Murder, She Blogged: Detectives in Distress

All good characters have a complex back story. But what is it with giving female TV detectives a particularly awful past?

By no means is every female investigator on television shown to be “damaged,” but I think there are enough to make up an anecdotal trend. This “damage” is usually crucial in explaining why the character became a detective in the first place and why they are so intent on doing their job. It’s not something that crops up in male characters all that often (exceptions include Batman, a superhero; and Angel, a vampire with a soul).

Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books and films is probably the most extreme example; her father violently traumatizes her mother, she is trapped in an institution to keep her quiet, she survives sexual assault, abuse and violence. To add to her vulnerability, she’s repeatedly described in the books as looking more like a teenager than an adult woman.

Anna Torv as Agent Dunham, coming out of another isolation tank episode; note the criminally underused Agent Farnsworth in the backgroundIn Fringe, we find out Agent Olivia Dunham has been cruelly experimented on as a child, changing her personality and giving her extraordinary skills. This sets her up to join the Fringe Division, dedicated to investigating supernatural events, where she is put through a seemingly endless onslaught of further experimentation, body swapping, and dimension swapping— often in her underwear—immersed in an isolation tank.

In Bones, Dr Temperance Brennan is still dealing with the fallout of her parents’ disappearance when she was a teenager, and it’s strongly implied that this is behind her difficulties with social interactions and expressing emotions.

The trope crops up even in the lighthearted Castle, an updated version of Moonlighting in which Rick Castle, the author of a series of bestselling crime novels, partners with NYPD detective Kate Beckett. Beckett joined the police to investigate her mother’s murder, only for the case to become a problematic obsession that takes over her life.

This trend is particularly noticeable for characters who are young, white, and conventionally attractive. Even though it’s often used to explain that the characters have trouble making emotional connections, particularly in relationships with men, it’s also often the crack in the character’s “Strong Woman” armor that invites in the almost inevitable male love interest.

Good writers know that it’s essential to put their protagonists through the mill, to create a good story and compelling character. But for most male detective characters, and increasingly for female characters, the day-to-day exposure to violence and murder produces sufficient angst and personal problems.

Kima Greggs and Jim McNulty in a car together, also emotionally in the same boat Let’s look at an equal-opportunity trope, of detectives who are somehow “messed up by the job.” Good examples of the detective genre go to lengths to show the impacts of investigating murder on the characters, whether it hardens them, or screws them up emotionally, or is simply so all-encompassing it’s difficult to carve our a personal life outside of the job. 

You’ve got Sarah Lund (Sarah Linden in the US version) in The Killing. As the first series starts, Lund is preparing to leave the country with her teenage son and get married, ending her career in the Danish homicide squad. A murder case lands on her desk in her last days on the force, and we see her struggle between making time for her son, preparing to leave, and being drawn deeper into the case. 

The self-destructive detective who wrecks relationships and acquires a drinking problem is so common as to be an archetype for male characters and increasingly the norm for female characters. The Wire gives us both Jim McNulty and Kima Greggs struggling with similar issues, particularly from season two when Greggs is recovering from a gun shot wound, and comes under pressure from her girlfriend to transfer permanently to a desk job to avoid getting injured again.

The “damaged” female detective is in another category from Lund and Greggs, because she’s not just an interestingly flawed character dealing with the repercussions of her workplace—the implication is that she herself is damaged. I’m not saying that no female detectives should have a difficult past, it’s just that as we have such a paucity still of fully rounded female characters, we need to remain cautious when these tropes begin to emerge.

Personally I think we see these characters so regularly because of a lingering discomfort with showing these particular women as unphased by the morgue. Something extra is required by way of explanation; I imagine the writers musing to themselves as they add a few traumas into their detective’s past, some added vulnerability so we the audience can still think of the character as in need of a good rescuing.

Previously: Prime Suspect, Mrs. Columbo

by Jess Mccabe
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

So true. Thanks for covering

So true. Thanks for covering this. Some other examples are Olivia Benson on SVU as a child of rape and Detective Eames on Law and Order: Criminal Intent dealing with her husband's murder and her past as an undercover vice cop.

And when the characters don't come from brutal pasts (or when they do) they're often put in these horrible situations of being assaulted, kidnapped, or otherwise victimized during the show, as in (trigger warning):

-Olivia Benson getting stalked at least 3 times and sexually assaulted while undercover in prison
-Eames getting abducted and hung from the ceiling by her hands
-ADA Alex Borgia in Law and Order being kidnapped and dying after being gagged and choking on her own vomit
-Elle in Criminal Minds being shot in her own home, after which the assailant writes on the wall in her blood
-Brenda in The Closer being stalked at least once and very narrowly escaping sexual assault after being mistaken for someone else

And oh god, I'm sure there's more. On the one hand it can be empowering to see these women overcome their traumas, but it can also be read as a punishment narrative that you're making yourself a target for violence by taking on these tough jobs. And in the case of characters like Benson, where she seems to be repeatedly targeted, it does seem to cross the line into just sensationalizing violence against women.

