The women taking over TV crime drama

Feature Louisa Mellor 4 Jun 2014 - 07:00

Lindsay Denton, Robin Griffin, Catherine Cawood… modern TV crime drama is overflowing with great women characters…

“Granny’s been in a fight”.

That’s not something you often hear from young boys on TV, much less followed by a matter-of-fact, “she was chasing this scrote and he kicked her in the face”. “Did he get away?” the boastful grandson is asked. “Hell no”.

That exchange, from Happy Valley’s second episode, sums up a shift afoot in modern crime drama. Women in TV crime are no longer just the sexy sidekick, femme fatale, strangled prostitute or pert corpse on the slab - they’re the leads. Grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters; married, divorced, single; keen runners, pianists, swimmers, cat-owners… They’re not all cut from the same cloth, nor are they empty nods towards diversity or ‘find and replace’ stand ins for male characters. They’re women, flawed and heroic, solving crimes, chasing scrotes, and attracting audiences of millions.

But surely there have always been great women in crime TV. Absolutely. A few. Miss Marple. Jessica Fletcher. Cagney & Lacey, Jane Tennison, Dana Scully (though, admittedly, her remit was mostly lizard people and aliens), Kima Greggs. Next to Cracker and Morse and Frost and Bergerac and Poirot and Luther and Lewis and Rebus and Sherlock and Taggart – just to list the tall poppies - the women in the crowd start looking a little sparse. Until now, that is.

May we introduce Catherine Cawood, Happy Valley’s detective-turned-local-sergeant played by Sarah Lancashire? That woman in the orange cagoule eating chips behind her is DS Ellie Miller, Broadchurch’s golden-hearted gumshoe, irreplaceably brought to life by Olivia Colman (yes, they have technically replaced Colman with Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn for the US remake, but that’s America). Speaking of which, meet Fargo’s Molly Solverson. We mentioned Dana Scully earlier and while that may look like her, you’re mistaken, it’s actually The Fall’s DSI Stella Gibson.

Skulking in the background and glaring at you to turn your music down is Keeley Hawes' DI Lindsay Denton, a riddle wrapped in a mystery underneath a badly cut fringe. Chatting in the corner are partners Scott & Bailey (Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp), next to them is Brenda Blethyn in a Paddington Bear hat, playing Geordie DCI Vera Stanhope. Sarah Lund needs no introduction of course, but perhaps you haven’t met Saga Noren from The Bridge, or her Gallic counterpart, Elise Wasserman. And that flash of lycra who just ran past on her way to the New Zealand wilderness? That’s Det. Robin Griffin, Top Of The Lake’s young Kiwi copper (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss), a specialist in catching child abusers.

As you’ll have gathered, today’s trend owes more to Sarah Lund than Hetty Wainthropp. The modern female TV detective isn’t busying herself with sabotaged singing contests or the case of the missing ornithologist. She’s investigating drug dealers and punching murderers in the solar plexus. “Catherine, what have you done to your face?” scrote-chasing granny Sgt Cawood is asked in Happy Valley, “Oh” she says wafting the concern away “It’s work”. Because that’s exactly what this new crop of female detectives do: their jobs.

Few are brilliant, trouser-chasing, alcoholics with tragic backstories, as they would be were TV writers just making a Davina out of a Dave. That doesn’t mean their personal lives are uncomplicated. There are enough broken engagements, estranged offspring and secrets in these women’s pasts as befits anyone with the poor fortune of being born to a gritty TV drama. They’re also far from perfect, but then, who’s a lead without a flaw these anti-hero happy days?

Take Sgt Cawood, the creation of writer Sally Wainwright (Last Tango In Halifax, Scott & Bailey) and actress Sarah Lancashire. She gives an efficient introduction to herself in the opening episode of the superb six-part BBC drama: “I’m Catherine by the way, I’m forty-seven, I’m divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict, I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson”. Cawood makes that speech to a would-be suicide in broad daylight, minutes in to episode one. She doesn’t need a whiskey bottle or some noir-y shadows to confess her deep, complicated trauma. With the school run to do and drug-dealers to rugby-tackle, frankly, who has the time?

