There seem to be three accepted roles for women over 40 on TV: mother, wise sage, or ass-kicking crime-solver.
Yes, as soon as we put older women in central roles, we put them in, of all places, the police station. From the first major show starring two not-so-young women, Cagney & Lacey, to Murder, She Wrote, to the more recent Closer and Body of Proof, we apparently love ladies who love to solve crimes.
Why is this such a standard profession for older women on TV, given that the real police precincts of America are still skewed heavily toward the male and the young?
Part of the answer is: Characters who defy expectations are fun, and few groups have more expectations to defy than older women.
The American tradition of older-lady detectives goes back to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, an unassuming “spinster” and amateur detective who first appeared in a 1926 short story, “The Tuesday Night Club.” Marple uses our prejudices to her advantage—her schtick is that no criminal sees her coming. If you watched Murder, She Wrote in the ’80s, you know the drill: seeing Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher tool around on her bicycle putting bad guys away was both funny and satisfying.The Closer dabbled in a version of this, too. Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson drawled, wore pink, enjoyed candy, and seemed flighty—which was exactly why she could get suspects to confess.
Cagney & Lacey, on the other hand—which started when the leads were in their late 30s—fought to portray its two female detectives realistically. This proved to be a constant battle. After a TV movie featuring the characters did well, CBS ordered a series. Show stars Meg Foster and Tyne Daly quickly received loads of attention for their realistically aggressive performances. CBS cancelled the show after six episodes, with one official publicly saying the show didn’t work because, “These women on Cagney & Lacey seemed more intent on fighting the system than doing police work. We perceived them as dykes.”
Executive producer Barney Rosenzweig persuaded the network to give the show another chance with the more “feminine” Sharon Gless replacing Foster. Enthusiastic fans’ letters saved the show from a second cancellation, and it went on to win Emmys for both Daly and Gless. It ended after seven seasons and four post-series TV movies. You can buy them on DVD as a box set called The Menopause Years.
Cagney and Lacey’s legacy has only recently reached fruition, with harder-edged leading ladies like Dana Delany in Body of Proofand Mary McDonnell in Major Crimes, a spinoff of The Closer. And Gless is still kicking ass: As the mother of a spy on Burn Notice, she works the Miss Marple angle to its fullest extent.
Read more posts in the guest blog series: Women of a Certain Age.