Posted by: caseymhughes | September 22, 2016

Women in Crime Shows- Beneath the Magnifying Glass

After we first brought up women characters in class a few weeks ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. I wonder about every female leader I see in TV shows and films and how their character portrays the role of women and women leaders to viewers.
One genre of television I keep coming back to is the crime and punishment genre. I feel like there are two types of women in these shows, and female characters tend to fall into the mold of either one or the other. I believe that there is a growing trend of finding women in high-power positions on crime shows. Perhaps people are becoming increasingly aware of a need for women to be shown in strong, powerful positions and as a result more women are becoming television police chiefs and law enforcement directors. Some shows that I have seen this in are Psych, Limitless, Castle, NCIS, Bones, and Forever. In my opinion, the female leaders in these shows fall into the same mold. They are tough, hard-ass bosses who follow the rules to a tee but care about their subordinates and have their loyalty. There is often an episode where this leader is in need of some sort of help that the main character/team provides.
Women in crime TV who do not hold the position of  superior also have a basic framework they all fit into. They are always young and attractive (of course, it’s TV), driven (often by some personal tragedy), capable, smart, and strong. However, she still maintains some sort of femininity and/or sexiness. She is important to the show but is not the main character. Many times she becomes the romantic interest of a main character. Shows like The Mentalist, Castle, Limitless, Psych, and Forever follow this mold very closely while some differ, like Bones, Rizolli and Isles, and Law and Order SVU, where the women are arguably the main characters. Still, the women all bear a striking resemblance to each other.
So I was wondering what exactly to make of this. Are these women tokens? Are they there simply because there had to be a woman in the show for ratings, for interest, or for romantic tension? In NCIS for example, they have gone through a several women, always replacing them with another when they are gone, while the other main members of the team remain male. And the most important question is, are we hurting women by making them so similar? Sure, the characters are strong females and positive role models but they don’t seem to me to have the same flexibility or chance to have flaws as male characters. While I am only looking at one genre, and the genre certainly factors into what kind of women are imagined, I am still left with questions and doubts about women in the media.


  1. This is one of my favorite genres to watch! I have never thought about this though. I love both Psych and Bones! Psych has a huge love interest in the show. That’s not what the female character is ALL about, but that’s a big part of her role. Bones on the other hand doesn’t have the huge love interest. At the beginning there was none, but towards the middle or end of the show one was sparked. She went from being fine on her own to having a man (which isn’t bad, because getting married is part of life).

    I am currently watching Criminal Minds. There aren’t many big female characters. There was one then she left and another one came in. Both very strong and smart. Neither had a love interest with anyone or even talked about having one! That was refreshing to see. At the same time, I am starting to lose interest in the show. I don’t know if it is because I like to see those love interests or if it is because the show is just becoming boring.

  2. The problem with TV shows portrayal of women is that they want to focus on what society as a whole accepts from a woman in the specific context. I think a way to change peoples perceptions of how they view women characters/ role models is instead to read more. In fiction women are viewed through the eyes of the reader and can be imagined to look the way the reader wants despite what the authors intentions were. This takes the media out of the equation, and the female characters are usually much more dynamic in literature because they are given more background and story so that the reader can understand them within their society. The problem is that this could be a solution, many Americans simply do not read.

    A show that I thought of bringing up in class was Game of Thrones. The show has quite a few powerful women characters who seemingly reject the idea of needing a man to lead. And although this is displayed in the TV show, I think that the books do a much better job of emphasizing how powerful some of the women in the show truly are.

  3. Interesting take on these shows! I don’t watch these shows because I am a baby and crime and mystery creep me out, however my sister is completely obsessed with them so she will sometimes fill me in on certain big events in the shows. Last week she showed me the trailer of the new NCIS (I think that’s the right show, again don’t watch them) where the main female character Olivia is called to a scene in the park. It later goes to show that she brings her son with her and then needs to protect him (the typical feminine/ motherly thing to do). Just from watching the brief preview for it it made me question the reasoning behind such a cool/strong sort of lead character needing a son. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think women can be strong leaders and role models with children, but what made that an important element to add to this show? I felt that sort of played into the stereotype of women needing children to be fulfilled, not that it helped make her character seem more brave or complex. Is it really possible for a female character to be completely agentic and have more masculine leadership tendencies without the sex appeal and communal aspects? Probably not, I think that would probably freak the viewers out.