Sally Wainwright gave a simple explanation when asked why she chose to make her Happy Valley lead a woman. “I love writing about women, they’re heroic”. She’s not wrong. Cawood may channel Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon when she, puffed out from chasing dealers around the estate, tells herself, “you’re getting too bloody old for this Catherine, love” but with a tide of crime and exploitation to fight on her patch, she’s slowing down for nobody.

As well as being gripping, tremendously performed drama, Happy Valley also acts as a wish fulfilment fantasy for women who’ve ever wished they could stand up for themselves and other people without fear. The series symbolically redistributes power from a vile young misogynist to a grandmother pushing fifty. In one scene Catherine reduces a street heckler to tears in front of his macho mates and barely breaks her stride doing it. She’s not a bully, understand, that wouldn’t be the attraction. Catherine Cawood is a menopausal Buffy the Vampire Slayer, going where we’d be afraid to and slaying metaphorical monsters. And we love her for it.

Top Of The Lake’s young Robin Griffin is at the other end of her career, but just as satisfying to watch. In the course of six episodes, she kicked a chauvinist rural police station into line, glassed a rapist, confronted a paedophile, went up against the ultimate patriarch in Peter Mullan’s Matt Mitchum, and rescued a pregnant child from her abuser. The character had her own reasons for specialising in child protection - the traumatic origin story now a prerequisite of TV detectives - but Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s creation was another weapon against violence to women and children, five foot two of compact, gendered justice.

Every bit as dedicated to her work is Lindsay Denton, the lead in Line Of Duty’s second series. Her investigation into the disappearance of a fifteen year-old-girl who disappeared from her foster home plays second fiddle to the drama's main intrigue around Denton’s corruption charges, but it’s another instance of a woman detective on TV going up against the criminals who abuse vulnerable girls and think they’re untouchable.

Crucially, there are also wonderful men in these women’s lives. Caring, loving, justice-seeking men like Top Of The Lake’s Johnno and Jamie, Happy Valley’s Richard and Daniel, even Broadchurch’s grumpy Alec Hardy. This new trend is by no means anti-men – who’d watch such lopsided, untruthful drama? It is righting a patriarchal imbalance though. For years, male characters have been heroic on television, rescuing victims and bringing justice to monsters. Now, women are doing it. They’re saving children, fighting rapists, and protecting people from male violence. After decades of watching men be the heroes, it’s exhilarating and cathartic to see women joining them.

We salute them then, Catherine Cawood, Robin Griffin, Lindsay Denton, Ellie Miller and more. They’re modern crime TV’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, protecting girls and children from misogynist and patriarchal abuses, and making fantastic, ratings-winning TV in the process. Are they going away anytime soon? Hell no.

Read our spoiler-filled review of the Happy Valley finale, here.

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I do not watch anything like this, it just isn't on my radar. And if I can be quite frank, no offense mean't, I do not come to a site like Den of Geek to read about general entertainment shows like crime dramas. I come here to read about the sci-fi, fantasy, horror, superhero genre type stuff that isn't really concentrated on as much or with as much love elsewhere. If I want to read about this sort of show I'd pick up the Radio Times or something. Please don't sell out and go all mainstream on us like Digital Spy (a once great site I used to frequent daily) did - what next? A regular update on the soaps..?

I do watch things like this, and I had observed the trend as well. Nice analysis! Now when such a trend can also come into being for Sch-fi, fanatasy and horror I would be even more pleased!

"Selling out"? Seriously, looking at crime shows - something not new to this website (see Broadchurch reviews from a year ago) - is classed as selling out? Tosh, says I. And roughly what percentage of articles are to do with crime shows anyway? I've just looked at the front page of this site and, of the 36 articles listed on the main drop, there is ONE review for Happy Valley and, at a push, an analysis of Minority Report. By that yardstick, roughly 95% of this website is NOT to do with crime. (It's a crude measure, I know, but I can't look through the entire website!)

Evidently some people do like crime drama, and there's no reason why it shouldn't fit in on a website like this. Hannibal is part crime-drama. Sherlock gets reviewed. Captain America 2 was a conspiracy thriller for the first two acts. Hell, even Doctor Who has some episodes with murder mystery/crime solving elements (Unicorn & The Wasp, The Next Doctor, The Crimson Horror). These shows have an audience that evidently DoG writes for; it's just a different framework of storytelling.

