The box office success of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 should have led to a run of formula films featuring smart, determined female characters fashioned after Jodie Foster’s fledgling FBI agent, Clarice Starling. But that didn’t happen, leading Linda Mizejewski to wonder why.
In researching the question, Mizejewski turned her love of women’s detective novels and films into her own piece of investigative work, Hardboiled and High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture, published in 2004.
Mizejewski, a professor of women’s studies at Ohio State, was familiar with the characters populating contemporary detective novels by Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell, and Janet Evanovich. Her research led her to examine the history of women detectives as portrayed on television and in films, as well.
Mizejewski’s search for answers about Clarice Starling and The Silence of the Lambs seemed to lead to the age-old Hollywood double standard. “The difference between the male and female detective role in films is that the man just needs to be smart. Looks are secondary,” says Mizejewski.
Foster’s Clarice Starling wasn’t particularly glamorous or sexual. And therein lies the problem. “Hollywood isn’t sure what to do with this type of female character. The detective role has traditionally been male and typically is not centered on romance. So there seems to be a nervousness when it comes to a female character with no romantic ties doing such a masculine job,” Mizejewski says.
In the real world, women have been performing these jobs since at least 1972. That’s when Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in public law enforcement hiring practices. It was those first female police officers who eventually moved into the ranks of the first female detectives. In turn, those real-life roles provided fodder for the new female detectivegenre. Gone were the days of mere sleuths like Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
According to Mizejewski, 1982 was a watershed year for female detective novels. The heroines of several series debuting that year were “hard-working women with domestic and financial problems,” she writes in Hardboiled and High Heeled. “They were loners, wise about taking care of themselves, skilled with a gun and ready to use it if necessary.”
While readers liked these characterizations in written form, that same year television networks faced problems with the inception of the detective show Cagney and Lacey. Mizejewski writes that the lesbian overtones of two aggressive women in a man’s job, despite their overtly straight characterization, caused the network to replace actress Meg Foster, who looked too “butch,” with the more “feminine” Sharon Gless.
Mizejewski further points out that the sexual tension inherent in female detective stories is the very ingredient that sustains the storyline. “Men are not the main attraction. We want [the woman] to move on to her next adventure, not get weighted down with a husband and kids.”
And move on she has. The number of novels featuring female detectives has tripled every five years since 1985, and more than a hundred series now feature such characters. Television executives also have gotten a clue and moved away from the comic male-female detective pairings found in Remington Steele and Moonlighting. Shows like Cold Case, Crossing Jordan, and the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series now showcase woman detectives who are educated, capable, serious, and independent.
Movies, however, have returned to more glamorous female characterizations. It seems Hollywood is most at ease when its female gumshoes are sporting high heels.
In Miss Congeniality, released in 2000, Sandra Bullock, as FBI agent Gracie Hart, wins the title and the heart of her previously aloof partner when she trades her tomboy image and hiking boots for a bathing suit and high heels. In Hannibal, a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling, now played by Julianna Moore, receives a pair of red Gucci pumps from Hannibal Lecter. It’s a mocking reference to the more sensible shoes Foster wore in the first movie.
Still, Mizejewski believes the characterization of Clarice Starling was a turning point. “It made the female investigator character respectable and visible.” Even in the more glamorized film Out of Sight, when a federal marshal played by Jennifer Lopez must choose between her professional integrity and love, she maintains her respectability by sticking to her ethics.
And gender issues seem to melt into the snowy Minnesota landscape for the police chief in the movie Fargo. The pregnant Marge Gunderson, in Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance, is governed by neither female emotions nor the female condition.
“Gunderson’s heroism isn’t fussed over or fetishized. It’s all in a day’s work … even her pregnancy is treated as unremarkable,” writes Mizejewski in Hardboiled and High Heeled.
What is remarkable is the ever-growing selection of quality female detective tales. So, tonight, why not curl up with a novel or a movie – and a nice glass of chianti.
Article originally appeared in The Ohio State Alumni Magazine.