An Investigation Into the Construction of Gender in Crime Series Television

An investigation into the construction of gender in crime series television. This paper is going to deconstruct how gender is portrayed in crime programmes on popular television. Focusing on how female characters are represented compared to male characters also looking at examples and comparing these against the challenges of the normal conventions within the crime series genre. This paper is going to analyse shows where the female characters take the lead roles in crime television as well as the male characters.

Programmes such as Prime Suspect (Granada, 1991) will be compared to shows such as 24 (FOX, 2001) and Dexter (CBS, 2006), which focus on male protagonists and are programmes that follow very masculine conventions. Crime television shows several views on society. It can be used as a reflection of reality, representing the world as external to the text meaning that it is a depiction of someone’s view on society not that it is how society truly functions. But this causes problems when created.

We ask, whose view of society is the crime series based on? This question causes different opinions. It could be the audience vision of what the current state of society is or, it could be the responsibility of the writers and producers of the programme to decide how society is represented therefore they need to be careful on how it is represented so that people do not take offence or disagree with the programmes images of the world that the show is set in.

Another view that can be shown from crime series drama is whether its representation of reality is external but it in fact communicates to the audience through representation, realism of a world that is constructed of characters, settings and storylines that we as the audience may recognise. Representations and views within a TV programme are never innocent they always represent someone’s point of view. Mainly the producers of the show get to choose how the world of the programme is depicted.

Crime series drama relies on verisimilitude to keep the audience connected with the programme, the culture that is used in the storyline has to be generally accepted as credible, suitable and proper other wise the audience can take offence and the programme may come across as controversial. Because Crime television always uses the same conventions for reality, culture when involving setting, characters and storylines this makes them generic; Credible within the boundaries of genre. (Gledhill 1997:360) The term Masculine is identified by someone being a man that fits into a certain stereotype.

Society expects men to act in a particular way which in effect creates this stereotype of males being strong, deep voice, aggressive and acting as ‘real men. ’ When it comes to crime television because the characteristics of this genre are very aggressive and ‘real’ it has automatically fallen into the conventions of appealing to male viewers and containing characters, storylines and settings that appeal to the male gender and that relate to males as well ‘as it tends to focus on the public sphere, professional roles and the male world of work’ (MacKinnon 2003:69)

One of the example shows this paper is looking at is 24 (FOX), which is a program set in Los Angeles and follows the life of Jack Bauer who is a leader of a team that has been created in result of the 9/11 in the USA. To begin with the main character is a large stereotype of the typical male protagonist in Crime series television as a man who leads a special unit to fight against numerous terrorist threats, such as nuclear bombs and assassination attempts.

This program also follows similarities to ‘The Sweeney’ because this man is seen to have a very troubled home life and will bend and break the rules to protect society. We see already that the codes and conventions have created a common character that is the essence of masculinity. If we compare this character to perhaps a female lead character from a crime television show for example Helen Mirren’s character Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect (Granada), we see that the storylines for this series is a lot more intellectual in how the search for the criminal is more subtle compared to the gun fights and explosions used in 24.

Other sub-plots are used in prime suspect that add to each episode, in the first series for example there was a lot of focus on barriers in investigations that involved sexism in the work place. This ultimately relates to reality and causes many audience members to be instantly connected with the show rather than in 24 where the lead character is idolized because of the way he stops crimes by car chases, many fights and gunfire.

The comparison between the two characters is great and it is an example of how gender in crime television differentiates two different styles of program. ‘The dramatic events and scenarios depicted in 24 are highly unrealistic and bear little resemblance to the often mundane work necessary to win the real war on terror’ (Joseph J Foy, 2008). Television shows like to follow the stereotypes that they believe people follow and think are true.

Sexism in the workplace is very common even today and this is display regularly in Prime suspect for Jane Tennison as she is Detective superintendent and the show portrays how she survives in a male dominated environment ‘Masculine genres have been said to foreground the status of hegemonic masculinity by excluding women or else representing men’s importance as far exceeding that of women’ (R. Feasey 2008:86). This program started a trend of different shows that starred women in the leading roles for crime television including The Bill (ITV) and MIT.

The writers of Prime suspect keep the verisimilitude of the show by using other sub plots in the show such as racism, unwanted pregnancy and alcoholism. This enhances the realism of the show making the lead protagonist more and more relatable and some of these plots can be relatable to male viewers as well as female. Dexter is another program that uses a male lead character that is of the male stereotype but with the twist of having tendencies to kill and torture others.

His character was adopted by a police officer at a young age and taught to use those tendencies for good, targeting rapists, child molesters and murderers also. Dexter may have sociopathic qualities but he follows the stereotype of being the man in charge that solves the crime, his other features just give the program a unique twist. If you compare the lead character in 24, Jack Bauer to Dexter there are many similar qualities they are both the main figure of authority, and have the same intention of safeguarding America from criminals.

However, they achieve this in very different ways. Even though he breaks the rules, Jack Bauer tends to try and stay within the law until he feels it necessary to break free and help, whereas as Dexter breaks the rules from the start by killing. The two characters do have differences though; Dexter believes he must have a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship in order to fit in with the norm and to resolve his attraction to murder and dissection and Jack Bauer on the other hand doesn’t feel he needs to fit into society at all.

He has a family and a very masculine job and is regularly considered a hero. He doesn’t need to pretend or act more masculine as he is what a ‘real man’ is considered to be. If we compare this to Mirren’s Character in Prime Suspect we see that there are differences in the way Jane Tennison acts in the workplace, there is a constant need to prove herself and stand out from other work mates because she is female but then her character would also like to fit in with others to take the pressure off. This is relatable to life and many women will share this with her character.

Looking back on when crime television first began on British television though, women were shown in a completely different light. Generic characters were used in the storylines and the main portrayal of women to begin with were as victims of threats who were helpless and very sexual towards the main characters. The narrative that was commonly used hasn’t changed much though. We still see shows that have plots of crime, chase then arrest with sub plots of perhaps minimization of private lives, personal relationships and family that we see in Dexter and Prime Suspect.

There is evidence of Action over dialogue and reinstatement of the hero in 24. And finally all of the shows use narrative closure. In conclusion we see that gender in Crime drama has always leant towards the masculine side, although the sub plots are relatable the main storylines that are popular now of explosions, fights, car chases etc do tend to break verisimilitude but I personally think that this is because of Americanization of television and film. This has proved to be popular so and it goes back to what the producers and writers believe is real compared to how the audience see reality.

When female characters are cast as the lead in a television show we see a lot more down to earth plots and less gun fire, perhaps this is because the world don’t see women as able to wield a gun of perhaps its that we portray more realism with the female stereo type compared the male stereotype. Bibliography Creeber G (2001) ‘The Television Genre Book’ Feasey R (2008) ‘Masculinity and Popular Television’ Foy J (2008) ‘Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics through Popular Culture’ Sparks, R (1992) ‘Television and the Drama or Crime’ Nelmes, J (ed) (1996) ‘Introduction to Film Studies: Third Edition’