Friday, 13 June 2014

Female Cops in the Media

I'll confess that much as I love Clint Eastwood, I've never been a huge fan of Dirty Harry. The first one I was somewhat indifferent to and Magnum Force was a disappointment with twists I saw coming a mile away. I was, however, intrigued by the premise of The Enforcer which saw Harry paired up with a female cop, and so far it's the closest thing I've found to a buddy cop film with a male/female pairing (though it isn't really a "buddy cop" film).

The female cop in that movie was actually pretty good at first, and had me going for a while so much that I was considering writing an article on her for my Women in Film Blogathon, but that changed when the movie ultimately built up to a disappointing and contrived climax where she gets a corny and unconvincing death scene that really didn't need to be there. Still, it got me thinking about how women cops are treated in the movies.

Unlike the issue of female firefighters, as I have discussed previously, Hollywood actually is willing to acknowledge the existence of female cops, and it certainly extends far beyond a single kids' show from Wales (someone needs to do something about that).  Since publishing my previous article I have found a total of four shows that actually depict women firefighters in any way. Out of those, L.A. Firefighters never used them in anything outside of stereotypically feminine roles, and Rescue Me had a female firefighter who only stayed for one season before the show went for several years without one. Flashpoint gets credit for acknowledging their existence (and having the character in question being a black woman) but since she had switched to being a cop by the time she actually appeared on the show she doesn't really count. Fireman Sam is the only show I've found so far to offer what I can consider a positive image of a woman firefighter, and I still have yet to find any contemporary films that even have one even though most of them were made by people who should know better.

Fortunately, as it happens, female cops seem to be a bit easier to come by and Hollywood has gotten the memo that policewomen do in fact exist. That said, we still see a lot more men (I've pointed out before how rare it is to find woman "Buddy Cops" despite the extensive popularity of that genre), but it is far easier to find positive images of policewomen in movies and TV. Marge Gunderson from Fargo is a great example. Extending it further we do get reasonable depictions of other law enforcement such as the Oscar-Winning Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs. In fact recently we got The Heat, which was a buddy cop film in which both the "buddy cops" were women.

We can also see positive images on certain TV shows. In my article on firefighters I pointed out that a film or show with just one female firefighter could make all the difference. Well, Flashpoint shows that working out well for cops with Jules. The show just wouldn't be the same if she wasn't present and it was an all-male team (aside from Winnie, who doesn't work in the field).

Of course, the show did have other women who joined the cast at different times, including one female officer who briefly took over after Jules got shot (though there was a strange double standard where Jules was out for half a season after taking a sniper bullet, yet later on her male colleague Ed Lane was only out for one episode despite being shot several times at point blank range). However, for the bulk of the series it is her alone, and is she a strong, well-rounded character. If we could see someone like her in say... Chicago Fire or Backdraft I'd be much more inclined to watch them.

That said, we still tend to get very male-dominated police films once in a while. The Usual Suspects had virtually no women in the cast (there is one billed actress, who barely appears and has almost no dialogue). In theory there could have been a woman placed in the cast somewhere. Any one of the crooks could have been a woman (that's something else, you don't see a lot of female crooks outside of femme fatales, and when corrupt officers are involved they're almost exclusively men with maybe a partial exception in The Dark Knight). Even if they preferred the idea of the crooks being men there could have been a female officer in the main cast; Agent Kujan or Jack Baer could have been written as female without any major effect on the plot, and yet for whatever reason they were all written as men.

In terms of shows we're also still not perfect. Flashpoint is good about this, and from the looks of promos so is Rookie Blue. On the other hand Monk and Elementary are both examples of cop shows in which the only regular woman in the cast is an assistant to a consulting detective (i.e. everyone who is actually a cop is still male).

It is clear that unlike the fire service and the modern army, female police officers have in fact made an impact on the media. I can't deny that some improvements still need to be made but this is an area where we're actually making some progress. Most studios don't seem to have gotten the memo that female firefighters exist or that women can serve in the army now, but they do seem to understand that women play an important role in law enforcement. We can in fact find positive images of female cops in plenty of films and shows, and with all the inequalities going on in other aspects of the media, this is at least somewhat comforting.


  1. Female roles in any capacity is an interesting topic. They generally fit into a few well worn archetypes regardless of the character's occupation. That said, I never specifically paid attention to the lack of female firefighters. Reflecting on my viewing life as I read your article, you're right. I don't remember any ladies putting out fires. And yes, female cops have fared much better. While I'm not a fan of The Heat, I recognize the need for/popularity of female-centric cop flicks and won't begrudge anyone who likes it.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Yes, women police are faring much better but still need improvement. That was why I was interested in The Heat pairing up two women when most Buddy Cop films usually opt for two men. Even if you didn't like The Heat, one could hardly argue it may have helped to improve the image of women in law enforcement, and it is possible that it could help clear the way for some other female-centric cop films that may be more up your alley.

      I've actually been so frustrated by the lack of female firefighters I've started working on a short story just to try and make some sort of positive image. Similar deal with women in the army, since they don't crop up much even in modern war films (and the few that do are mostly about their experiences after the war, there aren't very many that actually depict them in action), even though other genres have no problem including them.