Monday, 6 July 2015

Gender Inequality and Law Enforcement

As I have discussed before on multiple occasions, there are currently a large number of issues regarding how women are represented in certain professions in contemporary media. One of the worst examples of this is the absurd inability of films and television to recognize the accomplishments (or in many cases, even the existence) of female firefighters. At most, female firefighters are rarely anything more than extras, if even that. Through all my extensive research on the subject I have found that at best, female firefighters are poorly written (L.A. Firefighters, Chicago Fire) or partial examples (i.e. Leah in Flashpoint, a competent female firefighter, but one who has retired and switched to being a cop by the time she appears on the show). The only definitive example I have of a positive role model for female firefighters is Fireman Sam, a kids show from Wales and even that wasn't entirely perfect (Penny wasn't introduced until Season 2). That is not even getting into the idiots who actually use extreme generalizations (the "upper body strength" argument being a favorite) to claim that women are weaker than men and should not even be allowed to apply to join the fire service.

Of course, firefighting isn't the only profession in which female participants have been misrepresented. To an extent the same could be said for a lot of male-dominated professions. For instance it is still hard to find positive role models for women in the military even in films dealing with modern warfare where would make sense to show them. Representation of female astronauts is getting better but even then films like Moon manage to avoid depicting them altogether. One of the more interesting and complicated areas is the issue of female representation in law enforcement, more specifically the issue of how female cops are treated.

Historically, police films and shows have often been very male-dominated and there is a reason for this. It is because prior to the 1970's there were virtually no female cops, if any at all. Naturally, any film from before that era (or any contemporary period piece that focuses on the police) never showed any female cops, but even by the 70's women in law enforcement would have been rare at best. For this reason the closest John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct could get to having a strong female police officer was to allow a secretary to take part in the main action, but even with the integration of the police force many films still failed to get the memo, hence masculine action films like Die Hard in 1988.

The only major director at the time who seemed to notice was James Cameron, as is evidenced by the presence of at least one female cop being present The Terminator (though she is little more than an unnamed extra during the T-800's rampage through the police station, while the two officers actually given focus are both men). This is why it took three films before the Dirty Harry series finally introduced a female police officer. The Enforcer tried to create a positive role model but failed miserably (though actress Tyne Daly would later go on to star in Cagney and Lacey, a television series centered around the relationship between two female cops). While this film was a disaster, it could be argued that the character of Kate Moore could have helped to set in motion.

Today, some progress has been made. It is becoming more common to see films and shows make a more concerted effort to diversify depictions of law enforcement. It is also becoming more common on a variety of television programs. Even shows like Elementary, in which the two regular cops are both men, they have had female officers make an appearance (as well as a female consultant in Joan Watson). End of Watch also made a point of showing capable female police officers even if the central focus was still on two male protagonists. Unfortunately, even if some things have changed compared to representations of women in other male-dominated professions there are still some problems to consider.

First, it is still common for movies and television shows to still depict all-male groups of cops regardless of whether it is necessary. One notable case of this being done on television is True Detective, but Martin Scorsese's The Departed is a perfect example. This was a movie that had a very large cast of characters. It has large variety of cops as well as several crooks, every single one of them had their own plotline... and the only woman they could fit in the movie was the love interest? She is not even directly involved in the narrative. The only major female character was a police psychologist but the focus is almost exclusively on her romantic entanglements with Billy.

There is not so much as a single female cop anywhere in the cast, not even as an extra. Yes, I know The Departed was a remake of the Hong Kong movie Internal Affairs and they did it too but I don't care. I find it hard to believe that there was not one character in the film who could have been written as or played by a woman without changing anything in the script beyond perhaps a few pronouns. Would it really have killed the filmmakers to even have one female cop or crook take part in the action? After all, it was dealing with a large cast of characters in the present day, so it is not like there are any social issues to consider that might excuse it (as would be the case for any police procedural set in say... the 1940's). This should be simple: just cast a woman in one of the five billion police roles even if it was originally meant to be a guy and only change the script as much as is absolutely necessary.

Second, it is worth noting that while it is becoming more common to depict female cops, they are shown more commonly in some areas than others. For instance, when the subject of police corruption comes up, it is extremely rare to see a female corrupt cop outside of a handful of exceptions such as Dredd and Sabotage. The most recognized exception to the rule is arguably Ramirez in The Dark Knight, except in that instance her corruption was not her own doing so much as it was careful psychological manipulation and pressure exerted on her by the film's (male) villains. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of films that deal with corrupt male cops.

