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date: 19 April 2018

Feminist Perspectives on Criminal Justice in Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

A discussion of feminist perspectives on crime and criminal justice in popular culture has to begin by pointing out that pop culture itself has traditionally been gendered as feminine. As epitomized by abstract visual art, nonnarrative poetry, and auteur cinema, high culture is still regarded in some critical circles as the opposite of popular culture, which is associated with the seductive and immersive qualities of mass media. Resulting from a masculinist aesthetic that privileged difficulty and abstraction as in Modernist poetics, so-called feminine forms have traditionally been considered to be less valuable than ones associated with masculinity. Media vehicles associated most readily and negatively with popular culture are those directed primarily at women audiences, such as daytime television, romance novels, and women’s magazines. Associated with the domestic space, leisure time, and unemployment, television itself was until recently viewed as a less-valuable, feminine medium.

For these reasons, and because of television’s preoccupation with crime, this article concentrates on television as a formally feminized medium that has for technological and social reasons now become more highly valued. Critiquing the conjoining of masculinity and cultural value is a feminist task. As viewers watch their favorite series in public spaces on handheld devices, and certain series are considered novelistic and complex enough to supersede other cultural forums, television has gained new cultural credence and is a premier space in which to relate popular images about women and criminal justice.

Keywords: feminist media studies, popular culture, women as victims, femmes fatale, monstrous women, justified criminals, women in law enforcement

What Are Feminist Perspectives?

Feminist perspectives implies the necessity of taking a politically oriented approach to representations of criminal justice. Political denotes that these perspectives are critical and intended to effect change (e.g., to contradict patriarchal and paternalistic social arrangements and hierarchies, or to combat the effects of clichéd and derogatory representations of women in crime-related popular culture). These representations suggest that women’s subordination to men is natural and inevitable. Feminist media studies recognize the powerful effects of one-sided representations of women in popular culture, as well as the lack of more representative images. A simple test developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (1985) determines whether a movie is watchable—that is, feminist or gender-sensitive (Figure 1). Yet one can apply this useful test to television series, digital narratives, and printed fiction as well. One can determine if a text is feminist by posing the following questions:

  • Are there two women characters in the film/TV series/novel who speak to each other?

  • Do these women have names, or are they identified only by their functions (for example, as the male protagonist’s mother or girlfriend)?

  • Do they speak with one another about something other than a man?

Positive answers to these three questions show that the text represents women as subjects—as the center of their worlds—rather than as objects in a heterosexual male universe. While this test may appear very simple, it continues to provide a litmus test for popular cultural texts, the majority of which remain male-centered and often lacking in depictions of female subjectivity.

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Figure 1. Picture of Bechdel test from “The Rule,” (Aug. 16, 2005 [1985]). Retrieved July 12, 2017 from

Feminist Media Criticism

When feminist media critical work began in the 1960s, it intersected with the liberal feminist goals of what is in Anglophone circles called the second wave of feminism, which began after World War II. Liberal feminism seeks to achieve the legal and societal equality of women with men. An important early feminist critique of popular culture is Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), which diagnoses the regendering that took place in the postwar period. Friedan analyzes how contemporary popular women’s magazines present articles and visual layouts that suggest that women should drop out of school and the workforce, marry early, and have many babies. She juxtaposes these articles that assume a universal mystique of feminine happiness that is achieved in suburban domesticity to the more balanced groupings of articles about working and other kinds of female identity that were featured in 1930s magazines directed at women.

Such early feminist media criticism documented and critiqued the limited range of images of women in popular culture. It placed emphasis on the lack of women role models in film, television, and other popular cultural vehicles such as women’s magazines, and the symbolic punishment of women characters who do not conform with this limited set of roles. This early stage of feminist analysis of images of criminal justice pointed out, for instance, that single women suffer from more acts of violence than do married ones in popular culture texts. The plot literally kills off women who are not contained in and controlled by conventional heterosexual relationships. It demonstrated how women characters are thus policed into roles such as the loving and supportive mother or girlfriend to white male protagonists. The dearth of other possible roles leads to what Gaye Tuchman (2000) calls “the annihilation of women in mass media.” In terms of feminist justice, popular culture’s crime could be diagnosed as rendering a broad range of women as agents and subjects invisible in the public sphere. If allowed to appear, then women figures were presented only in narrowly circumscribed roles.

