Murder, She Blogged: Retrosexism in Life on Mars and LA Noire

From the village bobby on his bicycle to elaborate games of cops and robbers in mid-20th century America, detective fiction often harks back to the past. From a feminist perspective, this is a can of worms. 

Consider Mad Men: feminist and social justice bloggers hated and loved it in equal measure. It certainly highlights the sexism, racism, antisemitism and homophobia of the 1960s. But Mad Men also replicates many of the same problems: white men are still the central characters, and they still hog the screen time. People of color are still sidelined; yes, just like in the 1960s. Ultimately it allows the viewer, particularly the privileged viewer, to take a safari into the past, commenting on how much worse things were then. But it turns out we haven’t moved on so far as to spend equal time exploring the lives of the most marginalized people in that time and place, rather than adopting the gaze and perspective of the white protagonists. (Broadwalk Empire arguably does this better.)

Plenty of detective shows are set in the past, but I want to talk briefly about Life on Mars because it most directly applies the Mad Men ethos to the police force. In Life on Mars, Sam Tyler is a detective in 2006. He gets into a car accident that leaves him in a coma, which somehow transports him back to 1973. Through him, we the viewer get to experience what it was like in the police force in England at that time. Tyler is constantly shocked at methods which modern policing would deem corrupt, sexist, racist, etc. 

Here’s a clip which shows the dynamic at work (warning, contains offensive language):

The viewer is meant to identify with Tyler, the enlightened 21st century cop, as he’s shocked again and again by life in 1973 (or an approximation of 1973, based loosely on The Sweeney).

It’s especially interesting because the show doesn’t reveal whether Tyler is imagining his vacation to the past, or if it’s somehow real. If it turns out that these scenes of 1973 British life are part of Sam’s imagination, then why has a straight white police officer sent himself back in time to fix the misdeeds of the past? Were police officers of 2006 such a shining example? It’s just… odd. (I should mention that the sequel, Ashes to Ashes, does the same thing with a female cop sent back to 1981.)

Obviously the mid-20th century is a favorite setting for “hard boiled” detectives too, as writers and audience are taken back to a world where men are men and women are broads. LA Noire, an elaborate game of cops and robbers set in 1940s “golden age” Hollywood, is one of the latest, and it takes a perhaps less self-conscious approach.

A video game screen shot graphic of an woman and an older man dancing, a woman in an evening gown singing in the background

I’ve just started LA Noire, and I’m having fun, but right away you’re plunged into the past through the viewpoint of a young white male police officer (again!). Immediately, characters are making sexist and racist remarks; so far it seems that this has just been used as part of the “period dressing” of the game. 

Creators of period pieces like this will often explain that they recreate the oppression of the past in their work because that’s just what life was like back then. But when this is done uncritically, it risks becoming an excuse to indulge in a bit of nostalgic time travel.

With games, the medium means you’re pulled into identifying even more with the character, so you can lose some of the critical distance of audiences for more passive entertainment. But, not wanting to pass judgement too much as I’m still pretty close to the beginning to LA Noire, I thought I’d check out the conclusions of some people who’ve finished the game.

“For the most part, the female characters were victims of horrific crimes and whilst I know this is the central theme of the game, the graphic content was pretty full-on. Added to that the other female characters were either manipulative wives or home-wrecking femme fatales,” said one of my Twitter buddies, Paul Colnaghi. Some reviewers have also noted that the faces of the female characters look eerily alike, as though the developers haven’t been bothered to individualize the women—ironic given the stress placed on the use of sophisticated face capture technology for the main characters.

“It’s more of a matter-of-fact part of the time in which the game is set,” Jenn Evans, a reviewer at Femme Gamer, says:

The lead character, Cole Phelps, is actually interesting as a character about such issues. He himself behaves respectfully towards women and minorities (with the exception of occasionally pushing racist buttons in interrogations, such as when he’s questioning a Jewish businessman about the murder of an Anti-Semite).  In wartime flashbacks with his squad in Okinawa, he’s shown berating other troops for making racist remarks about the Japanese soldiers and people and tried to maintain a perspective of humanizing the enemy. 

In situations where he’s eager to impress his company, though, he’s more likely to remain silent and say nothing about such issues (like when his new Vice partner, Roy Earle, takes offense to being touched by a black doorman and is shown berating and striking a woman).  The most egregious examples of racism and sexism in the game are exhibited by characters like Earle, who are clearly meant to be seen as bad people. 