Another example is Olivia

Another example is Olivia Benson, Law & Order: SVU - alcoholic mother, conceived as the product of a rape


That's exactly who I was going to mention! The show continuously reminds the audience that Olivia is the product of a rape, for two apparent reasons: 1. Because no one can really understand the horror of rape victims unless they have a personal experience with it and 2. I always felt we were meant to understand that Olivia (and probably other women) would never have put herself in such a 'tough' job if she didn't have a past affected by rape. This has always annoyed me. Elliott Stabler, her male partner, is a very sympathetic and empathetic man, yet sometimes he questions the rape victims' stories (something I personally find out of character for him). Why? To show that Olivia, with her past (and probably with her gender), understands in a way that Elliott can not. If we keep sending the message that men can't empathize with rape victims, many men may not ever try to!

I would love it if this

I would love it if this series would take a look at Claudette Wyms (played by CCH Pounder) from The Shield. She is one of my all-time favorite television characters; she is unquestionably the character with the most integrity and conviction on the show. Her toughness stems more from the fact that she is a black female detective in LA and has been for 25 years, rather than having a troubled past (one episode mentions that she was supposed to study ballet on a scholarship, and it appears that her parents were well-to-do.) The difficult parts of Claudette's life arise during the duration of the series (her ex-husband is murdered, one of her suspects murders a woman and cuts her hair to make her look like Claudette, she reveals that she has had lupus for 15 years.) Claudette defies the troubled past (and maybe it's because unlike the above-mentioned characters, she's a middle-aged black woman), but it's interesting to note that her character was originally intended to be a man, until CCH Pounder suggested to the writers that the character be a woman.

@Adri anne She's on the list

@Adri anne She's on the list :-)

Not totally convinced

Maybe a more comprehensive review would convince me, but I am not sure I buy that the gender split on "damaged" detectives is so clear.

- Eames, mentioned in the comments above, is changed by the job, be wasn't previously damaged-- she was already a cop when her husband was killed. Goren seems to have come to the job far more damaged by his distant mother and drug-addicted brother.
- On Bones, Booth is "damaged" as well: The show repeatedly brings up his abusive alcoholic father.
- On NCIS, the most "damaged" of the characters (by leaps and bounds) is Gibbs, whose wife and daughter were murdered while he was serving in Iraq.
- Monk, on Monk: OCD and wife's murder.
- Steve McGarrett, on the current Hawaii Five-0 (I am not familiar with the original): murdered father draws him, reluctantly, into law enforcement.

Just a Genre Cliché.

I agree! Being "damaged" isn't gender specific in detective/law enforcement texts; it's just a cliché of the genre that serves to motivate the protagonist and set them as somewhat of an outsider. For example, Fox Mulder from the X-Files is obsessed with his sister's mysterious disappearance as a child, Brendan Frye from Brick is tormented by the break up with his girlfriend and her eventual murder, and Bud White from L.A. Confidential is fervently driven by the violent childhood abuse and misogyny he witnessed at the hands of his father.

There's also the "father was

There's also the "father was a cop/law and order guy" trope, that contributes to the psychology of the female detective, like Deb in Dexter!

And Elle from Criminal Minds.

And Elle from Criminal Minds. Not to mention Clarice Starling.

Veronica Mars! SPOILERS if

Veronica Mars!

SPOILERS if you haven't watched the show:
Though she is smart, clever, resourceful, and, of course, attractive... Her best-friend Lily Kane's murder and subsequent investigation by her then-sheriff father ostracizes her from her friends and her father from the community, costing him his job. Why ostracized? Keith Mars thinks either Lily's father or brother may have committed the crime. Her mother skips town and deserts her because the Kane family is threatening to release a family secret. She's repeatedly (three times) slipped a date-rape drug and was raped once. She's the target of a murder plot. Such a lightning rod for drama...

@Veronica Mars - yes, her

@Veronica Mars - yes, her too! Although she was still helping out her father and detecting things before all that happened.

On the examples of this with male detectives: yes, there are some, but it doesn't seem to be such a common trait as with female detectives. It's only as common as you might find in any character in the detective genre or out of it, in my opinion. Also, the way this backstory is used to make female detectives more vulnerable-seeming doesn't seem to be present for the male characters (perhaps Monk is the most significant exception here?)

Interesting article and this

Interesting article and this point hadn't occurred to me. I'm not sure I'm convinced that the trope of damage is that gendered as I think a lot of male detectves are also represented as being damaged in some way, but I do think that the kind of damage that male and female detectives are represented as experiencing is likely to be gendered - with female detectives it often seems to be centered on family trauma. I was also thinking of Sara Sidle in the original CSI - didn't she have an abusive or neglectful mother and grow up in group homes?

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