Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It's Dangerous to Be a Woman Out There, Especially on Criminal Minds

Luv huh.
Okay, I’ll confess here that I haven’t actually watched Criminal Minds in a couple of years. There are a couple of reasons for that (not enough time, too many other better written shows to watch, only so many serial killers you can watch before it gets dull), but the biggest reason was different.

Simply, Criminal Minds kept beating women.

I mean this in two different ways. First, the female characters on the show experienced a disproportionate amount of trauma as compared to the male characters, and second, the actresses were treated in a much more offhand way than the actors.

When I say that the female characters experienced a lot more trauma, I don’t mean this metaphorically. Criminal Minds is a cop show, or an FBI show to be specific, and the characters are FBI agents with the highly regarded Behavioral Analysis Unit. The show is reasonably sexually diverse, with women usually making up about half of the team. The ones we’re going to be talking about are the women that I remember most clearly: Agent Jareau, Agent Greenaway, Agent Prentiss, and Technical Specialist Garcia.

Starting at the top, we have Jennifer Jareau, fondly called JJ. JJ is a sweet country girl who acts as the press liaison for the team, and is very good at her job. She figures out what cases they should take, and deals with the local law enforcement to make everything as smooth as possible. She’s also a badass with a gun, a relic of her country upbringing.

But things aren’t entirely sunshine and roses for Agent Jareau. In her backstory we discover that she was a victim of violent crime before she ever decided to become a fed, and her history on the show has made her a target more than once. There’s the time she’s attacked by dogs. The time she’s forced to kill the gunman holding her team hostage. And then there’re the many times that she is forced to worry about her husband and child as they’re put in the line of fire. But JJ doesn’t have the worst lot by far.

Elle Greenaway was the introductory member of the BAU. She appears in the pilot episode as an ambitious agent looking to make it to the big time. Because of her performance in that case, she gets promoted. Elle is a very good cop. She’s an excellent investigator, fearless, and fun. She has a cool sibling-like relationship with most of the other agents, and even goes so far as to vacation with them.

Which brings us to the bad. While on vacation, Elle finds a dismembered body in her hotel room, is questioned as a suspect, and later shot in her own home by the murderer. He then sticks his hands in her wounds and writes a message on the wall. After the attack she refers to feeling violated, and mentions that her home is no longer hers. Not exactly unexpectedly, she goes a bit nuts during a rape case and shoots the suspect. Shortly thereafter, she disappears from the BAU, never to return.

Cheerful, huh?

Okay, Prentiss technically comes next, but we’re going to skip to Garcia instead. Penelope Garcia is the team’s technical specialist. She’s fun and bubbly and hopelessly geeky. I have to say that I enjoy the crap out of her. She’s very much the kind of woman I’d like to be. Exceptional at her job, and fully capable of still being emotional, she’s a great character.

So of course she is punished. Most of Garcia’s punishment tends to by way of her forcibly seeing the horrible details of all of their suspects. She is the one doing their backgrounds, after all. But on several occasions, she is put in actual danger, and it’s always just a little too personal. Most notably, Garcia is at one point stalked and shot by a delusional serial killer. He then tries to have her discredited and fired. This is all, of course, after we find out that Garcia’s parents were killed when she was in college.

But now we’re to Emily Prentiss. She gets the short stick. A lot. Brought in as a replacement for Elle, at first she was just another brunette with steady hands and a gun. She did grow on us, though. As far as her background goes, Prentiss had a privileged life as the daughter of an ambassador. She grew up all over the world, and is well educated and very smart. But she did get pregnant at fifteen, have an abortion, and later become suicidal, so I guess good connections aren’t everything.

Most of her time in the BAU is about as violent as everyone else’s, but it’s her end that concerns us here. In season 6, CBS realized that with a spinoff coming up and a number of actors that were pulling in a good salary, they had to let someone go in order to afford all their big money stars for the new show. So, they decided to write off JJ and Prentiss. The fans were outraged. And then they proceeded to write her off in a very, very uncomfortable way.

First Prentiss discovered that she was being stalked by a former boyfriend she’d pretended to date for an assignment. She turned him in, and when he escapes he comes after her. So already we’ve got the sexual aspect up and running. He tracks her, she evades him, and eventually she goes to him in order to save the team. He tortures her. She doesn’t tell him anything. And then he stabs her through the stomach with a table leg.

She “dies”, or rather runs off, and eventually has to come back to save the team. Really, though, everyone knew that she came back because of the public outcry about her firing. So Prentiss returns. Later that season, she left again, because the actress was tired of this shit.

Elle takes none of your shit.
So what point am I trying to make here? That being a cop on a procedural is a dirty business? Well, yes. But also, I wanted to point out that the women on this show are disproportionally targeted by the plot and by the producers. It’s a dangerous job, being a woman in the BAU, and there’s something very sinister about that.

I’m not accusing CBS of having some agenda against women, but I do think it’s strange that the two characters they thought of cutting were two of the main female characters, and that when they did cut them, they chose to do it in a sexualized, traumatizing way. It sends a message to its female viewers: you are not safe, you will never be safe. Even if you are capable, strong, and have a gun, you still won’t be able to defend yourself from the murderers at your door.

This is not a message I agree with. And I really hate to think that there are people who do.

In because Reid is adorable. Also the actual most woobified character on the show. He's been shot, stabbed, kidnapped and addicted to drugs. He is under thirty. Oy vey.


  1. The caption on the last picture actually brings up a point I wanted to ask: how does this compare to the treatment of male characters on the show? I mean, if I remember correctly, I thought mostly everyone ends up in some bizarre traumatic situation sooner or later. Or is it just the ladies and Reid? How disproportionate is disproportionate? I mean, is it really sexist if it's equal bashing?

    1. It's sexist in that it's sexualized. Yes, Reid and Morgan are injured a lot too, but they aren't violated. And in the rare cases when a male character is considered to have been put in an extreme situation, it becomes a season arc. When a woman is put in an extreme situation, it's Wednesday. The violence against female characters is more systemic and more taken for granted than against the men. And then the characters are seen as disposable and kicked off the team easily and quickly. So, yes. Sexist.