Subsequent feminist work moved from an emphasis on how women are represented in popular media to a focus on the production and consumption of mass media (Thornham, 2007). Feminist critics concentrated on women audiences’ experiences of mass media; they paid particular attention to genres that were often pooh-poohed in critical terms because they were directed primarily toward women. These genres included daytime television soap operas and romance novels. These genres had not been analyzed in any depth because they were considered trivial and melodramatic, thus demonstrating the general masculinist assumption in aesthetic evaluation that that which is feminine is less valuable.

Ien Ang’s Watching Dallas (1985) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) are representative texts. Both studies take seriously previously undervalued genres and those who interact with them, focusing on the expertise of women audiences and the pleasure they take in television series like Dallas (1978–1991) or in romance novels. This taking women’s pleasure seriously was in itself a feminist act; it has been repeated frequently in media criticism, and on a generic level, in analyzing the more open-ended, serialized quality of soap operas versus the greater closure provided in individual episodes in other genres, and the specific type of pleasure this conveys (Warhol, 2003). The emphasis on family members and lovers, domestic interiors, and interactions between characters in shot–reverse shot editing—shot sequences that move from one face to the other along a single axis—validates the life of women viewers by replicating it visually.

By understanding women audiences to be “active” participants in popular culture, these researchers took feminist work beyond cultivation theory, which had suggested a one-to-one relation between the dominant message that was delivered in a popular cultural text and the adoption of that message by the audience. Radway, for instance, asks how interactions with the romance genre enable its women readers to resolve the contradictions of living in patriarchy. As Ang pointed out, many women audience members react to Dallas or other popular culture texts ironically and enjoy the cultural knowledge that allows them to find characterizations over the top in their melodramatic quality (Ang, 2007).

Parallel to this, feminist work also studied the formalities of how women are seen and actually filmed in film and television. Part of popular cultural analysis must always concern the formal elements with which the story is conveyed (genre, perspective, chronology, modalities including sound, music, single, multiple, and moving images). Feminists first diagnosed a universalized masculine gaze that denies women’s subjectivity and relegates them to their isolated secondary sexual characteristics (in other words, tits and ass). In Laura Mulvey’s (1999) still seminal analysis of the visual economy of film, she argues that film analysis assumes a universal heterosexual male viewer. His position is transported on a formal level through cinematographic techniques in which women characters are seen by the camera exclusively in point-of-view shots that mimic the protagonist’s desirous and controlling view of the women within the film. Examples are the ubiquitous and nonsequitorial bikini scene, with generous close-ups of the actresses’ cleavages and bottoms, in a film that is about a bank robbery, or the classic point-of-view shot of the hero watching the reclining figure of the on-screen woman (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954). This visual economy serves to bring female characters into positions of submission and fetishized control. If woman is to be looked at and man to look, then in crime scenarios, the woman shall always be the object of a voyeuristic gaze. She is the attractive dead body, with ample and visible cleavage and stockings and garter belt, as shown on the covers of early detective novels—the sexy victim. Or, in her iteration as a dangerous femme fatale, she is fetishized, as in the character of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) from Double Indemnity (1944). Earlier parts of the film visualize the male protagonist’s sexual attraction to Dietrichson, with shots of Stanwyck’s stockinged legs from his perspective. Yet the sexually attractive accomplice to murder is ultimately contained by the plot and rendered into a desirable corpse at the end of the film. Indeed, the “attractive dead woman” trope remains a standby in popular-culture depictions of crime. Dead women do not interfere with the male protagonists who solve their murders: “a dead woman is utterly incapable of offering up even the most cursory contradiction to the narratives that entomb her as readily as any casket” (Marshall, 2014).

Unless the woman viewer identifies with the universalized heterosexual male viewer’s position or likens herself to his fetishized female object, there is no room for her to take pleasure in a film or a TV series. Work that analyzes how sexist cultural politics are manifested on the level of form continues into the present, with investigations, for example, of how female and male space and ways of seeing are presented in contrary ways in detective series (Jermyn, 2008).