At the same time some of the good guys also display an affable sort of discrimination from time to time, such as referring to women they don’t know as “princess.” Generally speaking, the women and minorities shown in the game occupy fairly subservient, one-dimensional roles…none of them are particularly fleshed out and they mostly tend to be either criminals or victims. Even the female lead, Elsa Lichtmann, is there mainly to look pretty and serve as the love interest without much characterization involved.

The intentions of the developers seem opaque to me (I’m hoping it becomes clearer as the game progresses). Are we meant to feel uncomfortable about the sexism, racism, and homophobia in LA Noire, or just soak it up as part of the scenery, like the old-style clothes, cars, and police procedure (such as picking up guns without gloves because presumably it’s not possible to take fingerprints in the 1940s?!)?

Where does this nostalgia come from? And what is the outcome? Are we looking at the past to acknowledge current flaws? Or just taking a vacation in the past to make us feel better about the progress that has been made, and see ourselves as more “enlightened”? 

Previously: Let’s Celebrate the Spinster Detective, About the US Killing

by Jess Mccabe
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10 Comments Have Been Posted

I think the author of this post has misinterpreted Life on Mars

"It's especially interesting because the show doesn't reveal whether Tyler is imagining his vacation to the past, or if it's somehow real. If it turns out that these scenes of 1973 British life are part of Sam's imagination, then why has a straight white police officer sent himself back in time to fix the misdeeds of the past? Were police officers of 2006 such a shining example? It's just... odd. (I should mention that the sequel, Ashes to Ashes, does the same thing with a female cop sent back to 1981.)"

This quote above is factually wrong, and I think the author of this post is totally missing the point of Life on Mars. It is not just about Sam fixing his past, there is a lot more to it than that. There is also a female cop on the show, Annie, who fights the misogyny of the day and is a strong female character. Ashes To Ashes, the spin-off, also has two strong female characters that are cops, Alex and Shaz, both of which declare themselves as feminists and challenge the misogyny around them in a very vocal way, more so than Peggy and Joan on Mad Men do, although Ashes to Ashes takes place in the '80s, and not the '60s like Mad Men, so Feminism had had a lot more of an influence on society by then. Alex has the Feminist perspective of someone that is from the late 2000's, since she has traveled back to the '80s from then, but Shaz is from the early '80s and she is a vocal Feminist as well.

Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are 2 of my favorite shows. I have watched every episode of both shows quite a few times. If you watch both shows from beginning to end you will get an explanation for why Sam, and later Alex in Ashes to Ashes, have found themselves in situations where it has appeared that they have traveled back in time (just like Sam says in the Life on Mars theme song, "Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?" This question is answered before the show ends), but I am not going to give the answer, because I don't want to spoil it for people who haven't seen the shows, which I highly recommend they watch. The author of this post said that we never learn why Sam travels back in time and that is not true. If the author had watched the whole show before writing this post they would have known why/if he does, and they would also know that there are Feminist female characters on Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes, and that neither show is glorifying sexism and racism, and instead uses the modern characters of Sam and Alex, as well as the characters from the past like Annie and Shaz, to point out how wrong those things are, and fight against them.

Of course cops in the 2000's weren't perfect, but Sam and Alex are good cops, they always try to do the right thing, they want to help people, and they both fight corruption. Annie and Shaz are like this as well. Gene, Chris and Ray are cops of the old school when it comes to their attitudes about sexism and racism, as well as policing, and Sam and Alex both have a positive impact on their negative behavior, and this also helps make these workplaces more pleasant for Annie and Shaz.


I have to agree with this reader. I hoped to see a more nuanced discussion of Life on Mars here because I, too, love that show (although I've only seen the American version; the British one is in my Netflix queue.) Ditto on the Annie stuff, ditto on the watching the whole series criticism. I felt uneasy about all the over-the-top sexism in that show too, but I felt it was almost always done critically, and the viewer was encouraged to identify with the nonwhite and/or female characters that experienced inequality.

@Roxie: sorry, I mustn't have

@Roxie: sorry, I mustn't have been clear: I didn't mean that Sam is trying to fix *his* past (although yes that's one of the plot strands). I meant he's always trying to correct the police procedure of the time, and the offensive behaviour of the people around him.

Yes Annie is trying to fight sexism in her own way, however my point was that the entire universe of Life on Mars might be a product of Sam's imagination, including Annie, etc.

I also loved Life on Mars! I've not seen the American one, but the British one was great. I have actually seen the whole thing. My post isn't really about is the show (or the game) being good or bad, but about how and why these shows represent oppression in the past.

I may come back to Life on Mars later, there are other things to say about it for sure.

Spoiler Alert for Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes...

