In the decade following Veronica Mars, the transformation of the portrayal, and cinematic focus of female detectives on TV has dramatically changed. By examining both new and existing tropes within contemporary crime series, the display of lone and partnered detective work, and how mainstream television dramas contribute “entertainment” to the reality we live in; we can then further understand how many crime series have begun contributing to the development of empowered, female detectives.
Veronica Mars just may have influenced the need for female detectives to make those witty, one liners during very serious episodes. After all, it was Veronica Mars, a female detective that set the trend for complexed female, empowered detectives going forward. Aside from its catchy theme song We used to be friends, and her clever voice over; Veronica Mars was able to touch on important topics such as: rape culture and justice, community police work, wealth inequality, and dynamic detective partnership. Through flashbacks, the series effectively develops the characters, and sets up the plot. In doing so, viewers can understand what presents the motivation, and conflicts of interests for Veronica. One of the more recent crime series, Broadchurch depicts a female detective, Ellie Miller who is the exact opposite of Veronica Mars. Veronica does not let conflicts of interest derail her from excelling at her police work. In Veronica Mar’s world…she distrusts those around her; and anyone could be a suspect. Veronica investigates crimes associated with her classmates, neighbors, and community by researching, and gaining thorough evidence throughout various episodes.
(Courtesy of Glamour)
Unlike her peers, she is a detective which makes her more resourceful, smart, and knowledgeable about the people she lives amongst, and the reality she lives in. However, these flashbacks remind her of who she used to be, and the world she used to know.
In the pilot, Veronica’s voiceover says, “They gave me a choice. I could stand by my dad, or stand by Duncan and my dead best friend’s family. I chose Dad. It’s a decision I live with every day. And you want to know the kicker? I don’t even know what’s true anymore. Maybe everyone else is right. Maybe Dad screwed up the investigation. Maybe I gave up my circle of friends – my life – over an error in Dad’s judgment.”
After her rape, the loss of Lily her best friend, and the decision she had to make between her father’s reputation, and Lily’s family; Veronica decides to handle it all with strength, motivation and hope. Her dynamic partnership with her father Keith, and her friend, Wallace allows for times of sadness, laughs, and hope. This dynamic partnership may have added to relatable partnerships between detectives in various gender roles, and detectives with different personalities. Contemporary series like Broadchurch, The Killing, present day SVU, and films such as Miss Congeniality, The Heat, Rush Hour etc. present such personal bonds between the partnered-up detectives. Where a dynamic partnership forms between a male and female detective. Nicci Gerrard refers to the show Broadchurch, in her article, “Move over, Morse: female TV detectives are on the case now” stating that “There might be frictions and rivalries, but the two detectives share secrets and a wry humor, drink pints of beer and glasses of wine together, bring humanity and wit to a world of poverty and gruesome murder. The two of them and their female boss normalize female authority in a way that a woman alone cannot.”
Veronica Mars evaluated a character’s development before, and after sexual violence; this in turn focuses mainly on the detective Veronica becomes. Some tropes that I found within the series were: how Veronica hides the fact that she was assaulted from those closest to her within the first season, and how rich kids often receive different punishments than that of others. However, I also believe that the series introduces a new trope that we often see today. Veronica Mars explores the interesting notion behind the victim also being the detective as well. Similar shows like Marcella explores this idea also. “For in this female world, the detective is also a victim. The walls between the professional and private worlds collapse and this allows the viewer to identify with the character…we can never identify with the expert, the invulnerable or the flawless”, says Gerrard.
In introducing the aftermath of sexual violence, viewers could say that Veronica Mars may have used such inspiration from shows like Law and Order: SVU. However, one thing viewers can identify with today is that there is a cat and mouse like game which often forms between Veronica, and the various suspects within each episode because, the series explores the ideas of trust, and peace. Although, the three major storylines involving Veronica’s rapist, Lilly’s murderer, and her mother’s disappearance are not solved right away; there are developments on these three storylines over the course of the series. In her article, “Veronica Mars, ‘TV’s Realest Depiction of Rape, Is Going to Be a Movie” Arielle Duhaime-Ross states, “Of the series’ three main-story-lines, Veronica’s rape was the only one creator Rob Thomas sustained for the entirety of the show. Veronica loses her virginity at a party in being drugged by one of her classmates. She spends the entirety of the series trying to uncover her rapist’s identity and bring him to justice — something she finally succeeds in doing in the very last episode. [There] is [e]xceptionally smart writing, and acting aside, the date rape story-line is what made this particular teen drama different from all that ones that aired before it. Unlike most televised rape accounts, Veronica was no damsel in distress waiting to be rescued.” Unlike many female detectives that came before her, she showed strength, personality, complexity, and uniqueness; Veronica Mars may have started the ongoing portrayal, and trend of realistic, empowered, female detectives, while displaying an acknowledgement of rape culture. This led to series like: The Killing, The Fall, Marcella, and Broadchurch.