Subsequent psychoanalytically oriented feminist media scholarship has asked about how female audiences are situated in more mediated relationships to popular media texts. So-called third-wave feminism has distinguished one of its differences from second-wave feminism in its intense awareness of the importance of popular media in individuals’ negotiations of their gender roles (Baumgardner & Richards, 2000). According to advocates of the third-wave perspective, this has included a more critical relationship with so-called dominant media themes and a move away from a dichotomous view of women as either “victims” or “villains” in crime texts (Kamir, 2006, p. 31) and toward a celebration of popular media. A desire is expressed to explore “the feminist potential of media culture” (Johnson, 2007, p. 292). The third-wave stance remains contested in feminist circles because it may regard popular media too uncritically in terms of their newly tolerated and ironically conveyed forms of sexism (Gill, 2011). First- and second-wave feminists’ emphasis on women’s rights to formal legal and economic equality and control over their bodies appears passé in postfeminist texts from the 1990s, such as Ally McBeal (1997–2000) or Sex and the City (1998–2004). Rather than the necessity of achieving rights, these texts in neoliberal fashion emphasize the confusions brought about by the plurality of consumerist and lifestyle choices that their urban, working women protagonists have.

An interest in the visibility of women in popular culture representations, including those of crime, remains central in feminist media analysis. This includes more critical work on what images do and how women viewers are placed in relation to them, and on the power of master narratives, such as that conveyed by the romance novel/film plot. This plot conveys the message that a woman’s central quest in life is to find the right man, even as women’s roles in global northern economies have radically changed and now include the relative ubiquity of combining work with parenting and marriage. In addition to the continued focus on visibility, however, more sophisticated analyses emphasize other aspects of pop cultural artifacts that are also important for feminist readings. Among these are the following:

  • A concern for the political economy out of which the popular cultural product arises. This subject can be addressed by asking: Who profits from the series/film/novel? Does it, for instance, copy another commercially successful vehicle? Who contributes to its production; how many women are involved in producing the text, and in what roles? The emphasis on who produces television and film has led to a number of numerical studies that have shown the “marginalization of women writers not only in the TV industry itself,” but also the dominance of male producers and directors and series creators and an awareness of how this continues to shape heterosexist content (Hallam, 2000, p. 141).

  • This focus is juxtaposed to the traditional focus on formal and semantic text analysis. Here, questions are posed such as those in the Bechdel test. How diverse are the women characters in a given popular culture artifact, and how does this diversity extend to representations of characters’ race and ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and ability? Since gender has been recognized to be a relational system in which women can be perceived only as more or less feminine in contrast to the masculinity of others, then the question of how other characters are depicted becomes pertinent as well. Thus, to look at the presentation and experience of women in popular culture is also to be aware of representations of masculinity, which are diverse and involve hegemonic, subordinate, and marginalized forms of expressing manhood (Connell, 2005).

  • The feminist critical emphasis on women audiences and their subjective experiences of texts adds a third area of investigation to critical analysis. Adopting insights from cultural studies, feminist criticism now accounts for Stuart Hall’s argument that audiences are never neutral in terms of the intended ideological work of a text (1980[1973], pp. 136–138). Rather, they respond either from a position of agreement with the dominant ideology conveyed through it, or in a negotiated or resistant one. If one is conscious that women serve only as arm candy in a given TV series, in other words, as decorative props for the male protagonist, and that the arm candy also coheres with white heteronormative standards of attractiveness, the feminist viewer will respond more critically to the text than someone who identifies with the male protagonist’s position. This feminist viewer may laugh at the text or take it apart critically in terms of the narrow sex-typing images of women it presents. The premium on irony is a two-sided sword. In what has been called the “new sexism” of the current postfeminist moment, in which the original aims of feminism are viewed as redundant, a humorous stance is often expected in dealing with highly derogatory and limiting images of women (Gill, 2011, p. 62).

Feminist media criticism also has become more inclusive in analyzing the positions of women in media in relation to crime in interrelation to other hierarchies of identity, such as race and ethnicity, class, ability, and sexuality. This has been in part due to the intervention of the American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw, who pointed out that the justice system can penalize crimes related to race and those related to gender, but not both simultaneously, leaving women of color particularly vulnerable (1991). Crenshaw’s critique of the justice system correlates to a criticism leveled at feminists since the advent of the second wave—that standard liberal feminism represented only the interests of white, middle-class, heterosexual women from the global north, and generalized the experience of this cohort of women to assume a subjective position common to all women. This stance disregards the very different experiences of womanhood by lesbians, women of color, working-class women, and women from geographical locations whose experience of their gendered identities is not comparable to those of women from Western Europe and North America. Thus, an intersectional approach has grown increasingly important in feminist analysis and critique, including that which deals with popular media. This translates into more nuanced treatments of how Blacksploitation films from the 1970s illustrate fantasies of women’s and blacks’ revenge on white patriarchs, while also creating new racist and gendered-racist representations of African Americans through which white racial anxieties could be further validated (McCaughey & King, 2001). Judith Halberstam (2001, p. 264) looks at how fantasies of queer, African-American, and women’s violence relate to one another, as all of them “challenge powerful white heterosexual masculinity” through acts of imagined rage.