Gender representation also seems to vary depending on which department the work in question is focusing on. It seems to be far more likely that one will see female homicide detectives, federal agents, or patrol officers than it is to see them taking part in a SWAT team. There are very few images of female SWAT officers. Very few movies (at least from what I have found) actually take the time to give SWAT teams any real focus, usually casting them as a background or minor supporting role. When this happens, it is almost always a team made exclusively of men (Speed provides a notable exception in one scene, though in that instance the female officer has no dialogue and is presumably killed when a bomb goes off in the villain's house).

Even films that do put focus on SWAT teams often go this route. The Korean film The Raid centers, as the title implies, on a SWAT team raiding an apartment building. Director Gareth Evans decided once again to depict an all-male team with virtually no female characters at all. One could try to justify this by arguing cultural differences, but I don't buy that especially considering China has actually employed all-female SWAT teams. Once again, would it really have killed Evans to have even one female officer in the cast? There is no reason why the team had to be all men.

There are exceptions to this rule, but they hard to find. The movie S.W.A.T. is one rare example of a film attempting to challenge this convention. The opening scene of the film depicts an all-male SWAT team responding to a bank robbery-gone wrong, but it also ends up being problematic due to the actions of Brian Gamble. This ends up leading to the dissolution of the original team, and forces Sgt. Hondo to assemble a new team. Once again, the first few are men. When we do meet the one female member of the team, her sex is the last thing that is revealed; she is given the gender-neutral name "Chris" and simply established to be very good at holding her own.

The movie then proceeds to emphasize that from the moment she first arrives for training she is an important member of the team, easily capable of pulling her own weight, and avoids having any romantic triangle. In fact, only two people ever voice disapproval of her presence in the SWAT team: her boss Captain Fuller and ex-SWAT officer Gamble, of whom one is eventually proven wrong and the other goes on to become one of the main antagonists. This is also interesting when one considers that there were no female team members in the original 1970's show that inspired the movie.

Flashpoint is also another good example of an exception to the rule. Though the characters refrain from using the term "SWAT" in favor of "SRU" (strategic response unit), they serve more or less the same function as the heavy-duty cops who are called in when things get two dangerous for regular patrol officers. The series always had at least one woman on the team, with at total of three serving at different periods of the show's run (though Jules was the only one to stay for the entire series; one was introduced as a temporary substitute while Amy Jo Johnson was on maternity leave and went on to become a recurring character afterwards, while the other was not introduced until season 2). All three of the women who served on the SRU were competent, strong characters and proved to be valuable members of the team.

Unfortunately, S.W.A.T. and Flashpoint are more the exceptions than the rules. Very few movies or shows follow the examples these works should be setting, even when the SWAT team is cast as anything more than a background role. The fact is that there are women taking part in all areas of police work, and if progress is to be made there needs to be more positive role models of them in every form possible, yet there seem to be double standards at play here. Casting a woman as a homicide detective or patrol officer is considered okay, but very few people seem to even consider the possibility depicting of female SWAT officers even though it is becoming increasingly common in real life. 

The fact is that while there has been a lot of progress since The Enforcer, there are still inequalities in how women are depicted in law enforcement. These issues need to be addressed and rectified as soon as possible. Some people have been known to criticize these types of posts, claiming that I'm trying to shove "political correctness" into everything. They say it like encouraging more films to diversify their casts is a bad thing, but if that's what it's going to take than I'm all for it. This process has proven to be insanely slow. People should know better by 2015 and yet little seems to have changed. Something needs to be done.


  1. Nice article John. You make some good points. The Departed is a perfect example. Surely there are female cops on similar taskforces or state troopers (I think they called them "staties" in the film). As you noted...thank goodness for James Cameron. He's done a lot for us women folk with Vasquez and Sarah Connor.

    1. Yeah, they did use the term "staties" and I think that was supposed to be derived from "state trooper". I'm not aware of any laws still in effect that prohibit women from ANY part of the police force which means that yes, there must be female state troopers, including ones like what the organization seen in The Departed.

      Vazquez is an interesting one as well considering she was positive role model for women in the military before there was much in the way of any. Even today the United States is only just starting to open up its infantry ranks to women and doing a simple Google search for "women in infantry" reveals a whole bunch of nasty articles usually either claiming that women are weaker than men and therefore should not be allowed to enlist or others making insane claims like that it will somehow interfere with the group dynamic (as at least one person pointed out, the exact same arguments have been used in the past to argue against letting blacks and gays enlist). Meanwhile, all you need to do to be proven wrong is just ask any Canadian infantrywomen.