This research paper will explore the images of women presented specifically in the popular television reality crime program Cops. This topic will discuss the feminine traits and gender stereotypes associated with women. The show Cops is a documentary series that is broadcasted on FOX and features close up footages of police officers capturing criminals and patrolling criminal activities all over America. Through a close investigation of the series Cops, I conducted a study based on the different images of women featured as criminals and suspects, the various ways in which they were represented and whether these images change over the course of the series. Findings in The Construction of Gender in Reality Crime TV highlights the significance of my research topic on how “media disseminate gendered images” and that reality crime programs “effectively blur the boundaries between factual and fictional genres…and reproduce gender stereotypes” (Cavender et al. 643). Other scholars mention how the television impacts society by portraying different gender images and how they “impinge on our very definition of who we are” (Cavender et al. 644). My argument suggests that the television reality program Cops portray various recurring feminine stereotypes of women. Scholars such as Mach and Ott in Critical Media Studies: An Introduction define these feminine stereotypes according to passiveness, emotional, helplessness and beauty (182). These feminine traits function in disempowering the image of women and structuring the roles of women in Cops as criminals, suspects and in certain circumstances, as victims.
Context and Methods
To strengthen the research of my topic I conducted an in-depth qualitative observation of four different episodes from the “Bad Girls Special Edition” season because it specifically focuses on female criminals and the various crimes associated with women. To conduct a more detailed study of the images of women, I viewed five other episodes from seasons nineteen and twenty-four of the Cops series. When watching these episodes, I examined the show’s treatment of women through the various footages in which they are portrayed as criminals. To conduct my research, I also observed the crimes related specifically to women and how they might be objectified as a victim in certain cases. In addition, I focused on the different traits of females such as physical appearance, sexuality, behavior and personality. When watching the episodes, I observed the ratio of female police officers relative to male officers to investigate the representation of women in the policing field. In order to further support my argument, I analyzed four peer-reviewed scholarly sources found in the database specific to the fields of rhetoric and communication studies called Communication & Mass Media Complete. I vetted these sources by specifically examining subject terms that correlate to my topic such as “gender and crime TV.” In doing so, I was able to find articles specifically related to the reality crime TV program: Cops.
From analyzing the content of the four scholarly articles, I gained a relatively strong understanding on my topic about the images of women portrayed in Cops. I am able to identify the different traits defined as gender stereotypes pertaining to women in the scholarly journal Critical Media Studies: An Introduction, such as the stereotypes of femininity labeled as “powerlessness, insignificance, passiveness and limited control” (Mack, Ott 182). This article enabled me to identify the different categories of feminine stereotypes while watching the episodes, for instance, active and passive, logical and emotional pertaining to males and females respectively. The authors Cavender, Maupin and Jurik in The Construction of Gender in Reality Crime TV address the images of gender labeled specifically as “hegemonic masculinity” and defines “emphasized femininity” as “subordinate to and defined by hegemonic masculinity” (Cavender et al. 644). These findings will help contribute my topic in proving how women are underrepresented in the television show Cops and portrayed as subordinate to men. The scholars argue how the narratives portrayed in America’s Most Wanted “offer an image of victims as worthy, sympathetic, innocent women” (Cavender et al. 656). These images of women as crime victims mentioned can also be applied to my topic about how some criminals, such as prostitutes are portrayed as crime victims. These traits can prove the argument that women are sympathized or helpless individuals. In Doyle’s work “Cops”: Television Policing as Policing Reality, he discusses about the voyeuristic element present in the episodes Cops. The author argues that “voyeurism is taking pleasure from viewing the private or forbidden…viewing may thus be experienced as an act of domination” (Doyle 101). This finding can serve as evidence for the sexual objectification of women as shown when most criminal women are dressed provocatively. In addition, scholars such as Cuklanz and Moorti contribute to my research when they insist that women in crime dramas are manipulative in “maliciously and willfully fabricating the false charge…and efforts to fool detectives” (121). From their findings, I learned that women criminals are in fact manipulative and can use their emotions to fool the police officers and create an innocent image. These findings from various scholars from these scholarly articles are useful in supporting my overall argument about the images of women in Cops.