The Fall further expands upon a classic thriller’s take on the depiction of sexual violence, and presents a complexed, unique female detective by the name of Stella Gibson. Like SVU’s detective Olivia Benson, and Silence of the Lamb’s Clarice Starling, she helps the serial rapists’ victims, whilst still trying to understand the rapist, and bring him to justice. Only the female detective, Stella Gibson, brings you home with her. Throughout the show, the viewers see beyond the surface as Gibson mixes her personal, and professional life making it extremely interesting, confusing, and complexed. “For this female cast often bring[s] their own psychodramas into the traditional whodunnit, making it rich and bleak and murkily complicated. They are themselves mysteries; they resist easy solutions and the dynamic momentum of plot, which drives forward in spite of the repeated tugs of red herrings, and gets tangled up in the downward pull of character, in the labyrinths of memory, sadness, anger and guilt” says, Gerrard. Stella gets as much of attention as the killer does. Television portrays Stella’s sexuality, and personality from an intimate perspective…and it makes viewers more interested in her character. In this way television has made the detective just as important, multidimensional, relatable, and interesting. This attention to Stella Gibson’s quirky features, views on feminism, and odd personal life demonstrates a change in the way cinema plays a huge role in determining the main focus of a character in storytelling. Gerrard states, The Fall explores notions of femaleness and sexual violence and it does so in a way that is powerfully unsettling and sometimes queasy-making. The camera lingers on its central character: her strongly beautiful profile and the full curve of her lips; her sleek hair, her gorgeous silk shirts (almost as iconic as Lund’s jumper), her shapely calves, the way she looks as she swims, as she undresses. She is itemized, fetishized, turned into a body, watched and assessed. It can feel that the way the serial killer watches his victims is eerily replicated by the way the camera watches Gibson.”
(Courtesy of BBC)
The Fall also addresses the “normalized” roles of gender, and challenges the stereotype viewers are historically used to. Viewers see Stella Gibson making out with a female colleague in one episode, and having sex with her male detective partner in another. Stella’s personal diary is found by the serial killer, in which presents the issues Stella had growing up with her father; this further complicates her motivations within the case. “She complicates this by her own sexual behaviour; aloof, icy, sexually passionate without being warm, she uses men the way that men traditionally use women. She turns them into objects, the way that women are turned into objects by the male gaze or, at the other end of the spectrum, by the rapist. Gibson, like Tennison or Lund, destabilises the traditional whodunnit. Fictional male detectives in the past have often been robust figures of competence, standing at the centre of the plot, from where they make sense of the incomprehensible, turn chaos into order, join up the clues to find the criminal, restore normality. But we no longer have such a belief in authority (the “Evening, all” of Dixon of Dock Green), in disinterested genius or in absolute answers. The world we live in now is more tentative, contingent and compromised; the doctor, the priest and the detective can’t solve everything”, Gerrard further adds.
Conversation between DCI Eastwood, and Stella Gibson Season 1, episode 3:
[DCI Eastwood:] When did you first meet Sergeant Olson?
[DSI Gibson:] That’s what really bothers you, isn’t it? The one night stand. Man fucks woman. Subject: man. Verb: fucks. Object: woman. That’s ok. Woman fucks man. Woman: subject. Man: object. That’s not so comfortable for you, is it?
This leads many viewers to believe that female detective shows like, The Fall are contributing to recent ones such as, Marcella, and Broadchurch. While Veronica Mars had a smart reason for separating her personal life from that of her professional life; the two female detectives Marcella, and Ellie Miller do not. What do these female detectives have in common? They are all so strongly connected to their community. What makes them so very different is how they entangle their personal and professional lives together. In Marcella, we see this entanglement play out through an extreme, unsettling plot within the first season. It is a classic TV trope that a woman throw herself into her work because, she needs a distraction from something traumatic that has happened to her. In this case, Marcella throws herself into her work to avoid dealing with the fact her marriage is failing, her husband’s affair with Grace Gibson, and most importantly because, she has lost a child, by the name of “Juliette.” Another trope within this show, would be the cheating spouse who causes those closest to him/her damage in one way or another. Lastly, another trope within this show could be that the wife is cheated on, she can’t handle it, and she decides to kill the mistress. What is so enticing about Marcella, is the fact that viewers can witness a dirty detective’s destruction from the abuse of power. Marcella goes to great lengths to depict Marcella as someone who is innocent to viewers.
