What My 7 Favorite Female TV Detectives Taught Me About Living

Two for you, Gillian Anderson! You go, Gillian Anderson!
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Elizabeth Waterhouse
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Two for you, Gillian Anderson! You go, Gillian Anderson!

From Gillian Anderson as Special Agent Dana Scully to Gillian Anderson as Detective Stella Gibson, dramas starring a badass female sleuth are my go-to. I love watching fierce women take down the bad guy! And I've learned important lessons from each of them about everything from owning my sexuality to trusting my intuition. Is it weird that I think of them as old friends?

Robin Griffin — Top of the Lake

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Top of the Lake takes place in New Zealand and is worth watching for the cinematography alone. A pregnant 12-year-old girl goes missing after Robin Griffin has been called in to meet with her as a specialist for child victims. Often the characters developed as female detectives seem too brave and strong to be plausible. Robin isn't really either. She's emotional but she hasn't really figured her feelings out. 

She is both vulnerable and foolhardy. I love that she is a young female detective who doesn't have everything right and messes up in relationship and professional situations routinely. And you know she's gonna get the bad guy anyway. Griffin reminded me that you don't have to be perfect, you just have to keep working your ass off.

Susan Gray — Bletchley Circle

This show is actually about a team of female detectives. They all hail from the Bletchley Park where they cracked codes together during WWII. Years after returning to their mundane post-war jobs they pick back up together to solve crimes. Their camaraderie takes them into the mind of a killer, but more importantly into their own genius. Susan Gray taught me you don't have to be certain of your reasoning in order to remain firm in your convictions. 

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She listened to her gut even when she couldn't fully discern what it was saying. That doesn't mean she isn't completely brilliant, it means that she understands that trying one theory and failing is just the first step. Throughout the series she makes some mistakes in logic but she never gives up. I often feel paralyzed by the idea that I should only speak when I know my argument is completely bulletproof. Susan taught me that sometimes being brilliant means making guesses and learning from them when you are wrong.

Ellie Miller — Broadchurch

Broadchurch is a series based in a tiny coastal UK town where a young boy is killed. Ellie Miller stars opposite Alec Hardy (David Tennant to all you Whovians) who is called in to help her with her own job basically. Miller is the sort of tough that makes you feel like you are going to burst into tears. She is often falling to pieces and my most vivid memories of her on the show are with big tears in her eyes. 

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Ellie taught me that sometimes being strong means falling apart and then digging through the rubble later. As she falls under the suspicion of her friends and neighbors you see a resiliency in her emerge. She taught me that ultimate betrayal is something you can survive, that emotions, while messy, don't have to live outside of work. She showed up with her broken heart and got the job done anyway.

Phryne Fisher — Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries

Phryne Fisher taught me that being traditionally classy doesn't have to mean being disempowered (I know, duh). But this is a surprising lesson to learn from a woman of the 1920's. Miss Fisher is a lover of decorum, she wears white gloves and perfect makeup. She teaches manners to the orphaned girls she takes in. But she eschews any social more that would require her to rescind any power. This often seems to shock those (especially men) around her. Indeed, it was truly scandalous for a woman in her mid-thirties, fully cognizant of her own sexuality and not ashamed of it, to be romping around Melbourne solving crimes. 

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Perhaps even more scandalous is that she doesn't seem to have any desire for marriage. Through it all Phryne exudes the epitome of class. I learned from Miss Fisher that sometimes you need to get out that dress you've saved for a special occasion and take your own fine ass to dinner.

Stella Gibson — The Fall

Stella Gibson taught me that it's okay to be sexy, in fact it's awesome. It's fun to be sexual. That it can actually be liberating to feel your own sexiness exuding from you and to harness it as the power it is. The Fall is a game of cat and mouse between serial killer and detective, one that is in its essence deeply satisfying to watch play out, perhaps because of Gibson's cool simmering indignation. Stella has some amazing feminist lines such as this gem, "Man fucks woman. Subject man, verb fucks, object woman. That's okay. Woman fucks man. Woman subject, man object. That's not so comfortable for you is it?" 

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Stella understands the mind of the serial killer through a feminist epistemology, she draws a direct connection between the objectification of his victims and his desire to kill, to make them fully object, to destroy their person hood completely. I think this is why it makes it so satisfying to see Stella take control of her own subjectivity through sex. She takes responsibility for her own pleasure. And of course this makes it all the more satisfying to watch her take him down.

Olivia Benson — Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

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Compassion is a superpower. Liv has been through it all in her 17-season run on SVU: rape, kidnapping, adoption, loss of her partner Elliot Stabler. I've been watching her get the bad guys for nearly all those years and she's taught me a thing or two about being a fighter, she's tough and she's brave and she always keeps her cool. 

But more than that I've learned that compassion doesn't make you weak. It makes you a badass. More than anyone on her team she actively connects with the victim/survivor. She listens. She believes them. Bearing witness is no easy thing. In professions like this so many burn out or experience compassion-fatigue. Detective Benson has always been someone I felt I could trust. Yeah she was working from inside a flawed system but dammit she understood what suffering felt like and her ability to use that compassion as a strength made her someone I will always look up to.

Special Agent Dana Scully — X-Files

Gillian Anderson stars in this list twice, because of course. First of all, I can't tell you how many women my age I know personally who wound up going into STEM fields or investigation at least in part because they love Scully. I also know 2 cats and 1 dog named Scully. And it goes without saying that her role as a female FBI agent on TV in the 90's was pretty revolutionary. 

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One thing I learned watching and re-watching X-Files is that it is possible and often wise to be able to hold seemingly contradictory ideas as true. Scully has a deep connection with religion that often seems to butt heads with her investigation of alien life, and although she does at times seem conflicted she also rather gracefully holds both. She is often the voice of known scientific methods and yet she sees conventional wisdom disproven in the field over and over again. And of course perhaps her biggest internal contradiction is her love for Mulder. I love the way that Scully doesn't rush to conclusions, she takes in all the information and waits to see what remains.

OKAY! So who am I missing? Recommendations for my next lady detective binge?