Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cops with Cleavage

Sandra Parshall

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 w
ho 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.)


Gerald So said...

I'm generally not into cop shows, but I agree that many of the female cops on TV seem to dress too provocatively for the job. If they dressed more professionally, their beauty would still come through, in my opinion.

A few portrayals I have enjoyed:

Elisabeth Rohm as Det. Kate Lockley on "Angel", back when Shawn Ryan worked on the show. Ryan went on to create FX's "The Shield".

Sasha Alexander as Special Agent Kate Todd on "NCIS". She was undeniably attractive, but dressed conservatively, and never failed to call the men on their sexist remarks.

Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane on "Lois & Clark". Not a cop, of course, but the same sort of professionalism is expected of journalists. Hatcher is also quite attractive, but in the first season of the show, Lois didn't seem to go out of her way with makeup, hair, dress, or shoes. She wore what made sense and looked real.

In subsequent seasons, after show developer Deborah Joy Levine left, Lois's outfits were silver, purple, fluorescent orange--an obvious attempt to make her look more "comic book".

Sandra Parshall said...

Going way back, I thought Cagney and Lacey were realistic. On CSI, I appreciated the ordinariness of Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) in contrast to the overt sexiness of Marg Helgenberger's character on the job.

Remember the short, short uniform skirts and low necklines on the women in the original Star Trek show? On the subsequent spinoffs, the women dressed like the men.

Liss said...

I'm currently working on a novel with a female detective with a mostly rural Kansas Sheriff's department. Funny but her hair is back/up, she's dirty in the scene I just completed, and wearing sensible shoes.

The TV females in law enforcement make me nuts. last fall I had to stop watching CSI Miami because one of the girls, hair flying loose, was in a hummer(!!!! - really? no, really? a hummer?!) chasing a suspect and started honking at cars around her to get out of the way - at no point did she call in the suspects location.

overall they keep tramping them up - which I consider to be an insult to the intelligence of the audience.

These days I find myself watching a reality show called Female Forces which follows women in the Naperville Police Department (I think it's on the Biography channel but don't quote me on that)

Joyce said...

I bet not too many female police officers have time to even watch TV, because I'm sure there'd be a massive protest. After working their shifts, they're probably taking care of their houses/husbands/children/other things.

I was a police secretary for ten years. (Ever see a police secretary on any TV show? No? Me neither.) I can guarantee no one dressed like they do on TV.

RhondaL said...

A few years ago, I was at a signing for Dr. Emily Craig, the Kentucky forensic anthrpologist. There she made a crack about not showing up at a crime scene in leather pants. And she thanked us for being out on a Tuesday night to hear about the real thing when we could have been home watching NCIS instead.

But back when I was covering the courthouse, I heard a great story about a female probation officer wearing a dress and heels chasing a client through the parking lot. Legend had it that she leaped over car fenders, the works - just like a Hollywood foot chase. And it ended with her cuffing the guy. I asked around for corroboration -- and got it. Amazing. Plus, she had a rather gonzo reputation anyway.

But the cleavage? Um, my contact in the probation office was ordered to cover up when she wore a deep V-neck tee under her suit jacket that didn't show "the valley" but got close to the top.

P.A.Brown said...

I've all but stopped watching the various CSI shows. They disgust me too much on too many levels. I can take that they're fantasy and all that, but they're starting to affect the way people view forensics in a dangerous way. Of all the shows I do watch, I think Cold Case's two female cops rarely flash their cleavage onscreen and usually looks more professional. The Shield could in no way be considered realistic, but for the most part the woman don't look like hookers. In fact I remember when they brought in a young sexy woman a big point was made that she was using her sexuality in a negative way.

Hollywood in general has always had a problem with women. They still insist on pairing young 20 something women with 50 or older men and trying to make it seem 'normal', or having women who are in their 30s or 40s playing mothers to women who are in their mid to late 20s.

Bottom line is Hollywood has only one use for women -- to be sex objects and eye candy.

Sheila Connolly said...

Sandy, you've nailed it--what woman in her right mind would go hunting for a crazed criminal in the subway tunnels of New York wearing stiletto heels and a low-cut tank top? And we the viewers are supposed to accept this as professional?

Do we have any information about the demographics of the people who watch these shows? What percentage do you think are male?

Vivian Zabel said...

I was going to mention Cagney and Lacy as examples of women law enforcement officers who dressed appropriately.

When TV shows women as tramps in professional positions, no wonder our girls, even elementary aged, dress like street-walkers in training.

Wonder why NCIS is one of the few, maybe only, so called crime show that allows women to cover up?

Let's don't get me started on "Grace."

Peg Brantley said...

I loved Cagney and Lacey.

How about The Closer? And Medium?

I must confess my mental image of a real-life female cop wasn't too flattering. However, when I did a tag-along with some detectives, one in particular was gorgeous, and forever altered my sterotype. But she didn't dress that much different than her male colleagues.

Sandra Parshall said...

I enjoy The Closer and I like Brenda a lot because she's competent in her job but also has plenty of human flaws. She dresses like a little girl too often, but I think that works well in the context of the stories -- the people she questions are disarmed by her appearance and manner and don't realize they're in the presence of a shark.

