Once upon a time, women were relegated to supporting roles in crime dramas. If a woman was involved in solving crimes, she was usually the wife of the commissioner, the widow of a slain relative of the main character, or an elderly woman who solved crimes between knitting projects—just for fun. These women could also be oddities, Julie from The Mod Squad had been homeless and the daughter of a prostitute, while the women of Charlie’s Angels were forced to leave their respective police departments in order to work in their field of choice, being otherwise being thrust into desk jobs and writing out traffic tickets.
As time went on, strong women in leading roles began to make an appearance in the “traditional” law enforcement role. Today’s depiction of women in crime dramas owes a great deal to the then-risky programming behind Cagney and Lacey, in which neither the never-married Cagney or the wife-and-mother Lacey needed protecting. The lead female characters on both of these dramas are strong and intelligent women who are capable of reasoned decision-making. The roles in which the characters are cast result in far different portrayals by the women who act in the roles.
Olivia Benson of SVU is a tough, warm, and caring person who is sometimes overwhelmed by the horrors that she sees in the discharge of her daily duties. Despite the difficulties that Benson faces in her chosen career, she feels compelled to continue with it due to her defining herself as a product of her mother’s rape. Calleigh DuQuesne of CSI: Miami appears to be cool and untouchable, drawn by the logical and technical aspects of her work rather than by the need to find emotional justification within it.
While Benson apparently worked her way through the ranks of the NYPD to earn her position, DuQuesne was offered her position based on her reputation as a ballistics expert (Associated Content, 2007). In neither case was the detective offered her position in order to fill a quota or for any reasons other than her qualifications. Interestingly, both Benson and DuQuesne share one thing in common: each detective has an alcoholic parent, with whom these characters have interacted to varying degrees over the respective series’ runs.
In both cases the characters’ independence and ability to take care of herself was attributed to the alcoholic parent’s inability to care for her during her childhood. It is to the writers’ credit that in neither case has the character’s personal history become the sole factor that determines the manner in which she completes the tasks expected of her during the course of an investigation. Women are not limited to the role of detective in either of these crime dramas.
In both CSI: Miami and SVU the coroner who works the majority of the cases depicted by the show is a woman. Although less clearly defined than the female detectives, these coroners are both portrayed as intelligent and competent women, despite a certain number of errors and missed clues being used to drive the action of the series. The coroner on CSI: Miami is depicted as being less detached than that of SVU, frequently speaking to the victims that cross her table in a compassionate manner, despite their being unable to hear her.
In addition to strong, intelligent, and competent female detectives and coroners, SVU also allows depicts women in other prominent positions, such as lawyers and judges. In none of these roles are women portrayed as being unnaturally good: the lawyers and judges in particular are shown to be moved by political aspirations that are sometimes contrary to the crime victims’ best interests. For the most part, however, both shows avoid the stereotype of powerful women being required to be overwhelmingly aggressive in order to succeed in traditionally male roles.
It is outside of the investigative and judicial squads that these crime dramas fail to depict women in a positive light. By virtue of its location, CSI: Miami seems to have more than its share of slender albeit buxom women barely clad in swimwear to drive its action. Many episodes open on the beach or at a party. In many party scenes women are depicted as behaving in less than a responsible fashion, such as allowing men to drink liquor from between their breast or from their pubic region or by pairing off in questionable hookups between anonymous partners.
In the case of SVU, its very topic determines its content: the “special victims unit” frequently investigates crimes such as rape, domestic abuse and child abuse, and other brutal crimes in which women are victimized. The majority of these crimes take place off camera; however, the aftermaths are often shown in photographs that the viewer is given to understand will be used as evidence or in the bruises or wounds on the victims’ bodies.
Surprisingly, for all of the success of Law & Order SVU in portraying strong female characters, the National Organization for Women (NOW) rated that show as a D+ to an F on an A through F scale in terms of violent content, sexual exploitation, and social responsibility (National Organization for Women, 2002). At the time of the report, CSI: Miami was just being released and it earned a “Looks Promising” rating. It would be interesting to see the rating that it would earn today, in comparison to SVU, in light of the frequency of violence against bikini-clad women who are frequently engaged in sexually exploitative behavior.
Both Law & Order SVU and CSI: Miami are fairly traditional crime dramas that are largely populated by men in leadership roles. However, both dramas depict strong, intelligent, and competent women in lead roles, as well. Each of the two programs has a lead female investigator who is capable of acting on her on to bring resolution to a crime investigation. Each program depicts a capable woman in the role of coroner, who works with the investigative team to bring the crimes being investigated to their resolution.
The crime drama has come a long way in the past three decades. Unfortunately, in terms of using women as victims and for titillation, they still have a long way to go. References Associated Content. (2007). CSI Miami’s Calleigh DuQuesne: A positive role model. Retrieved 18 Dec 2007 from http://www. associatedcontent. com/article/258862/csi_miamis_calleigh_duquesne_a_positive. html Bennett, L. (2007). Watch out, listen up! Washington, D. C. : National Organization for Women Foundation.