Crime television has become a popular, compelling genre that has presented its audience with new perspectives and attitudes towards certain aspects of the media. For my project, I have investigated the powerful role of women that has developed in some of these crime shows. I have screened and analyzed five episodes from season 11 of the popular television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and five episodes from season 12 of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. CSI has been one of the most popular crime shows since its premiere in 2000. In 2004, the show was the second-most-popular television show, following American Idol (USA Today). It features a team of investigators working in Las Vegas who solve crimes through investigations and forensic sciences and almost always solve their cases and bring the criminals to justice. Law and Order: SVU involves a team of detectives in New York who investigate sexual crimes such as rape and harassment. It is the longest-running crime series and is now on its 20th season (NBC). Both of these crime series include female detectives who work in a male-dominated professional field. Catherine Willows is one of two female detectives in CSI, and Olivia Benson is the only female detective in Law and Order: SVU. These two characters have similar roles in their respective workplaces but also act and treat those around them, including coworkers, victims, and suspects, with different approaches. The media has a tendency to portray females stereotypically, often in negative ways (Ott, Mack 181), but Law and Order: SVU and CSI depict them in a slightly different manner . Both Willows and Benson defy stereotypical feminine qualities but also positively reinforce them. Their femininity ultimately leads to their success in detective work and presents them as important, powerful characters.
Femininity is a broadly discussed topic that can be associated with positive and negative characteristics. When communicating femininity, the media typically emphasize its stereotypes that degrade women and make them appear subordinate to men. Some of these characteristics include emotion, powerlessness, insignificance, and beauty (typically sexual) (Ott, Mack 182). One sees women as particularly concerned with the well being of the people around them, which one sees specifically in Law and Order: SVU and CSI (Lauzen, Dozier, and Horan 201). “The researchers found that female characters performed ‘more interpersonal/relational actions (motivating, socializing, counseling, and other actions which develop worker relationships) and fewer decisional, political, and operational actions than do male characters’” (Lauzen, Dozier, Horan 202). These roles have a negative stereotypical nature to them because the women seem unimportant compared to the roles and actions of men. Most television shows reinforce stereotypes of masculinity and femininity by showing that men are more fit for jobs that include momentous decisions and leadership roles (Lauzen, Dozier, and Horan 202). On the contrary to powerless women, the media depict males as macho, authoritative individuals who obtain power and significance (Ott, Mack 182). Males are seen as a dominant force (Ott, Mack 182), and are assertive (Lauzen, Dozier, and Horan 201). Unlike most shows in the media, Law and Order: SVU and CSI flip the negative stereotypes and turn them into positive ones. Catherine Willows and Olivia Benson utilize their motherly roles and emotional connections to relate to others and achieve success (Cuklanz & Moorti). At the same time, they are able to defy the stereotypical femininity and adopt other qualities such as power and assertion that allow them to appear strong and able to solve tough cases.
The sources that I have read and included in my analysis are typically about femininity and masculinity in the media. Ott and Mack’s book, Critical Media Studies, provides me with a definition of femininity and masculinity that allows me to associate different qualities with males and females. The qualities that Ott and Mack present are generally stereotypical, but their book also shows how feminism has changed over the years and how our society has reached a “postfeminism” phase, where females can balance both a profitable job and the ability to maintain a healthy family and lifestyle at home. Another source that I decided to use in my paper is Cuklantz and Moorti’s article called, “Television’s ‘New’ Feminism: Prime-Time Respesentations of Women and Victimization.” This article directly references Benson and how she acts in respect to her work and her relationships. It explains how crime drama has drifted more towards realism, with more powerful and professional women. The article also discusses other shows and the roles of the suspects and victims in crime television shows, but the part I focused on was about the representations of female detectives. My third main source that I used is “Constructing Gender Stereotypes Through Social Roles in Prime-Time Television” by Lauzen, Dozier and Horan. I chose this article because it explains gender and social roles in television. It discusses how, unlike men, women tend to take on more domestic and interpersonal roles, whereas men focus on the more occupational ones. These classifications of gender roles allow me to even further understand gender stereotypes that have been directly seen on television. I have included some more popular sources in my study such as the NBC website and the USA Today website to provide me with some background information on CSI and Law and Order: SVU and the two shows’ success.
Catherine Willows’ stereotypical feminine qualities result in positive outcomes and more personal, caring relationships in CSI. One of these qualities is the ability to create bonds with people, allowing her to become closer to them and more trusted. In episode 2, “Pool Shark,” Catherine has a connection with one of the potential suspects. The man knew her dad previously and mentions that she is “passionate” and “hardworking,” just like her father (Pool Shark). This makes Catherine trust him more and listen to everything he has to say about the case. Catherine’s interpersonal actions also help her solve the case in episode 4, “Sqweegal.” She walks into a sex shop and jokes around with the owner because they had met many times before. She asks him for information about a potential suspect and what he had bought, and he provides critical information that takes the investigation team a step further. Because she had a connection with him, he told her information without hesitation.
