Why Are All the Women on Our Favorite TV Crime Shows So Riddled With Issues?

I realized recently that all the strong female characters on my favorite crime shows and police procedurals tend to have major PROBLEMS.

Sep 21, 2013 at 11:01am | Leave a comment

I've expounded here before about my affinity for crime shows, police procedurals like "Law & Order SVU," and my insatiable Thing for watching tales of murder and mayhem (all from the snuggly hub of my living room couch, preferably with cats, blankets, and a tasty frozen thing).

So, yeah, I watch a lot of shows. But until my friend Sarah (who shares my passion) and I discussed it recently, I hadn't fully processed the fact that most of the main female characters on my favorite crime shows are all some shade of, um, NUTS. Whether that looks like a seeming lack of empathy or a more serious condition like bipolar disorder or Asperger's syndrome, these characters’ mental issues make them seem more complicated, less traditionally feminine, and nearly superpowered when it comes to their obsessive commitment to work.

But why? It's like the writers thought the only way audiences would "buy" these women excelling in the traditionally-male world of law enforcement was by messing with (i.e., outright omitting) some of their more allegedly "feminine" traits, like empathy and kindness. You can't be a female cop and be tough, strong, AND kind AND sensitive, right? Ugh. Instead, the characters are pathologized -- while highly competent at work, they're pretty much inept when it comes to the stuff women are expected to intrinsically master: love and human connection.

Anyway, let's take a look at a few of these problematic (but still awesome) characters, shall we? [Special thanks to my friend Sarah VW, who helped me with writing and research on this.]

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Olivia Benson, kicking ass and taking names (in her head).


THE SHOW: "Law and Order S.V.U."

THE CHARACTER: Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay)

THE ISSUES: Aw, Liv. Tough, ballsy, and straight-shooting, Olivia always has her shit on lock and she pulls a "don't fuck with me" bitchface better than anyone. Despite having a horrific childhood (more on that in a sec), she CARES, and she expresses honest compassion toward the victims she works with in NYC's sex crimes unit. Her character has evolved a ton over the show's 14 seasons so far; in earlier years, Olivia was painted as a one-woman island -- a semi-recluse, with no life, friends, or relationships beyond her job. (Oh, and don't forget the pathetic lack of food and decor in her apartment.)

It was sad, sad times for Benson. Which makes sense -- like I said, she had a horrible childhood, and that shit takes time to work through. She was the product of rape; her father killed himself, her half-brother became an accused rapist, and her alcoholic mom eventually died in a drinking-related death.

But Olivia matured over the years, and apparently worked through her mounds and mounds of Stuff, because nowadays she's much more fleshed out and believable -- she smiles! She dates! She even has romances that last BEYOND dates! Thank you, "SVU" writers, for finally giving Benson her much-deserved karmic rewards.

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Sonya Cross has a gun.

THE SHOW: "The Bridge"

THE CHARACTER: Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger)

THE ISSUES: Detective Sonya Cross' super-emotionally-detached personality is revealed in the first scene of the pilot, when she refuses to let an ambulance through a crime scene at the US-Mexico border because it's against policy (even though the man in the ambulance was having a severe heart attack).

Cross' difficulties lie in her inability to empathize with anyone she meets. In an interview with a girl who saw her father get gruesomely murdered, Cross demands that that she I.D. the perp from a series of photos, again and again, while the girl cries. Seemingly oblivious to outside social expectations, Cross lacks boundaries, making candid statements about her sex life and changing clothing in front of her colleague at the station. Unlike her partner Marco Ruiz, who has a wife and family, Cross lives alone with no apparent social life apart from the one-night-stands she takes home from bars. 

Cross indicates early in the season that her mother was an addicted to cocaine. Later, we learn her sister was raped and murdered when Cross was a teenager. Since the perp was shot (by the current police chief) and suffered severe brain damage before anyone could question him about the crimes, Sonya visits him in the mental hospital to watch him draw pictures she hopes will give her information.

