Gender Portrayals in Crime Dramas through the History of Television

Note – This is a research paper I did for my Television and Culture Class back in August 2014. At about 2500 words, it’s long.

Although television has evolved in many ways since the 1950s, there is one genre of programming that never goes out of style: the Crime Drama. Each decade has brought us more complicated stories, higher production values and new insights into American culture and the forces that threaten society. However, one cultural deficiency that has not changed enough over the decades is the portrayals of women through what Laura Mulvey in her seminal 1975 paper called “The Male Gaze.” Through the viewing of several crime dramas from each decade, I have surveyed representations of women through the history of the drama. Although it’s true that TV may have taken some small strides forward in the creation of positive roles for women, the crime drama is still very much in need of an overhaul to approach standards of gender equality.

Much of the problem logically stems from the lack of important women working behind the scenes in television. “Research examining the relationship between behind-the-scenes women and on-screen portrayals has concluded that the employment of women in powerful behind-the-scenes roles is related to the use of more powerful language by female characters.” (Lauzen 381) The following table contains a list of the crime dramas included in this study and the research I compiled from IMDB. For each of them, I counted the numbers of males and females in the roles of directors, writers, and producers over the entire course of each series.

Crime Drama Spreadsheet

*Note – numbers are approximate, allowing for androgyny of names and human error

From the 1950s through the 1990s, these numbers demonstrate that less than 10% of directing, writing and producing jobs were held by women. In recent years, the number of females in positions of power are higher than they were, but still much smaller in number than those held by men. These behind-the-scenes numbers translate to the character portrayals on-screen. In the late 1960s, 28% of the characters appearing on TV were women, and today the number has increased to 40%. Since slightly more than half the population of the American people and half the workforce are women, this is a poor reflection on the progress of women’s equality in the television industry. (Chandler 1988)

It’s a Man’s World:

Within the onscreen arena of crime dramas, the homo-erotic nature of two male cops in a car becomes a metaphor for the nature of their relationship. Paired off to spend days and nights together, the two male cops confide in each other, support and defend one another and fight crime together. Because of the dangerous nature of their work, they save each other’s lives on a regular basis and trust each other with their darkest secrets. The car becomes their “man-cave;” an intimate private world in which a woman’s presence is not only unnecessary but an unwelcome distraction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the homo-erotic world of Starsky & Hutch, a well-loved police drama that ran from 1975 – 1979.  According to the Museum of Broadcasting Website, “There is much of what can only be termed flirting–compliments, mutual admiration, sly winks, sidelong glances, knowing smiles. They are constantly touching each other or indulging in excruciating cheek and banter . . . “Although both main characters often have female love-interests, their relationships are short-lived. By the end of the episode, the women have either turned out to be manipulators, liars or villains, while the “good ones” are scared off or killed. “Following the inevitable betrayal, it is not uncommon for the boys to collapse sobbing into each other’s arms.”

The Museum of Broadcasting also describes the sequence of images that make up the opening credits of Starsky & Hutch.

. . . in the space of 60 seconds, these two gentlemen are depicted in at least four cases of literal or figurative transvestism, four cases of masculine hyperbole (encompassing at least two of the Village People), several prominent homosexual clichés (hairdresser, Carnival bacchanalian), a sendup of one of filmdom’s most famous all-male couples, a wealth of Freudian imagery (including the pointed metaphor of fruit), two full-body embraces, two freeze-frames defining them in both homoerotic deed and dress, and one clear-cut instance where the oral stimulation of a man prevails over the visual stimulation of a woman.

The meaning is clear: no women allowed.

Victims, Vamps and Villains:

In “The Big Betty,” 1953, season three of Dragnet, the various female characters can be described as victim, vamp and/or villain. A group of thieves preys on the bereaved, selling them phony pen and pencil sets and jewelry. They approach the grieving widows or parents of the newly deceased and sell them junk dressed up to look expensive, claiming the deceased person ordered it to be engraved as a gift to them. The grief-stricken victims shell out the money, only later to discover they have been duped. The show opens with a young woman reporting the crime. A wholesome, girl-next-door type, the young war-widow describes what happens with the large injured eyes and voice of a child whose feelings were hurt. Describing it as “one of filthiest racquets going,” the detectives follow the clues to arrest two of the conmen and eventually learn that the team was led by “Betty McGraw” the mastermind. Betty ran the team and received a percentage in return for bail money and lawyers should the need arise. The detectives follow her to a New Year’s Eve party, where she is drunk and refuses to leave. She cheers as the New Year strikes, then starts to cry. She says she does it every year, but there’s no reason. Friday claims she’ll have a reason this year. In melodramatic fashion, she sniffs the flower she removes from her hair and it falls to the ground, where it appears in close-up.