Correspondence with Feminist Legal Theory

Feminist legal critics have long argued that the law functions according to a masculine model and thereby erases its contribution to the systemic subordination of women. This occurs through erasing the specificity of gendered crimes against women that take place largely in domestic spaces—and not as between an assault of two strangers in a public space—or through the classification of such acts as private. Historically, women were considered part of their husbands’ legal person, via the principle of coverture. The legacy of women’s legally prescribed subordination to men has resulted in their being viewed by the legal system as “worthy victims” or “guilty agents” in cases of domestic violence (Dolan, 2003, p. 254). In the former case, the woman must appear so helpless that she is considered worthy of protection by a paternalistic state. In the latter case, the battered woman is presented as guilty if she is viewed as having agency or as actively resisting her abuse. The legacy of unequal treatment under the law also involves the double standard regarding murder and abuse between spouses, what has been called “the unwritten law” that exonerates husbands from killing their adulterous wives (Ireland, 1989). These historical legal patterns play out in popular-culture renderings of women and crime, particularly in depictions of rape, battery, prostitution, and murder.

Feminists have offered different strategies for abetting sexism in the law. Catherine McKinnon (1983) has argued that only by examining the masculine bias of legal norms and the assumption of objectivity behind these norms can a feminist jurisprudence be achieved. Robin L. West (2000) calls for a feminist standard of law that would admit women’s subjective difference to men and determine whether a law is viable on the basis of whether it renders women’s lives happier or increases their suffering. These and other feminist perspectives point out that notions of justice based on Kantian ethics assume an equality between persons that simply does not exist, given the systematic discrimination of women.

If crimes against women are rendered invisible by law or are treated with the same standards that are applied to men, then unequal treatment shall remain. This has led to calls for gender-related policy and protections. If crimes against women and unequal treatment of persons under the law can be rendered visible, then a better and more gender-sensitive justice can be achieved (Van Gundy, 2014). Thus, within feminist legal theory and feminist media critical practice, an emphasis remains on making the basis of and practices of discrimination against women visible in order to combat them.

Women as “Guilty” Criminals in Popular Culture

By popular culture, most people understand medial forms that came after the age of mass production and dissemination, for instance, with the rise of the radio, followed by the television, followed by digital media in the 1990s and the early twenty-first century. Yet popular culture also can be understood to be a form of public culture that extends back to the Early Modern period, to a time in which the advent of print culture took place, replacing the rare, expensive, and time-consuming production of manuscripts. This may be a useful point to return to, as researchers have found two modes of representing women criminals in Early Modern crime pamphlets that remain prevalent up until the current day. These were representations of women as either insufficiently womanly—as mannish, as, for instance, unloving mothers and wives, who often then also had ferocious and animalistic characteristics, such as tigresses or she-wolves—or as oversexed prostitutes or cozeners and therefore as also dangerous to men (Henderson & McManus, 1985; Olson, 2013a).

This pattern of dichotomous representation bears mentioning in one of its early forms because it continues to this day. Think of the character that Glenn Close plays in Fatal Attraction (1987). The frustrated, urban, single woman Alex lures a married, suburban man into a weekend-long affair and then proceeds to destroy his family and him in a series of escalating acts of violence borne out of her sense of slighted love and desire for revenge. Here, the femme fatale morphs into the monstrous unwoman and is presented in contradistinction to the “good,” womanly wife of the protagonist, who stands by her man despite his affair and kills Alex at the film’s end. Another iconic figure is that of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992). Stone, as Catherine Tramell, combines characteristics of the monstrous-woman criminal and the oversexed femme fatale. She is an icepick-wielding, bisexual temptress who, in the trope of the black widow spider, destroys her male lovers after having sex with them. As a femme fatale, she consciously employs her sexual attractiveness to confuse and arouse her male prosecutors. One thinks of the iconic scene in which Catherine reveals her naked labia to the investigators who question her. In depictions of serial killers such as the historical Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003), the murderess is depicted as masculine, probably lesbian, and her criminal energies are associated with animalism. The film’s othering of the female serial killer functions to discredit her potential to challenge the culture of abuse and sexualized violence that has produced her (Birke & Butter, 2010).