  4. Wait yes, I have been thinking about this so much recently. There is definitely a mold that most female characters fit into on these shows. Abby from NCIS differs from this mold and I love it, but yeah, most female characters in these are very similar to each other. Honestly, I love the role these women play in the shows — the badass, determined, and yet still soft character, but I also really think there are so many other amazing characters that could be created by the writers. I would be so tickled to see a female character in one of these crime shows that doesn’t play by the rules and is the more free spirited character (kind of like Sean in Psych or Deeks in NCIS LA). The women in the shows are always very steady and focused and a lot of time there is a man on the show who is wild and silly but then also a badass — I would love to see the roles swapped and see what happens. Sometimes though, the guys in these roles seem somewhat incompetent (even if they are not) and I understand why writers want to stray away from portraying women this way in the media (because probably part of the point of creating badass female characters is to show others that women can be competent and empowered).

  5. This was a very interesting analysis of women in the media. After we discussed this problem in class, I as well began thinking and analyzing the portrayal of women in the media. I do not watch many crime shows, but I definitely agree with your point about the mold female characters must fall into. However, I wanted to expand your analysis to the portrayal of women in romantic/ chick-flicks genre.

    I think this genre of film and television can be blamed for negativity representing women in the media. Take any Nicolas Sparks movie where the main character is a beautiful women who is struggling with some sorta of problem. Usually, the women’s problems deals with her inability to function on her own for whatever reason. The setting involves a small, Southern town where everyone knows each other. The girl and the guy meet and are instantly attracted to each other; however, some force stands in their way. A fight towards happiness is won when the couple finally end up together. Even if this time is brief, the couple is the happiest when together. The women is seen better off with a man and now all her problems are now solved.

    These movie emphasis the overwhelming importance of finding true love despite adversity, and downplay the importance of the strength of independent women.These movies support the dependence of women, and only further objectify their sex appeal. I’m not suggesting movies never have love interest or romantic encounters, but maybe it would be interesting to create a love story where the girl does not end up with the guy. In the end, maybe she learns the importance of empowering her self and reaching her best potential without a man. Furthermore, in such stories why does the man have to change the women or why does she have to change for him? Lets have a movie that focuses on the strength of the individual with love acting as a force that propels individuals forward. Women can do things with or without a man. Movies should focus on this strength of women, and not fall into the classic stereotypes that view women as sex objects, weak, and dependent on men. These portrayals of women only confirm stereotypes. It is a new age for film and television. As Wilson (2007) believes, film and television have great potential to influence and impact our society’ beliefs about the roles of women (p. 125). Lets change it up and get some new role models out there.

    Wilson, M. C. (2007). Closing the leadership gap: Add women, change everything. New York City, NY: Penguin Group.


  6. There may be a combination of tokenism and awareness of the need for strong women lead roles. Tokenism in the fact that the media may see that the public is maybe wanting more strong women leaders on television so the media may add women to the picture in order to fill a general want by the masses. But the other may also be more prevalent in the way some shows may be finally recognizing the need for strong women roles not in order to fill a criteria but in order to push good role models for the public. The more the audience voice their opinions the more I believe there will be positive changes in the movies and shows that we watch.

  7. It can be so frustrating to watch television which limits people into a handful of personality types. Characters are either genius, crime-solving sleuths or bozos. Women are either gorgeous junior detectives or sloppy junkies. Here’s a healthy reminder: television is not real life. Media boxes characters into classic roles because that is what viewers are comfortable with. As someone who does not watch TV, I would be interested to know if there are any programs, besides “Cops,” that center on real life female police and detectives. Storytelling is an amazing tool that can be misused to stereotype people.