Another feminine stereotype that Willows demonstrates is acting as a motherly figure to her coworkers. In episode 7, “Bump and Grind,” Catherine asks her partner why he hasn’t been seeing his psychiatrist anymore in a very concerned tone. She encourages him and tells him to “talk to [her] if [he] needs to” (Bump and Grind). Catherine cares about her coworkers. She wants them to be the healthy and happy so that nothing is holding them back. This benefits the team because all of the members have close relationships so they can communicate with each other and effectively solve crimes.
One typically views sexual beauty as a negative feminine quality because it portrays women as open to sexual harassment and makes them appear available (Ott & Mack 186). But, Catherine is able to turn this stereotypical “weakness” into a positive trait that facilitates the ability to get information out of men. In all of the episodes that I observed, Catherine wears tight, low-cut tank tops and long pants. Instead of wearing a bulletproof vest with some sort of sleeve on it like the male investigators, she wears a sleeveless vest, showing off her skin. Her clothing adds to her sexual appearance in addition to her flirtatious attitude that helps her get the information that she wants. In episode 2, “Pool Shark,” Catherine talks to a potential suspect over lunch. She flirts with him just enough to get critical information out of him. He even asks her on a date after she finishes questioning him and she responds with, “I’ll pass,” and leaves shortly after (Pool Shark). This scenario demonstrates the sexual power that she has over men. She successfully wears revealing clothing, flirts with the suspects, and receives the information that she wants. Overall, Catherine perfects the use of her feminine traits in the episodes that I have analyzed. She does not classify as the stereotypical female that appears in other television programs because she uses her femininity positively and strategically in order to get information and create trusting relationships.
Olivia Benson uses her femininity in a similar, even more personal fashion. She seems to perfect the use of emotional ties and her social nature to get close to those involved in cases and catch the criminals. In episode 3, “Behave,” she holds a rape victim’s hand while a doctor uses a rape kit to find DNA. She lets the victim cry into her shoulder and assures her they will catch her rapist by saying things like, “I just need you to tell me what happened so we can stop him” (Behave). Benson goes hand-in-hand with the victims during most of the episodes and is always there for emotional support. In episode 1, “Locum,” Benson finds a girl who had been kidnapped, puts her arm around her, and says, “It’s okay, honey, you’re safe now” (Locum). Her motherly role makes victims open up to her because they trust that she will find the criminal and make everything right. She is caring and dedicated to helping victims.
Along with comforting the victims, she, just like Catherine Willows, comforts and supports her coworkers. In episode 23, “Delinquent,” her partner, Stabler, gets accused of sexually assaulting a boy who was lying. Benson trusts that her partner would never do something like that and stands up for him to their boss. She also comforts Stabler and tells him that everything will be okay and that everyone will find out the truth soon enough. Her support and close relationship with her coworkers shows how she can be trusted and how they can confide in her and will always receive help back. She maintains an open, trustworthy relationship that helps keep everyone emotionally stable. Similar to Catherine Willows, Benson maintains a motherly, personal role during the episodes that I have watched. She promotes trust in her coworkers, creating a special bond between all of them so that they can easily work together to solve crimes. Benson is more personal than Willows regarding reaching out to the victims, but they act similarly and successfully accomplish their goals as investigators by turning what seem like negative qualities into positive ones.
In addition to positively reinforcing feminine qualities, the two female investigators defy these qualities as well, which work to their benefit in their professional fields. These female detectives do not need to adhere to solely feminine characteristics in order to accomplish their tasks. Catherine Willows’ femininity helps guide her to success, but not as effectively as her powerful, authoritative nature (3:01-3:12). She is a confident influence who gets the job done and is not afraid of standing up for herself. In episode 17, “The List,” a police officer from another area tries to take over the crime scene that the CSI’s were investigating, and Willows angers him by saying, “When was the last time you fired your gun, detective?” He responds with, “Screw you, bitch.” And then she says forcefully, ”I think you mean screw you, CSI Willows” (The List). Willows avoids any distractions in the work field. She stands up for herself and her fellow investigators in order to avoid any complications. She is able to keep up with her male coworkers, taking the initiative in many situations and authoritatively interrogating several suspected criminals. The team relies on Willows to decipher evidence, and she accomplishes this task just as easily as her male counterparts. In episode 17, “The List,” she analyzes the way a knife is bent to conclude that the killer has to be right-handed. This narrows down potential suspects, showing her leadership role in the investigative field. She displays her confident attitude in episode 4, “Sqweegal,” when she gets on the ground to look beneath a bed where a killer might be. Catherine adopts the more defiant qualities of femininity such as power and the ability to make important decisions (Ott and Mack 185). She doesn’t solely need feminine qualities in order to solve cases and be a successful investigator, she can go against them to become an even stronger member of her team.