@Jess, thank you for replying to me!

I understand why you would want to compare Life On Mars to Mad Men, for both being shows that take place in the past, and both touch on the misogyny and racism from back then, but I think the main difference between those shows is that by having Life On Mars be from Sam's point of view, you have a modern character that is anti-racist and anti-sexism, pointing out how wrong those things are, and how barbaric men in the past could be, and there isn't anyone on Mad Men that has a modern perspective like Sam does, which I think allows for Mad Men to glorify bad male behavior of the past much more so than Life On Mars does. Don't get me wrong, I love Mad Men too, and I think that Peggy and Joan are both becoming more and more feminist as the decade wears on, and I really like that, but the show is from a '60s point of view, and therefore it allows both the good and bad things about the '60s to be shown, without very much criticism of the bad. Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, both show us visions of the past, but through the eyes of a person from now, and that allows for the bad behavior from back then to be criticized, and why I see those shows having a much more powerful feminist and anti-racist message than Mad Men.

Skip what I have to say below if you don't want to be spoiled about the end of these shows...

"Yes Annie is trying to fight sexism in her own way, however my point was that the entire universe of Life on Mars might be a product of Sam's imagination, including Annie, etc."

I get that that is your point, but I don't see it as being correct, since what is happening in the show is not just a product of Sam's imagination. If you have not seen all of Ashes To Ashes, then I can understand why you would think that, and I don't want to ruin the end of Ashes for you too much if you haven 't seen it (which explains more about what happened to Sam after the end of Life On Mars), but I will say that Sam and Alex are not just imagining what is happening to them, and they actually do have an affect on the people in the past that they encounter (Annie and Shaz, two characters from 1973 and 1981 that are dealing with misogyny, end up being able to get some respect from the men that have been sexist towards them because of Sam and Alex's influence, and I think that by the end of Ashes to Ashes, Gene, Chris and Ray have all become much less misogynistic because of Sam and Alex), which is why I disagree with the point you are making.

I too think you have

I too think you have misinterpreted Life on Mars, but in a slightly different way. If you watch all of Ashes to Ashes, it becomes clear that both Sam's 70s and Alex's 80s policing are meant to represent a perceived golden age, where the good guys can catch the bad guys without any of this pesky law stuff getting in the way. This is less true for Alex, and Ashes engages more with issues such as sexism I feel, perhaps because the main protagonist was a woman.

In some ways, LOM represents the secret wish of Sam, the modern guy, to be able to beat confessions out of suspects, without worrying about modern morals & ethics. The joy in Gene Hunt comes from how terribly inappropriate he is. The audience, like Sam, is meant to be shocked but secretly thrilled. In Ashes, Hunt is toned down and Alex is arguably less thrilled by certain aspects of his behaviour than Sam was, but he then becomes a romantic lead, implying his sexist, boorish behaviour both repels and attracts Alex.

It's this "golden age" aspect of the show that makes me feel uncomfortable if I scrutinize it too closely, but i loved Ashes especially and really do think that Alex Drake is one of the best female leads in a dective show that I've ever seen.

Perhaps we are meant to consider why the sweeney, etc, is considered a golden age for policing and realise that for all the assumed limits of our current system, things are a lot better now. Is this why both Alex & Sam are able to effect change in their new environments?

I apologise for any typos - I'm writing this comment from my phone! Loving this series of blogs, by the way!

on LA Noire

The characters you get to know best are the homicide victims. You piece together their lives from the interviews and clues. The intersection point between the victims is that they were not fitting into their lives. The isolation leads to the more obvious thing all the victims have in common.

There are many things the game could have done better. It is a significant improvement over anything out there already in terms of video games. Certainly the release of Duke Nukem Forever lowered all standards for the medium this year.

LA Noire

I had a great time with LA Noire, though I love any chance at a mystery/detective story and there's not many games like it. (That I know of) I wish they'd make a similar game based on Jessica Fletcher.... I've been loving her since I rediscovered "Murder, She Wrote" on Netflix. Anyway, I would say Evan's assessment is pretty good; if you're expecting some intent by the developers behind the sexism or homophobia mentioned I wouldn't get your hopes up, I think it's really just all part of the Noire/40's atmosphere they were shooting for. I don't think an analysis of the behavior was among their main goals in this game. Although I would say this game takes quite a few strides past some other Rockstar titles.

Cole does have a bit of good dialogue with one of his more misogynistic partners (I think from the homicide desk) but the dialogue is skip-able and minor; if you're looking to the main character to provide a progressive example here you should really look at in a "Do as I say not as I do" sort of light...