Finally, given it's free content, you could just ignore the articles that don't interest you. I've not read a Happy Valley review, any articles on Being Human or Walking Dead content, or indeed anything to do with PC/PS4/X-Box 1 games as I'm not really interested in them. That doesn't stop me enjoying analytical pieces like this one, or Doctor Who/Game of Thrones/Marvel Universe articles that I AM interested in.


(For now. Mwwhahahaha)

Very good read. I agree with everything you said and I think this is a very good development. What I also really, really like is that most of these shows are not shows about female detectives. They're about the inner workings of a small community (Broadchurch) or what happens to a group of people on the edge of civilization (Top of the Lake) or the different layers of society and how some decide over the fate of many (The Killing). The fact that all these shows have female leads is treated as completely natural and not made much of. And it's this general acceptance that I find far more rewarding then any Jane Tenisson fighting the chauvinist male dominated policeforce. (The Fall's Stella Gibson is a bit of an acception here but I still really like that show and ultimately it's more about the psyche of the killer than Stella's struggle with the police force) A lot of these shows are in my top 10 but not because they feature strong female detectives but just because they are thrilling, smart and meaningful.

If you're looking for a sci fi show with a strong female lead I recommend Real Humans. It's a superb sci fi show with not one but two strong female leads. (allthough one is initally made to look more like a supporting character) The complete first season has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray and season 2 will be out in two weeks.

What a tool.

I'm sorry to say but you're being extremely short sighted. crime drama's can be geek stuff as well. The Killing (original) for instance was a cult tv-show long before it became mainstream. Also one of the most talked about shows among my geek friends right now is True Detective (a male chauvinist dominated crime drama that I still really like) Being a Geek doesn't mean you only watch sci fi and fantasy shows. That's living up to the non-geek person's expectations. A real geek watches the things that engage him or her on a personal or intellectual leven and goes to sites like these to rave about them. Regardless of whether they are sci fi, fantasy, crime, historical or any other genre you can think of.

So my advice to you would be: branch out. Look a little further than what you already know. You might be surprised at what you'll find.

Oh and if you don't want DoG to go mainstream than the first thing they should do is cut the Game of Thrones reviews. Because virtually everyone watches Game of Thrones these days. There's hardly any show I can think of that is more mainstream than Game of Thrones. Broadchurch for instance by comparisson is very niche tv.

(please don't cut the GoT reviews DoG)


This is such a gayboys article

Hardly taking over, interesting article but the headline pushes all my buttons. We are finally getting a few decent shows where women aren't just victims,wives, girlfriends or the feisty young PC who looks hot in a uniform and suddenly that is women taking over.

There have always been good strong female roles in detective drama but as you say they are normally eye candy or victims, sometimes both at the same time, but a bit more representation is hardly a sign that the job is done or that we need less of them now.
Reminds me of that study that was done, can't remember the full details, but they showed people a video of a conversation between a man and a woman, being careful to give both the same time talking, the majority of viewers had the impression that the woman hogged the conversation.
Not saying that we need a 50/50 split of male and female characters but calling a couple of high profile shows evidence that women are taking over is a bit daft.

Then how come you read it?

Well, the headline is in a progressive tense... It is a process, a starting one. I like to be optimistic too, so I won't blame them for THAT.

I fail to see how that would be a bad thing.
I also fail to see why gay men would be more interested in watching shows with interesting women than heterosexual men who are supposed to be into, you know, women.

That's the slightly more mature answer to his comment, yes.

I don't know if I should thank you or be less serious because it was probably just a well-meant joke that was not very correct...

As a heterosexual male I beg to differ.

I know what you mean, I'm being a bit nitpicky, but that is my way.
I just happen to have read a couple of similar things recently and it feels we are setting ourselves up for a backlash.
I am a bit sick of every show with a female lead, or as in the case of Broadchurch and the Bridge, joint lead, being lauded for its characterisation of strong women like there is a one size fits all template.
Not this article in particular but what, for example, do Saga from the Bridge, Catherine from Happy Valley or Ellie from Broadchurch have in common apart from their reproductive organs?

I hate the way that all female characters are tied together like this, feels like a way to make the representation of half of the population seem like a fad.
This week strong women, next week earth mothers, week after that lets get back to that all time favourite naked women.