I have tremendous respect for the real-life professionalism of Chief Lanier in the District. She often wears civilian clothes on the job, but she always looks and acts crisply professional. The same goes for female detectives in the police department of Fairfax County, VA, where I live. The reality shows about detectives that I've seen on TV have featured down to earth, business-like female cops.

G.M. Malliet said...

Going back in time, and across the pond, Jane Tennyson managed to dress appropriately (and still look sexier than women half her age).

Kathleen Ryan said...

I am a retired 21-year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island. It is laughable how female cops are portrayed on TV; it's just pure Hollywood -- far from reality. It goes along with all the other nonsense, like solving a case in an hour.

I have to say, however, that I enjoyed THE SHIELD, I thought it was one of the best shows on TV; I'd have to catch my breath at the end of each episode; and as far-fetched as some of the storylines were, there was authentic cop stuff going on, and there was never a dull moment. I was sad to see it end.

The female cops in the show were at least dressed as they would be in real life - wearing a uniform with a bullet-proof vest underneath, and hair pinned up, as per rules & procedures.

The season recently ended, but I really enjoyed LIFE ON MARS. I was amazed that the show stayed true to how cops were in the 70s, without the concern of being PC; it wouldn't have been as accurate. The things they did and said on the show could make you cringe -- but it's the way it was (although I came on the job in 1986, I still recognized tactics, assumptions, etc, and have heard stories over the years from officers who were cops in the 60s and 70s). Unfortunately, in real life, some of the generalizations they depicted on the show still exist today.

I thought the cast members of both shows were outstanding.

Cops can be very critical when watching police shows; they know what's accurate, what's against rules & procedures, etc. But, in Hollywood, as we all know, sex trumps reality - it's all entertainment.

Thanks for an interesting post, Sandra!

Dorte H said...

What is your mental image of a female cop or crime scene investigator?

Good question. I assume they are just as different as the rest of us. This is one of the reasons why I love Ann Cleeves´ Vera Stanhope series. Vera is coarse and masculine and closer to a bag lady than a Baywatch bimbo.

Tamara Cravit said...

Having had more than a little contact with my local police department, both as a mystery writer and a foster parent, I find the portrayals of female cops on TV as absolutely laughable. It's one of the reasons we canceled our satellite dish a couple years ago -- we got tired of spending $70 a month to have 300 channels of that sort of tripe to watch.

Sandra Parshall said...

I appreciate all the comments that are being posted, especially from people who have worked in law enforcement. Sometimes I wonder if I've turned into a grumpy old feminist who's jealous of younger, sexy women, so I'm glad to see I'm not alone in my opinion! I care about the way women are perceived and treated, and it pains me that after such a long struggle for equality, professional women are still being treated as sex objects.

Donis Casey said...

I like the portrayals of small town policewomen in the Jesse Stone series. The characters played by Viola Davis and Kathy Baker are competent, no nonsense, appropriately-dressed women with families as well as jobs.

Mary Ellen Hughes said...

Sandy, you said exactly what I've been thinking and grumping about for years. It's ridiculous how they dress the women on those shows. You know darn well anyone in real life would have been sent home to change if they showed up looking like that.

Another thing CSI does that bugs me, is having that noir look to the labs - as if everyone were developing film instead of doing lab work that they need to SEE.

Thanks for the chance to blow off some steam. (I obviously watch too much T.V.)

Auntie Knickers said...

I have to admit I watch almost no TV these days and the old ones I watch on DVD are pretty much free of sexily dressed female cops. It's not just cop shows either -- I remember when my daughters and I used to watch CHARMED, the three witch sisters in San Francisco -- not only did they dress unprofessionally but given the weather in SF, there were times they would have been really, really chilly and damp in the clothes they were wearing!

Sandra Parshall said...

Er... what constitutes professional dress for witches? :-)

Maggie Toussaint said...

This is a great topic, and I have often noted the same thing - a tendency toward more visible cleavage on the women, more unbuttoned shirts on the men, etc. I'm not a prude, just making a scientific observation.

And while I'm on the topic of science, much disbelief must be suspended by the amount of high tech equipment available to crime scene techs and the instant, unquestionable results. Plus the fact that the lab never gets false positives, never has a machine that breaks down during analysis, never has contaminated standards or a drifting baseline - all common troubles when I worked in a lab.

You might be lucky enough to get the CSIs in a lab coat, though it usually isn't buttoned or if it is it in some way enhances the cleavage on display.

There also seems to be a high degree of traffic into and out of areas where evidence is processed, a troubling note when chain of evidence is considered.

Loose hair. You mentioned that and it bugs me too. When I worked in a lab, hair was to be contained so that it didn't get in your way, didn't accidentally dip in acid, or contaminate your analysis. No such provision seems to hold true on TV shows.

They want us to suspend disbelief. Its hard with so many inconsistencies staring us in the face. If we did this in our books, we'd be crucified.

Suzanne Adair said...

My sons and I get a big laugh out of "professional" women on TV who wear high heels and low-cut shirts: doctors, scientists, lawyers, cops, etc. Although my sons enjoy the eye candy, they realize that dressing in such a way is neither realistic nor practical with you consider the demands of the job. The extreme is the SciFi "bunny" depicted in Boris Vallejo's paintings. I've always wondered how these babes in chain mail bikinis could fight the bad guys without, ummmm, pinching something strategic.

Suzanne Adair