Despite any criticisms I have, I think it's a great game and very entertaining and definitely worth the purchase, but I wouldn't go in expecting it to provide an analysis or retrospective view on how far we may have come- story wise I don't think it strays far from it's inspiration.

My thoughts on L.A. Noire

I have finished L.A. Noire now, and I find it very interesting the way different groups are represented in the crime scenes of the game. White women were the only kind of dead bodies we ever found butt naked and brutalized (our detective has to search their bodies for clues, and in fact there are several women like this in a row as part of a predictable 'serial (heterosexual) sex killer' plot), black men are the victims (and most of the perps) through the drug related crimes, and whenever a character being chased or interviewed has some sort of deviant, disturbing sexual interest (pedophilia, making out with corpses, etc.) they were white men.

The thing is, for each of these it can be hard to imagine the types of bodies being switched around: a string of naked brutalized men? Sexual offenders who are women? The game trots out strong stereotypes to make us feel comfortable about enjoying its 'edgy' material, which got a little irritating. As did the retrosexism, which I felt had a greater presence than was required to set the stage for the era, or to let us pat ourselves on the back for noticing how ridiculous and sexist the content is. If it is a joke, it's shoddily executed - repeated over and over, without the signs of self-conscious humour that would actually make it funny (I'm drawing on Blazing Saddles for a comparison here, which I think is more successful at drawing a laugh from lampooning offensive attitudes). Rather than thinking the game is going for a laugh or is just _that_ committed to era accuracy, I think this is more irritating retrosexism that allows us to vicariously get a kick out of unacceptable attitudes with the get-out-of-jail-free card that we know exactly what is going on - much like people worry about with Mad Men, beer commercials, etc. Except that card is pretend - simply knowing that the game is sexist and racist does not prevent it (or us in non-critically enjoying it) from helping perpetuate what is shown. Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency has a good bit about this:

The thing that bothers me about the female lead is that she is woven into plot points that could have carried on just as well without her (spoiler altert!: Phelps would have asked Kelso for help himself, which is what he winds up doing in the end anyway leaving Elsa an unnecessary go-between, and Phelps and Kelso were searching for Hogeboom anyway, his kidnap of Elsa is totally unnecessary to motivate their pursuit). She seems like an after-thought, someone came up with a plot and then realized 'we need a sexy singer wiggling her ass every now and then with a sexy gravely voice!' and boom, done, we get un-developed, unnecessary Elsa. This is just bad story telling. :(

Still, there is much to enjoy about L.A. Noire and I can say that this is the first game I started off watching my partner play and then finished myself when he lost interest because I wanted to continue. But good things deserve tough love. We can only hope Rockstar will apply a little more imagination on the woman front in the future ... likely the distant future.

L.A. Noire

It think Life on Mars and L.A. Noire are rather different in how their retrosexisms are presented and this is shown in how they place themselves in relation to their established fictional worlds.

LOM echoes and critiques 1970s cop shows like The Sweeney and The Professionals. It may not always be successful in its critical look back but it is clear that its subject is more the TV shows and films of the era rather than strictly what police work was like at the time.

I think LAN fails in its positioning. It bases the cases on ones from real police files, yet the most famous of those, The Black Dahlia, has been heavily fictionalised (and glamorised) since. It also claims to replicate the actual buildings of LA at the time so we are meant to believe that this is an authentic past. But its truth is highly subjective and partial; as history has a tendency to write out women and minority players.

LAN, clearly unable to rely on a 'realistic' claim then allies itself to Film Noir. But it fails in this aspect too. The film it most resembles is LA Confidential which was made 1997 post anti-feminist backlash Hollywood. Outstanding though the film is it doesn't provide much in the way of interesting female characters and is already an anachronistic take on the genre. Films Noir of the 1940s and 1950s may have been sexist but they also offered a great deal of pleasure for female viewers. There were gutsy women who were crime bosses, spies, business women, family women, thieves and so much more as well as seductresses (who were generally far more entertaining and characterful than poor Elsa). Despite the sexism of the time there are so many transgressive female characters in Noir and we got NO sense of this in the game.

What we end up then with LAN is a 'realistic' game that enables us to view the extent of brutality acted upon female victims (sexy corpses a la CSI) but a fictional world that carefully sidesteps the most powerful and joyful elements of the genre. L.A. Noire has its sexist cake and eats it too.

You shit cunt. Men go to war,

You shit cunt. Men go to war, and do allthe hard labor - you fucking whore would enver work in a lslaughterhouse and so on, yet you cuntwhine and all this shit.

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