Are there any explicitly feminist crime TV shows? Prime Suspect, which ran on UK television channel ITV from 1991 to 2006, is surely a contender, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, a female detective breaking into a male-dominated world. It dealt explicitly with issues such as institutional sexism and racism in London’s Metropolitan Police force. It’s being remade for US television, with Maria Bello taking on the role of Tennison, and from the teaser (below) we can see that it starts with Jane Tennison struggling to get assigned a case, which is what happens in the first episode of the original too:
The first series of ITV’s original Prime Suspect aired in 1991 and drew on the real-life experiences of police officer Jackie Malton in the 1980s. But we’re now much more than familiar with female detectives heading up investigations—at least on TV. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they’re going to make the same atmosphere work in 2011. Lynda La Plant, the creator of the show, reportedly came up with the idea of a show starring a female detective after noticing that there were only male lead detectives on Crimewatch, a long-running UK television show which carried slots about actual crimes, with the aim of helping to solve them, similar to America’s Most Wanted. In the first series, Tennison is the first female detective to appear on Crimenight, the show’s fictional equivalent. Tennison’s colleagues call her “tart” and “that bloody woman” regularly. The male detectives struggle with how to address her (when one of them calls her “Ma’am”, she says, “I’m not the bloody queen.”). Many of these touches were drawn directly from Molton’s experiences over decades on the force. It’s not just that Tennison is breaking into the boys club in leading the investigation, but she’s actually the only female detective on the squad; the other female police officers shown in the first series are in uniform. The first series of Prime Suspect revolves around solving the murder of several women, the first of whom is thought to be a sex worker. The first detective in charge of the investigation doesn’t even realize that they’ve misidentified the first body, even though it later is implied he was a client. The show doesn’t shy away from police dismissal of crimes against sex workers; at one point, a uniformed police officer says of a murdered sex worker: “These tarts bringing their blokes in here, bloody well asking for it.” While he dismisses her friends (“slags isn’t the word for them”), Tennison takes them seriously. But the difference in their worlds isn’t ignored: there’s a great moment where Tennison is in the pub interviewing two sex workers; she realizes she’s missed her train, and says, “Cutting it fine, got a dinner party,” and the two women give each other a hilarious look. Where other crime shows treat murders in a lighthearted way, or even occasionally as a joke, Prime Suspect never shied away from the seriousness of the issues, and the grim realities. As it went on, Prime Suspect dealt with other internal issues in the police force, which continue today on both sides of the Atlantic. The second series confronted institutional police racism, although perhaps not as successfully as the first tackled institutional sexism. One storyline also sees Tennison learn she’s pregnant and have an abortion. In the final episode, a pointed contrast is made when Tennison is questioning a teenage girl who has murdered her friend; the girl insists that Tennison’s abortion was “murder,” while avoiding the fact that she is the one who committed a crime. It’s really exciting to see this concept revived in the US; let’s just hope the remade version manages to break new ground as well. If not, there’s always the option of immersing yourself in the box sets of the original.
Previously: Mrs. Columbo