  8. I think the other problem is that this genre is trying to put women into a field that most people see as traditionally masculine. The media is trying to make a successful show, therefore, they make characters that they think will appeal. And as we’ve discussed in class that character is a sexy, smart, do it all kind of women. Or you get women like Olivia Benson on SVU that also have a horrible past and are jaded to the world and are more “masculine”. Rizzoli and Isles show the pretty blond vs. the hardcore brunette dichotomy very well. On all of these shows the blond is the one that is the more delicate one and many of the times one of the normally two present female characters is often replaced by another character that fits a similar mold to them. It gives the ideas that these women are only there because they are beautiful or because some horrible experience put them there, and that no other woman would be interested otherwise. I also think this lack of representation of women in these shows might reflect the lack of women that hold prominent positions in law enforcement and law making jobs. I don’t know much about the ratio of males to females in law enforcement but based on the cops i’ve seen there seems to be less women. So this void might also be accurate.

  9. There is one show in particular that I absolutely dislike the lead female character in homeland. If you all aren’t familiar with the show, it is about a Marine who is captured, and radicalized to fight for the extremist terrorist group. After like 10 years in captivity they “find him”. The lead female character is working at the CIA and she was one of the lead analysts. At first she starts off being a strong advocate for defending her country, because of the facts she uncovered from one of her sources. However, as time goes on she ends up sleeping with the target of interest, which eventually leads to her falling in love. I was willing to accept this, however, later in the show it was revealed that she suffered from a mental problem. So all that defiance and all that “bad-ass” woman leadership she displayed was completely undermined because she was crazy. The worst part about all of it, is she is right, he was an extremist. Sadly, it didn’t matter. I hate shows like this, especially in the man’s world of national security, because it confirms one of the fears women have been working against for a long time, which is, that women cannot prevent themselves from getting emotionally involved.

  10. The one female lead that comes to mind for me is Olivia Benson from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She is a strong, passionate, kick a** woman on television and I also believe she is a good role model for young girls. There was an article on the Washington Post calling her “America’s Ideal Female Television character.” This article talks about how many women see characteristics of themselves, in her, which are not usually on television, but especially in fiction. However, of course, the article talks about how attractive the actress who portrays her is (Mariska Hargitay). So I began to question, if Olivia was played but a seemingly less attractive woman, would the same characteristics be attributed to her? The article also pointed out something extremely interesting to me as far as TV preferences among our generation and it says that we prefer to watch stories that pay more attention to the emotional side of men’s lives and that spotlight women in positions that our typically and previously masculine. I thought that was really interesting to hear because this post was written about a year ago, and I believe it shows that the trends of social expectations for gender are shifting a little bit more than we thought, and its beginning with us. While I believe that female characters on TV still have room to grow, I believe we are making important steps in the right direction.

  11. One prime example of this I find particularly interesting is in the show Criminal Minds, throughout the show there have been a variety of women in what I call ‘the miscellaneous brunette’ role. There have been at this point I think four women that all fill essentially the exact same role on the team and they’ve all been pretty, brunette women with a lot of similar character traits despite being different women. To me this is evidence of the network feeling the need to have this one type of character on the show rather than taking the opportunity to explore different interactions and different types or dynamic characters whenever there’s a cast change. In some ways because this one character seems so replaceable it lessens the significance of the character because I’m just waiting for the next miscellaneous brunette

  12. I agree that we should be critical and questioning of the way tv shows portray women. They do have the tendency to be very cookie-cutter which is disappointing at times. The thing that bothers me the most is that these women are meant to be powerhouses, there is no reason for the show writers to throw in more trivial issues for them to deal with other than to keep them at a level they think might be relatable for other women. However, these characters are filling positions of leadership that require strength and resilience… why should they ever be the damsel in distress? I’ve also noticed a tendency for these shows to throw in emotional aftermath for several episodes or even an entire season after a female character experiences trauma. This conveys the message that the character can’t be healed unless they get revenge or have some sort of concrete closure, not that they can pick themselves up and keep going despite their bad experience.