As Betty McGraw illustrates, a character can often take on two or more roles in the same show. Betty goes from party girl and flirt (vamp) to drunken and obstinate, to weeping as Friday’s narration informs us of the many men she dragged down along with the victims of her scheme and that she’s been convicted to prison for ten years. The fact that we never hear her admit she’s guilty emphasizes her nature as a liar, and her abandonment of the men who were arrested proves her to be cold and calculating – a villain in the truest sense. As such, she is in sharp contrast to the wholesome child-woman we met in the first scene and the well-meaning, fatherly detectives who look after her interest.

Femme Fatales

Another popular portrayal of women in crime dramas is the femme fatale, and no one was better at depicting this stereotype than Alfred Hitchcock. In his crime drama Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 2, episode 14 is titled “Nightmare in 4-D”, and premiered on January 13, 1957. It tells the story of a hen-pecked married man who helps a young, beautiful actress with her packages. When he gets home, his nagging wife demands to know why he was late and he explains where he was. The wife is jealous and critical, not to mention much less attractive than the actress. Later that night, he has a nightmare and goes into the living room to watch TV while his wife goes to bed. At 2 am, the actress knocks on the door asking for help. He says it isn’t proper, but she begs and manipulates and finally, he goes with her. He finds a dead body in her apartment. She says the man was shot from outside on the fire escape, and she doesn’t want him found in her apartment or she’ll lose her part in the play. She bats her eyelashes and uses all her feminine wiles to persuade him to help her bring the body to the basement. He does, and the police find the man next morning. At first, it looks as though the wife killed the man out of jealousy, but then the husband is arrested because, at the time of death, the wife was on the phone with a neighbor. The actress, of course, was the real murderer, and the kindly neighbor ends up taking the rap. Both women are portrayed as unflattering female stereotypes.

Older Women are Obsolete

In the world of TV drama, there is probably no group that receives worse gender-portrayal than the post-menopausal woman. Past childbearing years and no longer a sexual object, the male gaze has no interest in her, making her inconsequential and nearly invisible. She is often the victim of murder at the hands of her husband and his young and pretty mistress, who inevitably plan to run off with her money and live happily ever after. This story line appears in the 2-hour pilot episode of Columbo, which premiered in 1970. The handsome older man leaves his rich, haggard wife in the middle of their anniversary celebration to meet his pretty, bikini-clad mistress at a pool and plot his wife’s murder. The young woman is not intelligent and has no clue that her lover is using her. The tragic wife is disposed of with great care. The husband is so clever and careful, in fact, that he nearly gets away with it, despite having to cover for his mistress’s errors. The canny Lieutenant Columbo sets the man up to admit he doesn’t love the girl and has no intention of marrying her. At that point, the crushed and heartbroken mistress exacts her revenge by confessing the whole story. The negative stereotype is further solidified by her confession, proving her to be not only stupid and adulterous but disloyal.

This study has proved to be an eye-opening deconstruction of the negative portrayals of women on television, which is so ingrained in the American psyche that it practically goes unnoticed. The daily consumption of negative images by young people ensures the reinforcement of these beliefs so that TV not only reflects the views of society but at the same time creates them. The danger to the psyches of girls and women is terrifying, while at the same time males are being reconditioned into old-fashioned and oppressive views of women.  It’s interesting that the topic has been so widely and well-covered by academic journals while remaining practically unexplored in the public media. In this third wave of feminism, the stigma of being a “women’s libber” is still alive and strong. In this environment, women are afraid to stand up for their rights, because the result is more likely to be a job withheld than one gained. Today’s media teaches that “. . . when a female character is powerful and strong (and ‘unfeminine’), she will often ultimately fail or flounder, and either change to become more sensitive and caring or be condemned to a life of misery and loneliness. (Harper) Tragically, in the real world under the current status quo, everyone loses out on the contributions of empowered women to society.