The dichotomous pattern of depicting women criminals that has been passed down since the Early Modern period assumes that a man takes on the subject position within the text. He is the addressee; he is the one who must fear or lust after, and symbolically tame, the female perpetrator by actually or figuratively killing her off. The woman criminal’s subject position goes unspoken. Outside of fictional texts, this pattern of dichotomous representations persists as well. For example, Amanda Knox, who was accused of murdering her roommate in 2007, was presented as an oversexed, angel-faced murderess by the popular press. Popular culture’s fascination with normatively attractive women murderers points to another representational pattern in fictional and nonfictional texts. Although women are underrepresented as perpetrators of violent crimes, they are overrepresented in depictions and fictionalizations of these crimes. Further, there is an underrepresentation of women in nonfelonious crimes, such as those involving property. Depictions of women as criminals are also sexist, in that they focus on certain types of crimes considered particularly reprehensible and unfeminine, such as women’s murder of family members, in particular of husbands and children, or as socially unacceptable, such as prostitution.

In terms of the relation to justice, women criminals are shown to be transgressive in two ways. One, they defy normative standards of feminine behavior, to be passive, to be subservient in their relationships to men and the state, and to be gentle, supportive, and domesticated. Two, they also transgress legal norms, thus violating the paternalism of the state, as well as of their gender assignments. Not incidentally, murdering a husband was considered a form of petty treason according to Early Modern English law. For this reason, in the majority of dominant representations of women criminals, whether in fiction or in reporting, the woman criminal receives a symbolic punishment that is commensurate with the symbolic violence she has done to the normativities of gender roles and governance (Klein, 2015). Such depictions of women as criminals address and calm the “cultural anxiety” that this figure evokes, both in relation to dominant social hierarchization and to a legal system that is based on paternalistic privilege (Jones, 2003, p. x). Therefore, in dominant representations of women and crime, they are presented as “guilty objects” that due to their excessive femininity or deviance, are rightfully subject to the marginalization, violence, and objectification they suffer under in popular cultural narratives (Kamir, 2006, p. 32).

Women as Justified Criminals

Early popular cultural texts punish the transgressive woman by literally killing her off in the course of the narrative. This was meant to be understood as an act of poetic justice, even if some negotiation and breaking out of cultural norms was also expressed by the text. Thereby, the patriarchal order of the world was restored. Yet a new motif was prominently explored from the end of the 19th century: Since this time, there has been a questioning of the troping of the woman who commits crime as being “guilty.” Rather, it is suggested that social circumstances render a woman unable to react to her social subservience in any other way than with violence, often by murdering her direct oppressor, her lover or husband. Thus, Thomas Hardy (1891) called the murderess Tess in Tess of the d’Ubervilles “an innocent woman.” In Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles (1916) and in the short story based on the play, “A Jury of her Peers” (1917), the author shows that women recognize the signs of a husband’s various forms of cruelty toward his wife as so pernicious that she had no choice but to murder her tormentor. As the womanly “jury of peers,” these individuals understand Minnie’s enforced subservience to her husband, recognize that the investigating men shall also fail to see the “trifles” that constitute the evidence of the husband’s abuse of the wife or her mariticide. Nor shall they be capable of understanding the grounds for Minnie’s violence. The women therefore chose to exonerate Minnie by destroying the evidence of her crime, which is eminently visible to them. Once again, Glaspell’s play and story emphasize differences of experience in men and women as related to crime, which are then transported on a formal level with the suggestion that the two genders literally see differently. In this early narrative of feminist jurisprudence, the play and short story demonstrate that a paternalistic legal system is designed to promote the interests of men and demote those of women. Gendered forms of violence against women, for instance abuse in the domestic sphere, go unseen. Or, as in cases of rape, they require that the victim prove her victimhood and the guilt of the perpetrator.

Another iconic example of a popular culture representation of women as justified criminals is the film Thelma and Louise (1991; Figure 2). This reworking of the bromance road movie relates the story of why a woman who had been raped in Texas and did not receive justice there reacts with violence to the attempted rape of her close friend. Thelma and Louise’s subsequent crimes are not only justified narratively, but are also celebrated as acts of revolutionary revolt, placing the characters in roles traditionally assigned to men as heroic outlaw figures. Thelma and Louise breaks with binaric images of women perpetrators as either desexed monsters or oversexed femme fatales. Invoking iconography from Westerns, road movies, and U.S. frontier mythology, the narrative follows the protagonists’ breaking out of their roles as wives and girlfriends in subordinated feminine positions (a housewife and a waitress, respectively). Their crimes of second-degree murder, fleeing the site of the crime, armed robbery, threatening a police officer, and property destruction appear justified according to the internal logic of the film, because the protagonists know that they have no chance of being vindicated in the justice system. Rather, they shall be symbolically raped there again.