  13. I had never really thought about this until you had brought it up. And maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe women need to recognize that they don’t have that much representation in shows and movies in order for something to change. While I was reading this, I found myself thinking about how the dynamic of a crime show would change if the “crime solving/fighting team” was mostly made up of females. Sadly, I thought that it would make the show less popular. People expecct men to have these tough, action-packed positions in the real world, so if the roles were switched to mostly women, people might not think it’s as interesting or realistic. I haven’t seen a lot of the shows you mentioned, but I have seen NCIS, and I thought it was funny when I thought about the female characters on the show and realized they’re the “not like other girls” type; they’re tough, but still try to maintain femininity to separate themselves from the male characters. But that’s one type of character, as you mentioned. There really isn’t a whole lot of diversity, which means not a whole lot of role models for younger girls watching the show. This is why I think the new Ghostbusters movie was so good. There were 4 different female main characters with four different personalities, and they were very strong individuals. People still had negative opinions of the movie before it came out because they didn’t think it was a good idea for the movie to be changed to a majority female cast. Movies and tv, however, need to keep pushing those boundaries in order for it to become increasingly accepted by people.

  14. I think the TV portrayal of women are generally really hard to classify. Sometimes the characters have dimension, sometimes they don’t. I don’t watch a lot of crime shows, or any really, but what it sounds to me like you’re describing is a female leader that sets unique expectations that not every woman can or should meet. These women are often the perfect combination of smart, sexy, confident, and tough. But this is not realistic. No one is that perfect. For some women, it is equally as impressive to be smart and beautiful and a stay at home mom or only working part time as a nurse or a teachers aid. And why not? It seems to be so challenging just to portray a real and admirable woman on a TV show. Maybe this is because our expectations are not necessarily too high, but we have too many.

  15. I have had the same thoughts of women in tv shows, but I watch a different genre of tv. I typically stick to dramas and reality tv that is more like trashy tv (sorry!). But it is terrible to see both the exploitation of women in tv. That being said, an all time favorite of mine is The Bachelor and Bachelorette, but the difference with that, is the bachelor exploits women, yes but the bachelorette also exploits men. On the bachelorette, you have all of this guys (a lot of times, rude and ignorant) that just want attention and show men in a bad light. It is important when looking at the treatment of women, that we also look at it form the other perspective as well.

  16. This genre of TV show is absolutely one of my favorites, so I’m excited we’re getting to talk about it here on the blog. One of my favorites, that you’ve already mentioned is NCIS. Although it is a male-dominated show for sure, there are a handful of strong female roles, leading and temporary roles. Although these women are portrayed as strong, intelligent bad-asses in many ways, there is still romantic dynamics, especially tensions, they bring to the plot of the show. In the beginning of the series (spoiler alerts), there is romantic tension between Abby and Special Agent McGee. Later we see romantic tensions between Special Agent Gibbs and Director Shepard. Throughout the majority of the series there is constant romantic tension between Special Agents Ziva and Tony. In more recent seasons, they bring in Agent Ellie Bishop and although she does not have any romantic tensions with anyone in NCIS, the show does tend to focus on her marriage and (big spoiler) its demise.

    Even though the show does tend to focus on the romantic relational aspects of the women, I don’t think that takes away from the strength of their characters. They are still strong, mostly independent women who know how to do their job well.

  17. I love this topic. Like you, I love this kind of television shows. Especially Criminal Minds and Law and Order SVU. One aspect that you didn’t mention, but that I think fits in with your topic, is the question of whether these shows empower women by showing them in high level, authoratitive positions, or undermine their authority by dramatizing the victimization of women. SVU clearly focuses on crimes primarily against women. Criminal Minds disproportionately shows women as the victims of violent crime, when reality white men are by far the largest percentage of both perpetrators and victims. Do these shows raise awareness of crimes against women, or do they normalize them? Do they empower women or limit them? I wish that we knew how to answer these questions.

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