In crime fiction, women traditionally have taken on roles of helpmeet/spouse or devil temptress. It’s the old good girl/bad girl, Madonna/whore dichotomy so prevalent in literature, movies, and television. A great example of this dichotomy appears in the classic noir film, The Maltese Falcon.
Mary Astor is the seductive, murdering femme fatale, Bridget O’Shaughnessy. Lee Patrick plays Sam Spade’s girl Friday, Effie Perrine. She is obviously devoted to him, is on call to do his bidding 24/7 and lives with her mother. He never notices her except to say things like “You’re a good man, sister.” He plays around with Iva Archer, his partner’s wife. She is not on screen long, but she makes it count. When Miles is murdered, she forces her way into Sam’s office, draped head to toe in stylish black, somehow looking sexy, and asks Sam if he killed Miles because he was in love with her. The audience gets the idea that she wouldn’t mind. His obedient, love-starved “good man sister” gets rid of her.
What has this got to do with Broadchurch and cleavage?
The idea for this post came about when I saw a comment on Facebook about the BBC crime drama, Broadchurch.
I have seen the first season of this excellent series in its entirety. The setting is a small ocean-side tourist town where everyone knows everyone else. An eleven-year-old boy is found murdered on the beach and the hunt is on for the killer. There’s nothing graphic, bloody or nasty, no drawn-out post-mortem grisly incisions, etc. Some people like this, but as a personal preference, I do not. I prefer the old Hitchcock, edge-of-your-seat suspense to buckets of blood and viscera.
Broadchurch is carried by the tremendous acting of Olivia Colman (Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller) and David Tennant (Detective Inpector Alec Hardy). Ellie, a long-time DS in the police department, is enraged when she is bypassed for promotion. Outsider DI Alec Hardy is brought in to conduct the investigation. Alec has so much emotional baggage he needs a freight train to carry it. And he’s also wonderfully strange, rude, brilliant, and completely undiplomatic. The pair clash at first meeting and things go downhill from there.
The characters are fascinating. I could go on and on about the fine craftsmanship involved in Broadchurch, but the main thing that impressed me is DS Ellie Miller. She is not a kid. Her hair blows all over the place when she’s out on the beach. Her wardrobe is the pits. There’s no cleavage and not a high heel to be seen. This woman is a working stiff. She’s got kids and her husband is unemployed and stays home with the baby. She’s mad as hell about being jumped over for promotion. She’s a part of the town and is defensive when Alec rides roughshod over everyone.
In short, she is a brave, courageous, smart woman copper who hates her new boss. She is all too human–hot-tempered, maternal, blunt, compassionate, and tough. The two protagonists are the heart and soul of the story, but the town itself is also an important character in this atmospheric, brooding drama.
I prefer British crime shows to American ones. One of the main reasons is the treatment of women characters. My husband and I have gotten to the point that every time we see an actress in tight jeans and low-cut top, we say, “She must be a cop.”
There are more women characters in crime dramas than there used to be. Instead of playing only hookers, coffee-fetching secretaries, or nagging wives, they are now homicide detectives, forensic experts, profilers, spies, and medical examiners. So, people might say, isn’t that a step in the right direction for women? They are now playing strong characters in roles traditionally reserved for men.
My point is, how are they playing them? When the new crime show Stalker premiered, why was the lead actress Maggie Q, who plays LAPD detective Beth Davis, dressed up in a blouse cut halfway to her navel? Why did the female CIA operatives in Covert Affairs expose so much cleavage? Why do the two protagonists in Rizzoli & Isles look like runway models instead of homicide detective and medical examiner? I’ve read the Rizzoli and Iles novels by Tess Gerritsen, and the way the original characters are portrayed in the TV series is not true to Gerritsen’s initial creation. In the books, Rizzoli is short, has frizzy hair, no fashion sense, and can be a real jerk at times. She bears no resemblance to the gorgeous Angie Harmon seen on the tube.
Based on many years of watching shows about crime fiction, I think as a general rule, the British have better programs than we do on this side of the pond. They are more concerned with characterization. The lead characters are often not that good looking, not that young, and not that well dressed. They sometimes have crooked teeth. They look like real people.
In America, we still go for the glossy Hollywood look, with gorgeous hunk male actors and sexy actresses in scanty clothing playing lead roles in law enforcement dramas. I don’t think it’s an improvement in the status of women. I think it’s another form of gender discrimination. Sorry, I don’t feel liberated.