Positive Trends Exist

Fortunately, there are some women who are portrayed positively on TV today. Any list of positive female role models is likely to be topped by the creation of Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy not only fought the undead, she loved it. The series premise was that only one adolescent female (she who bleeds) could be the Slayer of vampires (the blood-drinkers). Although Buffy would often rather have been a normal teenager, she takes on her duty faithfully and saves Sunnydale time and again from the forces of evil. Another show with positive female role models is Law and Order: SVU, in which Sergeant Olivia Benson (played by the now 50-year-old Mariska Hargitay) champions the victims of sexual abuse with sensitivity and strength. According to a study done on the effects of TV violence, “Strong, independent female characters in television shows appear to negate the influence of sexual and violent content.”(Ferguson, 896) There are also others: Covert Affairs has two strong female roles in Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) and Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett); and White Collar (starring the out gay actor, Matt Bomer) has Diana Berrigan, a tough FBI Agent who happens to be in a relationship with a female surgeon, and who gave birth to a baby in the last season. Other female roles are considered empowered by some and not others, including Homeland’s Carrie Mathison. Played by Claire Danes, Carrie may be a great FBI agent, but (in my opinion) her power is greatly negated by the fact that she’s a mentally unstable cry-baby. Then there’s Katie Sagal on Sons of Anarchy who may be fierce, but ultimately respects her place in the hierarchy of the Motorcycle Club and sticks to the “woman’s work,” preferring to use manipulation to direct the club from behind the scenes.

Women’s roles on television have traditionally been poor role-models that strengthened the negative images of men towards women and women towards themselves. In 2014, there is still a great deal of inequality across all media, since “female characters in programming for children and teen audiences are less likely to have jobs than males, and five times more likely to be in revealing clothing than their male counterparts.” (Castillo) According to Geena Davis, spokesperson for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media as well as a member of the Healthy Media Commission, “Media images are incredibly powerful… Research shows the more hours of television a girl watched, the fewer options she thinks she has in life.” It’s time for America to speak out against the oppression of women in the media, and save future generations of girls and women from the pervasive negative effects of television, as seen through the history of the Crime Drama.

Works Cited

Abrams, Lindsay. “Study: We Benefit from Seeing Strong Women on TV.” TheAtlantic.comAtlantic, 31 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.

Castillo, Michelle. “Group: Media Not Showing Enough Positive Female Characters, Relationships.” CBSNews.com. CBS News, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.

Crampton, Caroline. “Why Crime Dramas are Hooked on Rape.” New Statesman 143.5192 (2014): 19. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

Elasmar, Michael. “The Portrayal of Women in US Prime Time Television.” Women & Language 22.2 (1999): 62. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 2 July 2014.

Ferguson, Christopher J. “Positive Female Role-Models Eliminate Negative Effects of Sexually Violent Media.” Journal of Communication .62 (2012): 888-899. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.

Glascock, Jack. “Gender, Race, and Aggression in Newer TV Network’ Primetime Programming.” Communication Quarterly 51.1 (2003): 90-100. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 July 2014.

Glascock, Jack. “Gender Roles on Prime-Time Network Television: Demographics and Behaviors.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 45.4 (2001) N.p. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 July 2014.

Lauzen, Martha, and Douglas Deiss. “Breaking the Fourth Wall and Sex Role Stereotypes: An Examination of the 2006–2007 Prime-Time Season.” Sex Roles 60.5/6 (2009): 379-386. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 12 Aug. 2014.

Lauzen, Martha M., and David M. Dozier. “Evening the Score in Prime Time: The Relationship Between Behind-the-Scenes Women and On-Screen Portrayals in the 2002–2003 Season.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 48.3 (2004): 484–500. Print. 11 Aug. 2014

Lee, Moon J., et al. “Effects of Violence against Women in Popular Crime Dramas on Viewers’ Attitudes Related to Sexual Violence.” Mass Communication & Society 14.1 (2011): 25-44. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 July 2014.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen. 16 (3), 6 – 18. 10 August 2014.

Netzley, Sara Baker. “Visibility that Demystifies: Gays, Gender, and Sex on Television.” Journal of Homosexuality 57.8 (2010): 968-986. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 July 2014.

Whitty, Frankie. “Positive Female Role Models in TV Necessary.” Berkeley High Jacket, 4 May 2012. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. <http://www.bhsjacket.com/2012/positive_female_role_models_tv_necessary&gt;.