“Girls” not “Women”
The vignettes featured in Cops are overt in portraying the chase of women criminals, as shown specifically in the “Bad Girls Special Edition” episodes. There is a certain way in which Cops label female criminals as “Bad Girls” instead of “Bad Women,” which suggests a sense of disregard for the respect for women and their adulthood. The term “Girls” denotes a negative, demeaning outlook on young females because the criminals and suspects portrayed in Cops are grown women from teens to mid-twenties. Because they are labeled simply as “girls,” it suggests a sense of immaturity and incapability of women. In addition, “bad girl” references to a term an adult would use when disciplining or scolding a child, likewise, it implies that the police act as the authoritative or adult figure and the female felons as the badly behaved child. Therefore, the title of the special edition episodes contributes to my argument of the negative portrayal in which Cops casts women.
The Helpless Victim
Although the women in Cops commit serious crimes of domestic violence, misdemeanors and felonies such as narcotic possession and prostitution, in most cases they are portrayed as the helpless victim. As Mack and Ott argue, “femininity and ‘being a woman’ are tied to passive acceptance and helplessness” (182). An example of this is shown mainly in cases with women criminals as prostitutes. In episode 11, “Bad Girls Special Edition #10” (season 19), the police officer pulls over a vehicle with illegal lighting and discovers a young eighteen-year-old prostitute who is being transported to a nearby hotel. Instead of resisting arrest, she willingly submits to the police officer’s authority. Before sending her off to prison, the following male police officer engages in a conversation with the prostitute:
Male officer: You seem like a nice girl…so what is it that made you listen to this guy (pimp) and made you want to go out here and have sex for money?
Young woman: Because I got kicked out at 16 from my house and dropped out of school and had to make a living.
When the male police officer questions her about her pimp, she mentions
“ I’ve gotten hit a couple times…and tazed with a tazer gun”
As featured in this scene, the male police officer empathizes with the prostitute’s life story only to discover that she is caught in a helpless situation as she endures the abuse of her pimp in hopes to struggle for a living. Through this dialogue, viewers are able to identify with the “passive” gender stereotype that characterizes the young prostitute as “helpless” (Mack & Ott) because she is portrayed as a victim of abuse incapable of protecting herself from her pimp. Although the scene features a chance for the young woman to testify the story of her life, it portrays her as a sympathized woman instead. This is exemplified when the police officer sympathizes with the prostitute:
Male officer: You’re 18, imagine ten years from now, you’re going to end up dead, hurt. I hope I don’t see you out there, I hope you get your act together, maybe get back with your family
Young woman: I don’t like doing this. I mean I know to an extent it’s by choice, but you get so far into it that you don’t know how to get out of it.
Male officer: I generally feel bad for you, you have to find that inner willpower and strength to move on.
Although Cops incorporates women’s voices in the following narratives, scholars Cavender, Maupin and Jurik insist, “the inclusion of women’s voices and experiences, however, does not guarantee that resulting narratives will be empowering to women” (647). Firstly, it portrays women as the helpless victim as shown in the dialogue “you get so far into it that you don’t know how to get out of it.” She is portrayed as a trapped victim unable to escape the oppressive life of prostitution. Cops portray police officers empathy toward the prostitute’s situation, when he mentions “I generally feel bad you.” Furthermore, Cops portray police officers as heroes as shown when the male cop provides advice for the prostitute, “I hope you get your act together…you have to find that inner willpower and strength to move on.” Because “viewers must rely heavily on the police interpretation of events,” (Doyle 103) the focus tends to be on the police officer, thus portraying the male police officer as a merciful hero- one who fulfills a sense of civic obligation and duty in keeping young innocent women safe and off the streets.