While some of her colleagues get frustrated with her, no one can deny that Sonya is an excellent cop. Some critics have voiced approval about the show’s portrayal of Asperger's syndrome. While never mentioned on the show, press notes indicate that Cross does have Asperger’s, though it's never mentioned on the show itself (much to some people's chagrin; there's been a ton of heated online debate about whether the show should reveal Cross’ condition).

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Detective Linden, looking ... reserved.


THE SHOW: "THE KILLING"

THE CHARACTER: Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos)

THE ISSUES  Detective Sarah Linden is with the Seattle PD, and just like my beloved Benson above, her job is HER ENTIRE GODDAMNED WORLD. She has a sulky teenage son she loves, but she consistently makes him her second priority. Her first? Obsessively nitpicking and analyzing every detail of the murder cases she's worked on during the show's 3 seasons so far.

Perpetually bitchy-faced Linden isn't a bad person, but she's not exactly a GREAT person, either. She means well, but she doesn't try very hard to reach out, be kind, or sustain meaningful connections of any type. She's cold, and in some ways she feels like a living stereotype -- interestingly, not of a female cop but of a MALE cop. She's aloof, prickly, quick to anger, and loath to communicative beyond, like, 3-word blips.

Linden very rarely seems happy or OK, especially when she's obsessively throwing herself into her darker, more challenging cases; they tend to consume her, as well as her time and energy. She's ended up in a mental hospital more than once; for exactly what is unclear (depression?). After one mental breakdown (which was, again, fueled by her frenzied fixation on solving the murder of a teenage girl), she was encouraged to turn in her badge to take a break from the force, which she did (and took up running -- aw).

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Carrie with meltdown face.

THE SHOW: "Homeland"

THE CHARACTER: Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes)

THE ISSUES: At its core, "Homeland" is all about the fragile mental equilibrium of its disarming lead character: the (secretly) bipolar CIA operations officer Carrie Mathison. In the first season, her whole world unravels when Carrie decides to go off her meds. Completely obsessed with her professional life, she pretty much loses her entire identity after getting sacked from work (not to mention losing her secret loverman, Sgt. Nicholas Brody). She even loses her memory after undergoing electroshock therapy in a mental hospital.

Carrie's a classic example of a tortured genius -- hello, "suffering for your art" crap (if CIA investigations can be called art, and I think they probably can, yeah?). She's utterly brilliant, yet when she's manic and off her meds, she's, er, the complete opposite: a frazzled live wire with no ability to decipher reality from paranoid fantasy. This is what makes her character so compelling; the fact that she's mentally ill but still (partially) able to hold down an incredibly prestigious and coveted position engaging some of the world's most dangerous criminals. Talking a mile a minute and making a dazzling array of mostly heinous facial contortions (she's emo, you guys) within the blink of an eye, Carrie's character is like a car wreck you can't turn away from.

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'Bones' looks at bones.

5) THE SHOW: "Bones"

THE CHARACTER: Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel)

THE ISSUES  Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan is a respected forensic anthropologist whose work requires extreme focus and mega-attention to detail, and she rejects things like sad, sloppy emotion in favor of cold, hard logic.

Maybe it stems from her crappy childhood. When she was three, Brennan's bank-robber parents changed their identities; they later abandoned their kids and Brennan was placed in the foster system, where she was abused.

Like Sonya Cross on "The Bridge," Brennan is totally in her own head. She has trouble understanding her colleagues, insults others by stating the obvious and is teased for her lack of hipness about pop culture. Unlike Sonya, though, Brennan has at least one friend: free-spirited forensic artist Angela Montenegro.

Despite the ongoing sexual tension between Brennan and Agent Seeley Booth (the agent she works with), she appears, in earlier seasons, to have no interest in romantic stuff, at one point saying, “Love is a chemical process which causes delusion."

As the series progresses, though, her character becomes more three-dimensional. She has a child using Booth’s semen (eep!), acts with more sensitivity towards her co-workers and FINALLY gets together with Booth. (YAY FOR MULTI-DIMENSIONAL WOMEN CHARACTERS WHO ARE CRAZY BUT LOVABLE!)

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