Several major things about female detectives which have changed is that the female detectives are much more involved within their show’s plots, they also are more complexed, and they have trouble with keeping their personal lives and professional lives separate. Marcella depicts a female detective as a victim like Veronica Mars had. Except Marcella only appeared focused when covering up her own tracks, but distracted when making life changing decisions, which makes things much worse for her. Marcella has an interesting way of showing how Marcella has been affected by the aftermath of the changes that took place within her personal life. “Fictional detectives are often loners, but being women makes them doubly alone. Many thrillers are about good and evil, but these thrillers are about being human, flawed and in trouble. They make us care not only about the outcome – the satisfying narrative click is still there, if sometimes a bit muffled – but also about the characters. We identify with them, fear for them, want them to be happy, know they won’t be, want to own their shirts, or jumpers, or coats. For a while they are more real than our reality”, says Gerrard. However, we are at odds with her complexed character, because of her violent outbursts, the terror she inflicts upon her husband, witnesses, and suspects.
(Courtesy of The Odyssey)
In Broadchurch, viewers see a visually compelling story revolving around the death of a child in a small town. The series presents a much different female detective; however, she is very much involved within her community. Very much like Marcella, it’s all about separating one’s personal life from their professional one. Detective Ellie Miller struggles to separate how she perceives her community as a detective from her role within her community as one of its members. This causes a conflict of interest for her when she begins to investigate the death of a boy who happens to be her friend’s son. This is a realistic portrayal of a conflict of interest that probably happens for those who work within the criminal justice field. Because of the investigation that follows the boy’s death, many suspects, stories and secrets are explored. As the investigation happens, Ellie Miller, the local detective takes a backseat to avoid this conflict of interest within her community which can be just as dangerous as abusing one’s power as depicted in Marcella. This female, empowered detective is much different than what we originally saw within female, detective characters that previously followed. However, it follows the trend of complexed, damaged, and flawed female detective in very fragile situations. In his review, “A Murder Haunts a Rugged Coast” Mike Hale states, “It’s a pre-eminent example of what could be called the new International Style in television drama: a moody, slow-moving, complicated crime story with damaged heroes and not much redemption to go around.” The cinematic focus in this show is fixed on the location of the town, emotions and expressions on people’s faces to heighten the overall mood. The way that television presents this dynamic partnership is personal. By putting two totally different personalities on a case together; it focuses on developing the weak traits of each. This female, empowered character certainly challenges the “normalized” gender role women normally play on TV by paving the way for women to doubt, challenge, and grow their skills in police work. Although Ellie Miller is doubtful, and defensive most of her role, she overcomes this by working alongside the main detective, Alec Hardy. In response to the trend of messy resolutions within many series like this one Gerrard states that “[L]ives have been wrecked and grief cannot be assuaged. It uses the old tropes to make new meanings. There can’t be happy endings anymore. Female detectives represent this new kind of reality because, they often become implicated in the stories they are trying to make sense of. Women, however defended they are and strong, have a vulnerability about them simply because of their gender.”
(Courtesy of BlogSpot)
I think it is important to realize that both men, and women can be depicted in all sorts of ways. Men are often shown as having little emotion within situations where women will have lots of emotion. But showing vulnerability is not based off gender, it’s all about cultural norms. The recent depictions of empowered, female detectives on television have been portrayed as ones with success, complexities, flaws, a range of sexualities, and determination. In creating empowered, bold female characters television is addressing the “normalized” roles of gender, and challenges the stereotypes viewers are historically used to. However, I do think that television is defining these women in a way that shows their inability to keep their personal lives separate from what is professional; Males struggle with this also. The evolution of female detectives has come a long way. The one dimensional, stereotypical, “normal” female detective no longer exists because, the provisional truth of the world we once knew no longer exists.
Duhaime-Ross, Arielle. “’Veronica Mars,’ TV’s Realest Depiction of Rape, Is Going to Be a Movie.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 14 Mar. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/veronica-mars-tvs-realest-depiction-of-rape-is-going-to-be-a-movie/274028/
Feeney, Nolan. “Veronica Mars: One of TV’s Realest Depictions of Wealth Inequality.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Mar. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/03/-em-veronica-mars-em-one-of-tvs-realest-depictions-of-wealth-inequality/284383/
Gerrard, Nicci. “Move over, Morse: female TV detectives are on the case now.” The Observer, Guardian News and Media, 5 Oct. 2014, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/oct/05/female-tv-detectives-move-over-morse
Hale, Mike. “A Murder Haunts a Rugged Coast.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Aug. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/arts/television/broadchurch-a-dark-drama-arrives-on-bbc-america.html