I’ve recently become obsessed with Criminal Minds. I’ve always liked crime procedurals, was a die-hard CSI fan before it became repetitive, and often plop myself on the couch in front of an episode of any version of Law and Order to kill time. The effect of Criminal Minds has been far more dramatic – I am hooked. And the funny part is, it really isn’t that great of a show. I stumbled across a rerun of a recent episode of CSI with Marg Helgenberger and Lawrence Fishbourne as the leads, and it was vastly better. Criminal Minds has several addictive properties which probably have to do with the fact that its more cerebral and has a hypnotic way of compartmentalizing violence like listening to a fifth grader’s science project on natural disasters. It makes you feel good that someone out there is making sense of the world, and that they also happen to be exceptionally good looking.
But Criminal Minds has got some major issues, and its with women. We’re not talking about how the majority of victims are women and the villains are men (every procedural has that issue, it only a reflection of reality), or even the recent hoopla over the firing of A.J. Cook and possibly Paget Brewster, though it is related. I just don’t think that the brains behind Criminal Minds know how to write women.
The reason why I think this has only just come to mind with this show is partly due to the great essays on Overthinkingit.com that I’ve been reading about Strong Female Characters, as opposed to female characters that are “strong.” It’s also partly due to the fact that Criminal Minds really is exceptionally bad in this department. Sexism in prime time television, particularly crime procedurals, is pretty common (again reflective of reality, women are actually pretty overrepresented in TV procedurals compared to their numbers in law enforcement in real life). But it’s typically not this bad. Take the aforementioned CSI. There have been more men than women on that show, and more of the men have been in leadership positions. However, from the beginning it has had remarkable female characters that are not traditional knock-outs, whose primary purpose is not to be a love interest, a shoulder to cry on, or a frigid bitch and who over time have evolved to be leaders and great thinkers living independently of the men in their lives while still remaining within the scope of the show.
It’s not that you don’t see the same two-dimensional male characters that fall into the correlative tropes and trappings. You do. It’s that when you do have a fully fleshed out character, with evolution, faults and depth, that character is more likely to be male than female. Criminal Minds has great male characters. Aaron Hotchner and David Rossi are both hard-ass father figures with a tendency to be overly aggressive and snuff out close personal relationships; Derek Morgan is the good-looking bull-dog who dealt with abuse as a child and thus is highly protective over vulnerable people but has the Zeus-fault of making promises he really shouldn’t; and then there’s the wonderful woobie Spencer Reid, the perpetual hot mess, brilliant but emotionally and sexually repressed and endearingly child-like. All of them have had gorgeous highs and gut-wrenching lows, they’ve made painful mistakes, had inspiring successes, and while they learn from them they still carry many of their neuroses with them.
Now let’s look at the ladies. Penelope Garcia is easily the most developed, and while I hate to say it, its probably because Kirsten Vangsness is fat. Sorry. Garcia is gifted at what she does, adorably sociable but feels far too much responsibility for those she’s close to. Then there’s Jennifer Jareau, the ambitious, picture perfect small town girl and Emily Prentiss, the daughter of two diplomats who was raised more by privilege and expectation than her parents. Sure, we know what makes them tick – like many women at their level of success, they’re driven by a strong level of competition and the compulsion to prove themselves. But what are their flaws, really? Are they too aggressive, too passive? How far are they willing to go to get what they want? What do they fear the most? What do they do to escape from weight of their jobs? As Shana Mlawski said so wonderfully, “You know what I say? I say screw Strong Female Characters. What we need now are some Weak Female Characters.”
Real people, and thus characters that reflect real people, are messy. The CM writers get their guys messy all over. They gave Reid a drug addiction, a history of schizophrenia, daddy-abandonment issues and some sort of mysterious illness that seems to be looming its head for later episodes. Morgan confronted and put away his molester and mentor, and Hotch beat to death his ex-wife’s murderer (a storyline, might I add, that was an epic case of fridge-stuffing the tight-assed bitch who was keeping our heroic leading man from fulfilling his masculine duties as a father. Like, holy shit guys.). Can you imagine them using any of these stories with J.J. or Prentiss? God forbid, they might mess up their hair.