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Figure 2. Still image from Thelma and Louise (1991).

They become heroic avengers against patriarchal injustice and transcendent symbols of freedom when they literally appear to be flying with their Thunderbird over the Grand Canyon. One can read the film’s close as an aesthetically pleasing variation of killing off the woman who has committed crime so familiar from earlier texts. Or, one can see this final act of escaping from patriarchal judicial and relational structures as one of sisterly emancipation. As Nicole Rafter and Michelle Brown (2011, p. 164) write, “[C]rime becomes a recourse of expression, one that is sufficiently liberating that the women chose to go forward, rather than back into their caged, domestic existences.”

In the ensuing controversy about the film’s gender politics, a theme became clear that remains central not only to feminist media criticism, but also, for instance, to critical race theory. To what degree does a popular media text need to be politically activist? Beyond making minority figures visible and central to the narrative, does the text need to make these figures into positive role models for all members of that minority?

Sympathetic and Increasingly Complex Women Criminals

Recently, images of women criminals in television have become more complex, with protagonists having neither the sole role of monsters, justified victims, or femme fatales. In general, a diversification of representations of women characters took place that catered to the increasing proliferation of professional women among television viewers (Lotz, 2006). This went hand in hand with a trend in postnetwork television (that is., television after the 1990s), in which the original structures of network television entirely broke apart due to the advent of cable and more television content providers. This included a radical alteration from network-era programming of 30- or 60-minute segments, interrupted by regular commercial breaks, and self-censorship regarding so-called family content, which precluded explicit sex and language, if not violence (Lotz, 2009).

Since then, cable television, and more recently, online TV distribution and production companies like Netflix, have allowed programming to become much more diverse and also uncensored. Through big budget productions, television has taken on a cinematographic aesthetic, with prominent series being treated like auteur cinema in the past, in that they are named after their creators. “Difficult” criminal men like Tony Soprano and Walter White tested what had heretofore been considered to be the limits of audience tolerance for morally bad characters, and have thus been called “anti-heroes” (Martin, 2013, p. 267). They appeared, if ambivalently, to be better than individuals in the cohorts in which they moved—Tony Soprano in the New Jersey and New York mafia and Walter White in the American and Mexican crystal meth drug business (Carroll, 2004).

The association of “quality” television with dramas and melodramas involving criminal men, such as The Wire (2002–2008), is not unimportant concerning the general elevation of television from a low, popular medium to one that is taken with great critical seriousness (Harris, 2012). Once attributed to a feminized, domestic daytime space, such as the hearth of the living room, television is now associated with high culture, cultural sophistication, and habitus (Hassler-Forest, 2014; Paul, 2016). This includes viewers’ ironic stance toward the material they watch. The dominance of violent male melodramas in so-called quality television is not coincidental, as it may undo the work of feminist media criticism. Serials concerning dramatizations of violent struggles for hegemonic masculinity, such as The Sopranos (1999–2007) and Breaking Bad (2008–2013), are considered “tragic” and Shakespearean, and deny these serials’ melodramatic elements. The feminine precursor to Breaking Bad, Weeds (2005–2012), by contrast, in which a formally privileged suburban mother becomes a marijuana dealer after her husband’s death in order to maintain her family’s lifestyle, may not have received as much critical acclaim as the later show due to the series’s presentation as a woman-centered comedy, with a half-hour format, versus the 40-minute-plus, allegedly more serious form of male-centered dramas and melodramas (Nussbaum, 2013).

There are exceptions. Two recent television series serve as examples for the new prominence of complex women characters, or female antiheroes in crime shows. These are Gemma from Sons of Anarchy (2008–2014) and a whole cast of supporting characters from Orange Is the New Black (2013–present). In Sons of Anarchy, Gemma Teller Morrow is the female head of a small-town Californian motorcycle club and criminal organization. More specifically, she is “old lady” to the president of the club and mother of its heir apparent. Gemma displays qualities of both a Western hero and an outlaw. She violently protects her family members, friends, and the club, sustains unreal amounts of violence without breaking down, including a gang rape and beating that is intended to destroy the club. She figuratively rises above her personal pain to further the club’s and her family members’ interests. Quite willing to use violence in order to get what she wants, Gemma also commits several murders, acts of assault, and property damage that may appear justified to audience members, given the even worse acts of violence of those around her, for instance, the white supremacists who raped her (Fine, 2012, p. 158). Thereby, Gemma breaks down binaric images of masculine aggression and feminized passivity. In terms of her costuming and habitus, she is presented as very sexy and as enjoying sex very much, but also as a devoted and overly involved mother and grandmother, who, if need be, can also be entirely unsentimental. To locate her abducted grandson, she is willing to kidnap and threaten at gunpoint a baby girl in an orphanage. As did Tony Soprano and Walter White before her, Gemma and related women characters arguably test the limits of the audience’s willingness to remain invested in a character with highly negative characteristics. This is particularly the case after she murders her son’s wife, Tara, a person of whom she was very fond and groomed to be like her.

