Nazi codes during WWII. Sworn to secrecy about their classified work, they have to fit back into a world that denies the existence of their intelligence and crushes their ambition. They begin to investigate a series of murders that the police have gotten wrong. And you guessed it: the serial killer preys on women (the second season continues with more than one case featuring sexual violence).

Perhaps we have the U.K. to thank for this trend. In 1991, Prime Suspect premiered on ITV, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector, one of the first females to hold the position in Greater London's Metropolitan Police Service. Her original case involves the rape and murder of a young woman.

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On this side of the Atlantic, the trend escalated in 1999 with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit with the ascension of detective Olivia Benson. It seems that one “advantage” of shows with bright female protagonists that investigate violence against women is that the villain can turn his sights on the show’s heroine. This certainly happens in both seasons of Bletchley, and most famously with SVU’s Benson being kidnapped by a sadistic rapist/murderer. Violence-on-the-job also affects Brenda Leigh Johnson, a Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief, played by Kyra Sedgwick in TNT’s The Closer.

There seem to be no age boundaries for many of these shows, offering stories of toddlers and small children who are raped and/or killed. In the pilot of the U.S. version of Prime Suspect, a woman is raped and murdered in front of her children. I had to stop watching, several shows later, when an episode featured the confession of a convicted sex offender. It was the dramatization of the perverse pleasure he took in sexually assaulting a child that was the deal-breaker.

These things happen and we must acknowledge them so we can end violence against women and children. However, giving airtime to the perspectives of the abusers is troubling. I can’t get that guy’s voice out of my head, even years later. But it’s not just the children, it’s the ever-escalating sexual violence, mostly against woman and girls, episode after episode.

Part of the problem is that these shows take this kind of violence as a fact of life. Even Helen Mirren herself has criticized such casual violence. According to The Independent, Mirren spoke out “against the extensive images of dead young women in contemporary dramas. Agreeing with playwright David Hare’s recent remark that he ‘can’t stand the body count in contemporary drama,’ Ms. Mirren...added: ‘Most of those bodies are young women.’” There’s no parallel interest in shows about women healing from sexual violence, or shows about changing the society to prevent such violence from happening, only the ratings-grabbing police procedurals with the glorified and desensitizing violence.

The same year that the U.S. Prime Suspect debuted, so did another police procedural with a strong female lead: Fox’s The Chicago Code. This series featured an ensemble cast, with Jennifer Beals starring as the newly appointed first-female Chicago Police Superintendent, Teresa Colvin. Colvin vows to clean up Chicago’s notorious corruption, and sets her sights on a corrupt alderman. The Chicago Code has the same suspenseful cat-and-mouse structure, where we see the hero and the villain stalking and trying to outsmart each other. But in this series, violence against women is not at the center, rather it's the integrity of a city. The show was cancelled after its first season.

I’m left with a chicken or egg question: is the culture of TV simply preoccupied with violence against women and it develops shows with strong female protagonists in order to capture women audiences? Or do producers worry that shows with strong female leads will fail to attract broad audiences unless they offer an underlying violent threat against female power and autonomy overall?

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Either way, I find myself dropping these shows from my watch lists. I miss following the lives and minds of the protagonists, but it’s just not worth it.

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