what i'm watching: the tv detective mystery, where women are crazy and ex-husbands don't kill

One type of TV show that I enjoy are detective murder mysteries. I don't watch them all - that would be nearly impossible, Netflix carries so many - but I'm always looking for detective shows that I find absorbing. "Inspector Lewis" is probably my favourite. I loved "Prime Suspect", Helen Mirren's tour de force. I'm in the middle of "Wallander", recommended by a few wmtc readers, although I'm watching the BBC version with Kenneth Branagh, not the original Swedish show. "Case Histories", featuring Jason Isaacs as private investigator Jackson Brodie, is another one I enjoy. And I've sampled many more - Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, Cadfael, and so on. On my to-watch list are The Killing and The Fall.

As much as I enjoy this genre, I often end up annoyed when we learn "whodunit". Because, too often, you know who done it? A woman.

In TV detective shows, there are an enormous number of women murderers. Women obsessed with and spurned by men. Women whose careers have been thwarted by men. Women driven insane by their unfulfilled desire to have babies. Women who couldn't handle the pressure. Women who can't move on. Women avenging the murder of their children. Women who are closet lesbians.

Sometimes, the murdering woman turns out to be trans* or bisexual. TV trans* and/or bisexual murderers practically constitute a separate subgenre. The contemporary version doesn't portray these women as insane by definition, merely driven insane by society's intolerance and by the men who wouldn't love them.

I haven't quantified my observation (yet), but I'd estimate that on the small screen, murders are committed by women about 60 or 70% of the time.

In reality, in the US, for example, men commit around 85% of all homicides. About 15% of homicides in the US are committed by women.

(I note that "Prime Suspect", with its more realistic plot lines, is not included in this.)

This disconnect between reality and fiction - the topsy-turvy world where women are more likely to be murderers than men - is not a new or original observation. When the movie "Fatal Attraction" came out in 1987, there was a spate of commentary saying essentially the same thing. If the plot of that movie had been a real-life scenario, Michael Douglas's character would have been terrorizing the family, not Glenn Close's. A few years later, the same arguments cropped up in relation to "Basic Instinct" (1990), with the addition of the crazy bisexual motif.

As a writer, I understand why TV murder-mystery writers and producers might reach too often for the female murderer. It's unexpected. It's different. It's interesting precisely because it's not real life. Let's lead the audience to suspect the controlling ex-husband, then let's surprise them with his female victim who couldn't take it anymore.

But as a feminist and a media-watcher, I find it highly irritating, and potentially harmful. An ignorant viewer could easily come away with the impression that women are far more dangerous than men. Might that make it more difficult to believe - and to have compassion and empathy for - the dangers that so many women face from their partners and ex-partners, even on a subliminal level? Could the TV unreality make it more difficult for people to understand and accept the real statistics on femicide?

Historically, there has been an abiding fascination with female murderers in all forms of fiction, from Medea and Lady Macbeth to Lizzie Borden and Aileen Wuornos. The interest in female killers - including real ones - may stem partly from their very novelty. Plus, the notion of a female murderer runs counter to most gender stereotypes. Women are supposed to be loving and nurturing; we are supposed to be weak, fearful, and squeamish. On the other hand, we're supposed to be unable to control our emotions. In real life, perhaps most murders are fueled by testosterone, but we've always got hysteria!*

I expected to find a spate of stories about the female murderer in TV detective dramas, but to my surprise, I found none. Perhaps I missed them, or perhaps this theme is mostly explored in graduate school papers like this one. I did find numerous stories about the negative portrayals of LGBT people, especially trans* people, a topic much more in the media spotlight right now than garden-variety sexism. (I also found the fascinating rabbit-hole called TV Tropes, which looks like a genre-writer's dream.)

As I said, for now this is based only on observation. I haven't quantified it yet, haven't sat down and counted what percentage of TV detective-mystery episodes end with a female murderer. But I might, eventually.

* For those unfamiliar, the history of the word is noted.


johngoldfine said...

I just finished the first two seasons of 'The Killing' on Netflix-- a police procedural with a female/male detective team, female both lead detective and lead actor, and written by people who know their way around glass ceilings, sexual harassment, male condescension, and so on.

I enjoyed it very much and would love to contribute something a little bit more specific to this discussion of the gender of who in this particular series done it, but that would hardly be fair if you haven't watched it and intend to, would it?


I will say that in the course of two seasons (it takes that long to run down every lead!), suspicion is thrown at one point or another on nearly everyone the cops question.

laura k said...

but that would hardly be fair if you haven't watched it and intend to, would it?

Indeed it would not be. :)

The Killing is definitely on my winter list, as is The Fall. Both come highly recommended... except one of my TV gurus swears by the original Danish The Killing as opposed to the US version. But the Danish version is all but impossible to find. So I won't worry about it. :)

I think the best detective shows cast a wide net of suspicion. But who turns out to be the murderer, that's the question I'm looking at here.

laura k said...

I updated the post, since I suspect many people will recommend The Killing and The Fall.

John F said...

I must recommend this year's ITV mystery "Broadchurch", starring former Doctor Who actor David Tennant. You know it has to be good, because a US network licensed it so they can produce an inferior version in time for the 2014/15 season!

As for whodunit - no way. You're not getting anything outta me. :-)

laura k said...

Thank you! I've added it to The List.

You know it has to be good, because a US network licensed it so they can produce an inferior version in time for the 2014/15 season!


juna said...

Interesting post! I'm wondering if the Law & Order scripts have roughly equal numbers of male and female perpetrators (excluding SVU). Your discussion also reminded me of "Dressed to Kill."

laura k said...

It would be interesting to know that!

One thing I always noticed about L&O, every character slot had both good guys and bad guys, except for one. There were good and bad prosecutors, good and bad politicians, artists, whatever. Good and bad men and women of every different colour and background. Except... defense attorneys.

All defense attorneys were unsympathetic characters. When a suspect "lawyered up", it was always bad. Why would they need a lawyer if they were innocent?

riley dog said...

Endeavour is good

laura k said...

Endeavour is good

I can now confirm that I agree.