In Orange Is the New Black (Figures 3 and 4), a women’s prison is entered through the focalizing agent of Piper Chapman, a well-educated, upper-middle-class, and normatively attractive white woman who has agreed in a plea bargain for criminal conspiracy and money laundering that occurred while she was dating a woman drug dealer several years previously. The audience initially sees the Litchfield women’s penitentiary through Piper’s uncomprehending and increasingly enraged eyes, a perspective that probably resembles their own. While Piper encounters one form of enforced power abuse, misogyny, and racism after another, the real story is about the other inmates. True to the actual composition of women’s prisons, the inmates are overwhelmingly women of color, poor women, and women who have been abused and socially marginalized because they are poor or queer. The series gives such figures visibility and also breaks with Hollywood standards of normative attractiveness in women characters that insist that all women on screen should look like Piper. A sense of visual diversity is transported in the series’s credits, in which extreme close-ups of actual women inmates’ faces are interspersed with visuals that emphasize the series’ carceral setting and the relationship between the inside and the outside of the prison.

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Figure 3. Still images from Orange Is the New Black.

Feminist Perspectives on Criminal Justice in Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 4. Still images from Orange Is the New Black.

The audience learns of these women’s back stories in flashbacks that focus on one inmate in each episode. Through these flashbacks, the reasons for the inmates committing crimes are depicted—usually material or emotional, caused by relationships with men—and these characters are figuratively exonerated by the narrative logic of the story world, or their actions are made understandable, as are the more fundamental forms of injustice in the U.S. American penal system. This includes the sexual and economic exploitation of women by male guards, the racism endemic to sentencing (particularly in relation to drug use, etc. Orange Is the New Black has been criticized for overdramatizing inmates’ violent crimes. In fact, the vast majority of women inmates are in jail for nonviolent, drug-related crimes, are mothers, and suffer from mental problems (Irwin, 2015; Soules, 2015). Nonetheless, the series has made visible a panoply of women figures that were virtually absent in television. And it has specifically raised awareness for the multiple forms of discrimination against transgender women of color through the actress Laverne Cox.

Women and Law Enforcement

Crime series remain a staple in popular media culture. Crime genres include police and detective procedurals, legal series, prison series, murder mysteries, and reality shows concerning “true” crimes. The most prominent aspect of popular cultural representations of women who persecute crime as policewomen or detectives or who defend alleged criminals as lawyers is the disproportionate focus on violent crime—rape and murder in particular—as compared to actual crime rates. This coheres with the relative lack of representations of women that police and legally prosecute property crimes. This suggests that women are disproportionately shown as victims of violent crime, perpetrators of, or as those who police such crimes. The resilience of the dead-woman trope and the related figure of the dead and sexually violated child continue to be demonstrated in series such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999–present) or the first season of True Detective (2014).

In the same way that women criminals doubly transgress societal norms, women detectives, and to a lesser degree women lawyers, combat, on the one hand, the traditionally male-centric police and judicial cultures, and, on the other hand, challenge stereotypes of women as passive victims of crime, rather than as the prosecutors. An important early example of a television show that positively features women detectives was Cagney & Lacey (1981–1988), about two women detectives in New York, one married with children, the other single. That the series focuses on two women buddies redirects the viewer’s subjective experience from the usual male perspective to a female one, and it makes the relationship between the two women characters central to the story. Think of the Bechdel test. In terms of generic evolution, the move from a focus on male detectives with no back stories and families to more troubled ones, with divorces, child custody struggles, and alcohol issues, is now replaced by women whose private issues revolve around topics such as breast cancer and how to combine child rearing with professional work.