Another example in which women are portrayed as helpless victims is shown in episode 2, “Chases and Stings” (season 24) featuring yet another eighteen-year-old teen who was involved with prostitution because she had no work background, no aspirations and was homeless. Similar to the previous teen mentioned in the first example, she was also reliant on her pimp to survive. According to the police officer, pimps are “looking for people just like that to exploit.” As shown here, she is trapped in a helpless situation, making her an easy victim of exploitation. Once again, the police officer is portrayed as the authoritative figure, instructing the criminal:
“Is this what you want for the rest of your life?” you’re not going to see an adult life you’re gonna get beaten by a pimp, raped by a trick…this is probably the best thing that could happen to you tonight.”
As shown in this dialogue, Cops portray prostitutes as potential rape and abuse victims instead of criminals. When the cop mentions “this is probably the best thing that could happen to you tonight,” it implies that women are reliant on the police for protection and security, just as they are with their pimps. Therefore, it portrays the negative image of women criminals and suspects as “passive” and “helpless” (Mack & Ott).
The Emotional Manipulator
Cops categorize women as an emotional manipulator by dramatizing the emotions of women criminals and suspects in the vignettes. When these women are confronted, they are always in denial of being guilty of committing a crime. Similar to the way in which scholars Cuklanz and Moorti claim that women in the crime drama SVU are, “maliciously and willfully fabricating the false charge…and efforts to fool detectives,” (121) it is also shown in the TV show Cops. An example of this is shown in episode 3 “Smooth Criminals” (season 24), which features a woman Dalia Dippolito who was charged for a deadly serious crime of contract killing. The episode features a candid camera secretly recording the conversation in which she hired a hitman (who is an undercover cop) to murder her husband. As part of the elaborate plan, the police informed Dippolito of her husband’s murder, to which she proceeds to break down into tears and kept pleading “where is he, where is my husband!” As shown, Dippolito is portrayed as overemotional as well as deceptive when she pretends to act mournful over her husband’s death, when in reality she is attempting to create an innocent image in front of the cops. When confronted with the hitman in the investigation room, she continues to lie and claim “I’ve never seen him before. I did not do anything wrong, please I don’t know what’s going on.” As shown here, Dippolito is portrayed as a “malicious” (Cuklanz & Moorti) character who stubbornly denies her wrongdoings and fool the police officers, even though they have evidence that clearly portrays her as guilty. Even at the very end, she pleads with her husband to save her, and mentions how she did nothing wrong against him. Her evil intentions were clearly visible to the police and husband, however, she used her emotions as a defense mechanism to cover up her guilt and play the innocent victim.
Similarly, in episode 11, “Bad Girls Season #10” (season 19), a police officer pulls over a young teen who committed a felony and was caught for possession of marijuana and cocaine. When the cop asks her “what type of drugs are in the brown bag found in your car?” She nervously replies, “What is that. I wouldn’t know I’m not a drug dealer.” She also claimed that she was unaware of the people who left the drugs in her car. After countless denials and lies, she admits that there were more cocaine packs hiding in her pants. When her mother arrived, she was in tears, begging her mom that she was innocent. In both vignettes portrayed in Cops, the women criminals are characterized as “feminine” based on the emotionality they possess in different situations. Some scholars argue that “femininity is defined by irrational or emotional impulses as a result” (Mack & Ott 185). This is true because these women criminals are susceptible toward their emotions in how they rely on them to manipulate the police officers, however, in the end they fail to appear innocent and instead, appear weak and vulnerable.
In addition to being deceptive, Cops portrays a sexualized image of women criminals as shown in episode 26 “Pullovers #2” (season 19) when a male officer conducts a traffic stop because of the broken taillights of an attractive blonde girl dressed in a black bikini. Similar to the earlier case, she acts clueless about her suspended license and uninsured car and repeatedly mentions, “I’m not going to lie to you, I already renewed my license yesterday and all my insurance had been paid for.” Furthermore, she convinces the police officer that she needs the car to have a surgery for “a boob job” (breast implantations). The feminine attributes of her sexual image is objectified when she mentions a private part of her body- her breasts, and it is highlighted through a provocative image of her semi-naked body. The author argues that “voyeurism is taking pleasure from viewing the private or forbidden…viewing may thus be experienced as an act of domination” (Doyle 101). This is exemplified by a close-up view in the way she is dressed. It portrays an explicit image of the convicted woman because she is portrayed as vulnerable because her body is open and “on display for the viewer” (Mack & Ott 182).