Because I am a gay boy! Clue is kinda in my username, Genius over here jeez

It's a fair point, thanks. Perhaps "The women changing TV crime drama" would have worked better. That was more my intention here.

Ha ha! You just admitted you were gay! Ha ha! Everyone laugh at CaptainBallSack!

I hate the "strong female character" trope too, but I think this article dealt with it pretty well, without equating all the characters to a single template. I read it more as "female protagonists" than as "strong female protagonists".

Also, now that we are into it... If we are talking Scully, maybe the protagonist of Sleepy Hollow would fit too? I've just watched a few episodes of that show, 3 or 4, and they had a pretty procedural pattern. And she is a police officer, and she looked like a well fleshed-out character!

How does your name imply that you are a gay male? You're not just a Captain whose name is BallSack? You're Captain of Ball Sacks? Does that imply you're male? Does being a Captain of Ball Sacks make you sexua lly attracted to them?

My issue isn't with the 'crime drama' genre as such - it's with the type of modern British 'gritty' crime dramas of which there is a huge abundance of at the moment and which my wife watches several times a day, every day. You'd all get sick of 'em too if you lived here :) There's always someone sobbing or some sort of tension, and there's enough of that in the real world and on the news. I watched these when I was younger and went off them eventually. I do in fact think I am quite broad-minded in my tastes in films, music, books, etc.. though I'll definitely admit my initial comments didn't do anything to put that across particularly well, but that's only because I saw this article (following on from the review yesterday) and thought "oh no, not this again, it's even on here now!!" :) It's like I can't escape from it. So I apologise, I just kind of reacted, only human, had just got up this morning, etc, and I'm sorry about saying this site might be selling out, and accept all rants, raves and criticisms as valid and deserved, and now I'll slink away kind of embarrassed never to be heard from again, well probably not that last bit -

Little fact: half the shows mentioned here are not British. The Killing and The Bridge are Scandinavian shows, Top of the Lake is from New Zealand and The Fall is Irish.

As someone who's been watching crime series for a long time I can tell you this generalization thing is kinda part of the genre regardless of gender. Previously there was endless chatting about "tormented blokes sitting in a pub" in that sense it doesn't matter that Morse and Dalziel are worlds apart or that Frost compares in no way to Wallander. In the end they're all classified as "tormented blokes sitting in a pub".

A huge abundance of them in general on TV... Not a huge abundance of them on this site or mentioned in the article.

And a few more:

Continuum, another superb sci-fi series with a female lead (Rachel Nichols) and two (or more, depending on when in the series you look at it; Luvia Petersen, Lexa Doig, Jennifer Spence, Magda Apanowicz ) supporting female roles.

Orphan Black with Tatiana Maslany playing the lead and numerous other supporting roles.

Possibly Lost Girl for the fantasy niche, definitely no where near the quality of Continuum or Orphan Black and the characterization is almost entirely "hot woman who kicks ass" rather than "interesting and compelling character who is female", but it can be somewhat entertaining.

Digging in the past a little also brings up Sanctuary with Amanda Tapping, fairly cheesy at times (but Gouda, not American).

Ms. Tapping also had the Stargate projects, but I haven't seen any of those, so can't comment, and she has also directed a few episodes of Continuum.

Agreed. White knights, neckbeards and manginas unite!

Captain Arsecrack.

The Fall is Northern Irish, actually, so no, it's still British.

(And Top of the Lake was a BBC co-production plus Jane Campion, but I guess that's a whole other conversation.)

Well considering most geek media websites cover Sherlock for some reason, I don't find this at all surprising. And anything is better than their wall-to-wall Doctor Who coverage of last year.

Not entirely sure if you were replyig to me (as it says above your comment) or to Christine but personally I tried all of these shows and didn't like any of them. That being said I have bit of a peculiar taste and am not a fan of Canadian sci fi in general. (ReGenesis being the exception)

Thank you for mentioning Kima! I miss the characters of The Wire...

There is nothing more nauseating than to listen to the American women on TV with their non-stop verbal onslaught of not just assertion but aggression EVEN in TV Ads. The males behave more Feminine and courteous. It is become a sickning source of Entertainment so thank goodness their is utube and what one wishes to read online. This has got to be connected with drug use like farrrrr too much caffeine.

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