Cagney & Lacey preceded the British police procedural miniseries Prime Suspect (1991–2006) whose investigation of an unfeminine extremely insightful detective dramatizes not only the protagonist Jane Tennison’s battles with the sexism and misogyny of the police force but also with her own unhappy personal relationships. Importantly, the format of the show in multiple episodes surrounding individual criminal cases also led to more serious critical engagement with the show and its protagonist.

Arguably, the single, childless, and alcoholic Cagney and Tennison paved the way for a variety of complex women detectives, such as Detective Robin Griffin in the recent international series Top of the Lake (2013). Cagney and Lacey and Tennison also precursor a variety of brilliant and socially autistic women detectives, who follow more in the mode of Sherlock Holmes figures. They include Sonya Cross in The Bridge (2013–2014), an American adaptation of the Danish-Swedish Broen (2011–present); and the bipolar and brilliant antiterrorist operative Carrie Mathison in Homeland (2011–present).

Women Lawyers

In some ways, the new emphasis on women detectives is a manifestation of a generic evolution (Nunn & Biressi, 2003). As the figure of the white male detective became passé, he was replaced or augmented by detectives played by men of color and women. The same might be said for the single-woman lawyer, a regular trope in television, who arguably serves as a synecdoche for changing social attitudes about professional women. Amanda Lotz distinguishes two narrative strands for women lawyers in 1980s television. Either they appear unable to resolve the gendered difficulties of working in the legal profession, as in L.A. Law, or they balance family responsibilities and their work lives with superwoman aplomb (Lotz, 2006, 145). Like Andrea Press (2009), Lotz diagnoses more retrograde depictions of working-women lawyers during the 1990s. They are epitomized by the postfeminist figure of Ally McBeal, whose career choice as a lawyer is the fallback option to her not having become a suburban mother, and whose physical persona cohered with the narrowcasting that allowed for only thin white, normatively attractive women to be seen having a professional life.

The figure of the woman lawyer in television became more complex and ambiguous in the corporate lawyer Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife (2009–2016). Yet as the title of the series indicates, this legal procedural, like so many women lawyer shows, is more interested in gender politics, in this case the cultural politics of being a wife and a “good” one, than in crime or criminal justice. Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder (2014–present), in some ways reprises Glenn Close’s role in Damages (2007–2012), as a lawyer whose ruthlessness extends to her committing crimes and covering up murders. Yet, as in the first-season scene in which she removes her wig and cries, Keating appears to be more vulnerable and aware of the implications of her manipulations of law.

Women Judges

Another manifestation of popular culture’s interest in women who persecute crime are the wealth of syndicated judge shows that proliferated since the 1990s and which featured an actual former woman judge who presides over a fictionalized court setting. These women-judge shows replaced male-centered ones such as The People’s Court, when it was presided over by Judge Joseph Wapner (1981–1993). The overrepresentation of women judges and women judges of color in these pseudoreality judge shows such as Judge Judy (1996–present) is not as emancipatory as one might think: the visibility of a woman in power dispensing legal justice as a role model for women. Rather, these shows suggest against actual statistics that the legal world is more integrated and diverse than it actually is (Banks, 2008). Moreover, Judge Judy promotes a “conservative neoliberal ideology” (Olson, 2013b, p. 31) that suggests that women plaintiffs are at fault for their own problems and promotes a retributory and punitive order of justice (Foust, 2004).

Such syndic-court shows substitute strong women figures, often women of color, in the place of what was traditionally male one in order to reify a retributive model of justice that corresponds to the punitive turn in American penal politics since the 1970s. The substitution of a tokenized minority figure, here a woman in place of the overwhelming number of male white justices, renders conservative penal politics more palatable: After all, that it is a woman verbally abusing the more than 70% women plaintiffs to tell them how stupid they are renders the scapegoating of these women more palatable. A history of systemic sexism, in conjunction with racism, is visually erased.

How Can Feminist Work on Representations of Pop Culture and Crime Be Done?

In approaching pop culture and crime from a feminist perspective, one may ask to what degree a masculinist vision of justice and penalty is portrayed, questioned, or reified. Does the depiction of crime, and that far more slippery concept of justice, allow for women’s subjectivity in relation to it? How do generic expectations shape these depictions? Is the intended addressee of the text gendered as female or male? How do the formal means of the telling or showing contribute to the text’s depiction of the relation between women and justice?

In film and television, the formal means comprise the mise en scène, cinematography, and sound. These are the type of questions one may ask as one pursues a feminist approach to popular culture and crime, which perforce has a transformative intention.

Further Reading

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