Olivia Benson defies many stereotypical negative traits as well, facilitating her ability to solve crimes successfully. She is not as aggressive as Willows, but she has the ability to be on occasion. In episode 1, “Locum,” Benson uses her authoritative, assertive nature to get the suspects to cooperate. She arrests a man and pushes him around forcefully, and she also gets in the suspect’s face when she interrogates him. Similarly, in episode 3, “Behave,” Benson goes with the victim to an event that a suspect hosts and harasses him publicly. She says things like, “Attention everyone, that man is a rapist,” in front of everyone to try to make him admit it (Behave). Benson is not afraid to stand up for victims and do whatever is necessary to catch a criminal. She is authoritative and uses the power that she has as an investigator to successfully convict criminals. In episode 13, “Mask,” she leads the case and provides the main contributions toward solving it. She guides a rape victim through her hard time and helps her make important decisions such as using a rape kit in order to facilitate the process of catching the criminal. This shows how she initiates decisional and operational actions, which is commonly associated with males in the workplace (Lauzen, Dozier, Horan 202). Additionally, Benson goes to all of the crime scenes alongside her male coworkers, usually being the first one to seek out the victim and reach out to them. Benson is not a character who adheres to the popular, negative view of female stereotypes. She is assertive, powerful, and authoritative and one of the most significant contributors to the cases that she investigates.
Women do not have to act like men in order to be successful investigators. Crime investigation is a job that both men and women are skilled at in the shows CSI and Law and Order: SVU. The women in these shows defy the common qualities that create stereotypes of femininity but also positively reinforce them by taking making use of them in their work. This topic is important because today the media are filled with false images and representations of women, and Law and Order: SVU and CSI are two exceptions. Magazines, movies, television shows, and advertisements display women as powerless, sexualized, and emotional, most of which are generally classified as negative traits (Ott & Mack 186). These two shows exemplify how some of these stereotypes can be used to a woman’s advantage. Regarding policing and investigating crime scenes, women act as powerful components to the groups because they promote further equality and are more likely to create trustworthy relationships. The media need to create more shows that capture this positivity towards women and expose equality between men and women (Poteyeva 520). The women’s approach towards this field of study includes values such as interdependence, cooperation, support, participation, and self-determination. With more females in detective work, they will work to transform their self-interest into the goals of the investigation team by encouraging colleagues to share information and power (Silvestri 41). The media have made a step towards these changes by making these crime television shows and portraying women as powerful, authoritative characters. With more shows and depictions like these, the media will expose the positive representation that women deserve because the society will be able to see what they are capable of.
“Benson’s Determination.” NBC.com. NBC, 11 Apr. 2010. Web. 09 Dec. 2012. <http://www.nbc.com/law-and-order-special-victims-unit/video/bensons-determination/n20701/>.
“CSI – Catherine Willows: Best Moments Throughtout Her 12 Seasons (Countdown to Her Final Episode).” YouTube. YouTube, 29 Dec. 2011. Web. 09 Dec. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMPGm8oNjpg>.
Cuklanz, L., & Moorti, S. (2006). Television’s “New” Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women and Victimization. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 23(4), 302-321.
Lauzen, M., Dozier, D., & Horan, N. (2008). Constructing Gender Stereotypes Through Social Roles in Prime-Time Television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52(2), 200-214.
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Poteyeva, M., & Sun, I. Y. 2009. Gender differences in police officers’ attitudes: Assessing current empirical evidence. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37(5), 512 522.
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Willing, Richard. “CSI Effect’ Has Juries Wanting More Evidence.” USATODAY.com- ‘CSI Effect’ Has Juries Wanting More Evidence. USA Today, 05 Aug. 2004. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-08-05-csi-effect_x.htm>.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Season 11 (2010)
— Pool Shark, Episode 2
— Sqweegal, Episode 4
— Bump and Grind, Episode 7
— 418/427, Episode 10
— The List, Episode 17
Law and Order: SVU, Season 12 (2010)
— Locum, Episode 1
— Behave, Episode 3
— Pop, Episode 11
— Mask, Episode 13
— Delinquent, Episode 23