Underrepresented as cops
“Hegemonic masculinity” is defined as “the subordination of women, authority, aggression, and technical competence,” likewise, the term “emphasized femininity” is defined as “subordinate to and defined by hegemonic masculinity” (Cavender et al. 644). Both terms are portrayed in the show Cops through the underrepresented role of women as police officers. From the episodes I watched, there were only a total of 5 female police officers featured, and the rest were male police officers. Whenever the female cops were featured, they were paired with a male police officer, thus emphasizing that women are subordinate and dependent on men. Also, the male cops were associated with more masculine roles that involved action in the crime enforcement field. According to Mack and Ott, “to be masculine is to be ‘in charge…’” (186). Therefore, male police officers are commonly known as the dominant figure taking charge and instructing the women officers in the crime enforcement field. Cops also reflects a “patriarchy that empower men and disempower women by making constructed, gendered power imbalances seem natural and innate” (Mack & Ott 179). Along with the feminine stereotypes portrayed in women criminals and suspects, this social system reflected in Cops also work negatively in creating a harmful image of women.
As portrayed through my research as well as the work of other scholars, Cops addresses feminine stereotypes such as helplessness, passiveness, emotional and powerlessness defined by Mach and Ott in women portrayed as criminals, suspects, victims and even police officers. These negative images of women seem to recur throughout the different episodes and seasons of Cops. From this research of Cops, viewers will be alert in the selective and constructive ways in which Cops portrays women as vulnerable through the harmful gender stereotypes. As Mac & Ott emphasize, “gendered stereotypes of masculinity and femininity tend to structure the possible roles that men and women can fulfill in society” (187). For instance, Cops portrays unequal gender power within the crime enforcement field by limiting the roles of women as police officers. However as Doyle mentions this “hyperreality” is a blurring of mediated representations and the ‘real’ world itself” (96). Therefore, women need to understand that these stereotypes work to disempower the image and future of women through the biased representations portrayed in Cops. Since media becomes a representation of the world, individuals are largely influenced by the media and would widely accept different stereotypes without knowing its harm. Therefore, it is important to break down the stereotypes between gendered groups that would create conflict and social oppression.
Cavender, G., Maupin, L. B., & Jurik, N. C. 1999. THE CONSTRUCTION OF GENDER IN REALITY CRIME TV. Gender & Society, 13(5), 643-663.
Doyle, A. (1998). “Cops”: Television Policing as Policing Reality (M. Fishman & G. Cavender, Eds.). In Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs (pp. 95-116). Hawthorne: Aldine De Gruyter.
Ott, B.L. & Mack, R.L. (2010). Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell
Cuklanz, L. M., & Moorti, S. (2006). Television’s “New” Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women and Victimization. Critical Studies In Media Communication, 23(4), 302-32.
Cops (1989-present TV show)
Season 17 Episode 35 (Bad Girls Special Edition #4)
Season 19 Episode 11 (Bad Girls Special Edition #10)
Season 20 Episode 20 (Bad Girls Special Edition #11)
Season 21 Episode 24 (Bad Girls Special Edition #12)
Season 19 Episode 26 (Pullovers #2)
Season 24 Episode 1 (Arrests with a Twist)
Season 24 Episode 2 (Chases and Stings)
Season 24 Episode 3 (Smooth Criminals)
Season 24 Episode 17 (Caught in the Act #3)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkNGq9ODGJo (“Video played at Dalia Dippolito trial”)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEEsg_Gf10s (“COPS TV Show, Bikini Car Stop, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department”)