What is your mental image of a female cop or crime scene investigator? If it includes five-inch heels, hair flowing halfway to the waist, and skin-tight tops that expose a generous amount of cleavage, you’ve been watching too much TV.
The people who produce shows about law enforcement are willing to give women equality in the workplace, but only if they go to work looking like prostitutes trolling the streets for johns. Every time I watch CSI or Without a Trace, I am amused by the absurdities of the action – crime scene techs questioning suspects and ordering cops to make arrests, the FBI launching a widespread search because some guy didn’t come home for dinner, instant DNA analysis – but I accept them if the story is entertaining. What I can’t accept is the way the women dress.
I first noticed it on NYPD Blue, a show I loved. I kept wondering how any female detective could deal successfully with street punks or hardened criminals when she was leaning over them with half of her breasts exposed. And if she ever had to chase a suspect, wouldn’t high heels slow her down a little?
The CSI shows are often shot in near-total darkness, but the women’s cleavage is always visible. I don’t suppose a crime scene investigator’s manner of dress matters much, since a CSI’s work is done mostly behind the scenes and in labs. Even so, it’s hard to suspend disbelief and accept someone as a professional when she is so obviously an actress decked out in sexy clothes by the wardrobe department.
The women who really show us all they’ve got are Poppy Montgomery and Roselyn Sanchez, playing FBI agents on Without a Trace. Both expose ample cleavage in every show, and they almost always wear their very long hair hanging loose over their shoulders and down their backs. When the two of them work together, and they whip out their badges and announce ominously, “We’re from the FBI,” I always expect the person they’ve confronted to burst out laughing.
Since the majority of viewers for these shows are women, I don’t know who this in-your-face sexuality is aimed at. Maybe the producers are trying to attract more male viewers? An interviewer once asked an actress on one program why all the women wear such revealing clothes, and she replied, “You don’t think we dress ourselves, do you? We wear what we’re told to wear.” Somebody higher up, probably a male somebody, is making the decision to portray professional women as Playboy bunny wannabes.
I know how real-life crime scene investigators and cops feel about the CSI shows, and I know Without a Trace is based on a false premise – the FBI doesn’t have any units, in New York or elsewhere, dedicated solely to finding missing persons – but I haven’t heard female cops or CSIs or FBI agents speak out about the way women are portrayed on these programs. Are they insulted by it? Do they laugh it off? Do they worry that the public’s image of them is being influenced by TV fantasy, and they aren’t being taken seriously as well-trained, competent professionals?
How do you, as a viewer, feel about the way women are presented on TV crime shows? Has your image of female cops and CSIs been affected by television? Can you think of any explanation for why women are still being objectified this way by the entertainment industry, at this late date in our history?
When I call up my own mental picture of a dedicated, thoroughly professional woman in law enforcement, what I get is Cathy L. Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, DC. I’m stubbornly hanging onto this image, regardless of what I see on TV.
(Photo of Chief Lanier from the DCMPD.)