J.J. and Prentiss certainly have back stories and history, and the episodes that centered around them have been some of the bests. But generally, the way they show J.J. angsting is by having her stare into space occasionally, while Prentiss mumbles some poorly written line about the nature of what they do, and even then those fractions of moments rarely carry over into the overreaching arch of the show. They are rarely tried in the present tense, certainly not as thoroughly as their male counterparts have. The only female character that was at least beginning the trajectory that creates a satisfying and complete character was Elle Greenaway, and we all know how that turned out.
Criminal Minds does seem to be making an attempt with a new addition to the cast, Ashley Seaver, an FBI cadet whose father was a serial killer. Again, they use backstory rather that present value and action, her benefit to the team is slim at best, and her big moment involved her wandering into a serial killer’s home and whimpering about how sorry she was for what her father did. To top it off, she seems to be a vanilla version of another character played by the same actress, in another profiling show that only aired four episodes (there are twelve in all that aired overseas, which you can find online if you hunt a little) a year before Criminal Minds debuted, called The Inside. Like Seaver, Rebecca Locke lives under an assumed surname, has a tortured past which her team relies on for insight into cases and she frequently was held captive much like the way Seaver was in her debut. However, Locke did not just stand around, cry and wax philosophical about the man who hurt her. She was an angry, damaged person who frequently jumped the gun and was overly aggressive towards those who hurt the weak and vulnerable, much like Agent Morgan, lacked emotional maturity and social skills, like Dr. Reid, and despite her efforts to build herself into a person who wasn’t kidnapped and raped as a child, she continually casts herself as the victim in every scenario she encounters. Rebecca Locke was all kinds of messy. I have a feeling this was part of the reason why the show was cancelled.
But why the hell am I talking about a cancelled show? Some of my favorite shows – Fringe, House, Lie to me – all have great female characters that are well fleshed out, flawed and interesting, and with the exception of 13 in House, very little backstory is used to manage this. And with the exception of House, they’ve had far fewer seasons than Criminal Minds. Part of this has to do with a smaller cast – Fringe benefits from this, as well as having recurring cast members on multiple sides of the story. The lead is Olivia Dunham, probably one of my favorite female characters on TV, who is incredibly bad ass when she needs to be, believably empathetic in others, but deeply haunted by the amount of shit that is piling up around her. If that wasn’t good enough, we then got to see a different version of her with the alternate universe storyline – an Olivia who has more carefree, perhaps not as smart, but nonetheless equally dedicated to her work. From the beginning, Olivia Dunham was a fully though-out character down to her undies – literally, when she stripped in the first episode, she wore modest black lingerie (her alter wore white). She is no nonsense, serious business. When she was held captive in an alternate universe, she shot a gas tank, kidnapped a taxi driver, and swam from the Statue of Liberty to shore to escape, all without entirely knowing who she was.
It’s not that J.J. or Prentiss or even Garcia wouldn’t crawl their way out of their own grave to survive – give me a couple of hours, and I could write that fic for you – but we just never have gotten the chance to find out. They are characters that are dealing with the same kind of stress as their male counterparts, have had to cross the same bridges to get where they are, so why aren’t they treated with the same level of exposure? The Inside toed a very precarious line with the way Rebecca Locke was portrayed – her constant peril was almost fetishistic (alright, it was totally fetishistic), but at the same time it was true to the character and story, and the show was willing to walk that line because they wanted to go into that dark gray area between pain and pleasure, sex and violence that most shows don’t want to touch. If the writers of Criminal Minds wanted to avoid objectifying their leading ladies in this way, I can understand that, but then why is OK to do it Reid? Let’s face it, his pain is beautiful, and there is a reason its him that’s always getting kidnapped and threatened and not Morgan or Hotch. He’s androgynous and prettier than most girls, and in a way serves as a female stand-in, to which the writers can attach all the conflict and baggage they crave and not feel guilty. I’d be offended if I didn’t enjoy his character and everything the show puts him through so much.
But its clear that from the evidence of characters like Olivia Dunham, 13, Catharine Willows and Gillian Foster that you can put the weight of the world on a woman’s shoulders and still her wounds do not have to define her. 13 may have had whole plot arch centered around her genetic history, but when she up and left, she did it on her own terms. The past tested her in the present, and her departure was her testing herself. So go ahead, let the ladies roll up their sleeves and get a little messy. That’s all I want from any show – I don’t need a pretty new girl. I want to see what the old ones are made of.