There seem to be three accepted roles for women over 40 on TV: mother, wise sage, or ass-kicking crime-solver.
Yes, as soon as we put older women in central roles, we put them in, of all places, the police station. From the first major show starring two not-so-young women, Cagney & Lacey, to Murder, She Wrote, to the more recent Closer and Body of Proof, we apparently love ladies who love to solve crimes.
Why is this such a standard profession for older women on TV, given that the real police precincts of America are still skewed heavily toward the male and the young?
Part of the answer is: Characters who defy expectations are fun, and few groups have more expectations to defy than older women.
The American tradition of older-lady detectives goes back to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, an unassuming "spinster" and amateur detective who first appeared in a 1926 short story, "The Tuesday Night Club." Marple uses our prejudices to her advantage—her schtick is that no criminal sees her coming. If you watched Murder, She Wrote in the '80s, you know the drill: seeing Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher tool around on her bicycle putting bad guys away was both funny and satisfying.The Closer dabbled in a version of this, too. Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson drawled, wore pink, enjoyed candy, and seemed flighty—which was exactly why she could get suspects to confess.
Despite the dodgy politics of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, Lisbeth Salander is an interesting character from a feminist perspective because she is a rare detective on the outside, with no faith in the system to produce a just result.
Earlier this month, Christian Science Monitor published a list of "Top 7 Detective Series Set in Foreign Locales," a selection which is meant to "keep you on the edge of your beach chair," as they put it.
Since this series is about detective narratives in pop culture, this post was originally going to be about CSI. But at time of writing (Tuesday afternoon) everyone in our office in London came home early because of fears of another night of riots and looting, and so it's just too hard right now to set aside real-life relations between the police and the people to talk about fiction. Likewise, I don't want to risk framing what's going on in reality in terms of detective fiction.
The Thin Man gave us one of the wittiest crime-solving wife-husband duos of all time, retired detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy*), who spit one-liners, soak up a tremendous amount of alcohol and stumble around solving crime.
I've come to the half-way point of the Murder, She Blogged series, and half way through my time guest blogging here at Bitch, so I just wanted to take a brief pause to address the question: Why detectives?