Dear Network Television: Get Your Mitts Off Women Cops

Dear NBC, FOX, TNT and CBS,

As the Fall TV season kicks off, I’d like to thank you for the growing number of women cast as cops, police detectives, medical examiners and lawyers over recent years (Megan Boone and Regina Hall in the new Law and Order: Los Angeles, Emmy-winner Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer and Emily Deschanel, Michaela Conlin and Tamara Taylor in Bones). Portraying women in law enforcement undermines the stereotype of women as victims, and promotes a vision of women as protectors and authority figures. However, I have one request: This season, could you please stop having criminals kidnap, torture and stalk my role models?

Again and again, when police characters are women, your shows blur the the line between cop and victim. TNT, your new Rizzoli and Isles offers a striking example. This show should be a feminist dream. The titular duo, Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon), a fearless, up-and-coming detective, and Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), a brilliant, hyper-rational medical examiner, catch Boston’s most notorious criminals, including a Boston Strangler copy-cat and Beacon Hill’s most pretentious (and deadly) elites. Yet, in the critically acclaimed first season, Rizzoli is stalked and kidnapped twice, and flashbacks reveal a third kidnap, torture and attempted murder. Isles, meanwhile, is kidnapped by her hit-man father and threatened by various mobsters. All of this in just ten episodes. The collapse of the distinction between cop and victim is so glaring that Rizzoli addresses it outright, asking her former partner, Vince Korsak (Bruce McGill), how he can trust her capabilities after seeing her bound and tortured by a psychopathic serial killer.

While Korsak assures Rizzoli that her authority hasn’t been compromised, I’m not convinced. Watching policewomen become victims despite their physical and mental skills and advanced training only reinforces the myth that gender-based violence cannot be prevented.

These plot lines are all-too-common across all of your networks: Abby (Pauley Perrette) is rescued (by the men she works with) from a stalker on CBS’s NCIS; Sara (Jorja Fox) is kidnapped and trapped under a car in CBS’s CSI; Alex (Stephanie March) in NBC’s Law and Order is forced into protective custody after a slew of death threats; on FOX’s Lie to Me, Gillian (Kelli Williams) is attacked by a serial rapist but just in the nick of time, one of her male co-workers drives the creeper away. Of course men character’s lives are also on the line as they fight bad guys, but they rarely become victims of gender-based violence such as stalking, kidnapping, rape or torture. If characters like Rizzoli cannot prevent their own torture and attempted murder–despite being armed with both a gun and a detective’s badge–then why would the average woman viewer believe that she could protect herself?

These messages fly in the face of the growing evidence that self-defense decreases a woman’s chances of victimization. According to multiple studies, the rate of rape completion dropped from 45 percent to 14 percent when the woman utilized violent forcible resistance, especially striking. These plots, in contrast, reinforce the once-a-woman, always-a-potential-victim mentality.

To be fair, Rizzoli does execute an impressive escape in one of her kidnappings, using quick thinking and a well-placed taser gun. She’s not unusual: TV’s women cops often do rescue themselves. But the damage is already done. By blurring the line between victim and hero, these shows deny women characters in law enforcement their full authority, allowing these professions to remain apparently gendered. A male cop is a cop, these plotlines maintain, but a female cop is also and always a potential victim.

I want role models that are not victims at all–not even victims that are able to rescue themselves. Media representations shape and inform our perceptions of the world. And these, in turn, have the power to alter the reality of gender-based violence.

So please, network TV. Don’t give me anymore heroine/victims. Give me a policewoman–full stop.

Do you have a favorite woman crime-fighting character? A least favorite woman-victimizing plot line? Share your thoughts!
Photo from user nerdcoregirl through Creative Commons License 2.0


  1. One of my favorite shows, "Criminal Minds", is cutting its female cast (or limiting their time onscreen) to inject some life into the show. So J. J. was eliminated via promotion this week. I know that Kirsten Vangness's character Garcia has a cult following so it will be a bit more difficult to dump her. But why get rid of the women on the show? What kind of message is that sending to women viewers?

    Here's more on the story:

  2. jarrahpenguin says:

    Thanks for this post – I so agree! Did Olivia Benson on SVU really need to get stalked 3 times, and once almost raped when undercover? I'd love if we could have more strong women cops on TV without having to make them damsels in distress. Victimizing strong women characters is a really effective way of constraining their agency. Not saying they shouldn't be in dangerous situations, but have them triumph over them like Brenda did in Season 1 of the Closer after she was almost assaulted, instead of being being broken by them and needed their (usually) male partner to fix things.

  3. Yes! Thank you! How many law enforcement women become victims? Not nearly as many as seen on TV!
    And shame on CBS for cutting females out of their crime shows!

  4. the writer asks, "then why would the average woman viewer believe that she could protect herself?" Hmmm – mabye because the average woman viewer is aware of the risk-taking that is involved in activities like being a police officer, and understands that sometimes its a risk worth taking! i don't believe we should jump to the conclusion that women are being "victimized" on tv just because they find themselves in dangerous situations.

    on SVU, both male and female leads are kidnapped, etc. and they always prevail in the end as heroes. wouldn't it be worse for women if the female leads NEVER found themselves in dire straits?

    when i see women in dangerous situations on tv, i don't see them as victims. i see them as heroes who are not afraid to face danger. that's a quality that should be emphasized further in women's roles in tv, don't you agree?

  5. Iliana Echo says:

    My personal favorite crime show is “The Mentalist”, which features a major female character in the form of Agent Teresa Lisbon, who is probably the most feminist cop on any crime TV show. She leads the team, and the guys listen to her without question. It also features, for a period of team, another strong, smart, take-care-of-herself woman, Madeline Hightower, as Lisbon’s boss. Yes, the girls get into trouble on occasion, but no more than the men do.

    Just my 2 cents.

  6. Kay Howard from NBC’s “Homicide”, played by the perennially awesome Melissa Leo, is still my favorite.

    Although the Wire’s Kima Greggs comes close.

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