Female Detectives

Detecting the Bounds of the Law: The Female Detective in Hollywood Film

Philippa Gates, Wilfrid Laurier University

“Can a woman have it all—a husband, a family, and a career? The question is hardly new, but it was back then,” Mick LaSalle notes in regard to Depression-era Hollywood film (184). From her first appearance in nineteenth-century fiction to the contemporary criminalist film, the female detective has struggled to be both a successful detective and a successful woman. As Kathleen Gregory Klein indicates, this was the practice from the earliest of the British detective stories and American dime novels: the female detective—whether American or British, working or upper class—was never allowed to blend effectively the two roles of woman and detective (35). The only female detectives who seem to have avoided this dilemma are those who are either too old—e.g. spinster Jane Marple and widow Jessica Fletcher—or too young—e.g. teenager Nancy Drew—for romantic relationships and thus elude the complications that arise when career and romance compete. The vast majority of fictional female detectives from 1864 to today, however, have been forced to make a decision to pursue either love or detection because the two are seen as mutually exclusive—the former requiring the detective to be feminine and the latter masculine.

Although the female detective was a rare occurrence from World War II to the 1980s, Coma (Crichton 1978) offered a preview of the kinds of female detective films that would appear in the following decade, being centrally concerned with women’s social roles and their problematic relationship with male authority as they struggle to ascend the professional ladder. In fact, when Dr. Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) does uncover a criminal medical conspiracy, she is branded as insane rather than taken seriously—even by her boyfriend (Michael Douglas). Thus, in the 1980s, the female detective—whether F.B.I. agent, private investigator, lawyer, or police detective—struggled to prove her legitimacy in professions dominated by men. While a mystery surrounding a crime motivated the involvement of the female detective in these films, ultimately the mystery to solve was that of the detective’s place—both personally and professionally. In other words, the female investigator struggled with balancing her dual roles as a woman and detective.

The Female Lawyer Thriller

As Elise Elliot (Goldie Hawn) in The First Wives Club (Wilson 1996) explains, in Hollywood, there are only three things a woman can be: “babe,” “district attorney,” or “Driving Miss Daisy.” When Hollywood did offer strong, independent, career women in the 1980s, they were often attorneys—whether publically appointed district attorneys or privately engaged lawyers. The female lawyer thriller was born of the same thematic concerns as the popular erotic thriller cycle that included Fatal Attraction (Lyne 1987) and Basic Instinct (Verhoeven 1992); however, rather than offering a male protagonist who must evade the lethal independent woman, the female lawyer thriller’s protagonist was the independent woman. These female lawyers struggled to attain success and respect in the male-dominated world of the law and tended to be played by actors who carried associations of feminist empowerment: Glenn Close Jagged Edge (Marquand 1985), Cher in Suspect (Yates 1987), Jessica Lange in Music Box (Costa-Gavras 1989), Theresa Russell in Physical Evidence (Crichton 1989), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Class Action (Apted 1991), Barbara Hershey in Defenseless (Campbell 1991), and Rebecca DeMornay in Guilty as Sin (Lumet 1993). Despite her alliance with the law, the female lawyer, like the femme fatale of the erotic thriller, is presented as—as Cynthia Lucia suggests—“dangerously ambitious” and her masculine ambition and independence are overturned by her presentation as “personally and professionally deficient” (33). Ultimately, in terms of their professional lives, these women are proven incompetent as lawyers: they are forced to defer to male authority or proved wrong by a male colleague. In terms of their personal lives, these women are presented as flawed characters, married to their jobs and unfulfilled because they are not wives or mothers.

Wo/man of Action

Debra Winger played the female detective more than any other actress in the 1980s. As Linda Mizejewski explains, “Tellingly, when Hollywood began to portray professional women investigators, the first three were African American, and the next two were Debra Winger” (Hardboiled 114). Winger’s first investigative outing was in Mike’sMurder (Bridges 1984); however, the heroine does not have much investigative agency here and is an amateur. On the other hand, Black Widow (Rafelson 1987) offers Winger not only a serious role as a detective but also a controversial one as a potential lesbian. The film is not interested in the relationships that either of the female protagonists have with men but that which forms between the criminal, Catherine/Mariel/Margaret/Reni (Theresa Russell) and the detective, Alex Barnes (Debra Winger). Black Widow ultimately cannot celebrate a lesbian protagonist but, instead, as Jean Noble suggests, the “strong, sexually expressive female must be closed off, bound, as it were, with the diegetic trajectory and visual strategies for closure” (2).

Action films grew in popularity and dominance in the 1980s—especially cop action films featuring male stars like Eddie Murphy, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis—but audiences did not necessarily seem ready for the woman of action. Hollywood offered a couple of cop-action heroines—in what Cora Kaplan calls “Dirty Harriet” films—including Jamie Lee Curtis’s cop in Blue Steel (Bigelow 1990), Theresa Russell’s undercover cop in Impulse (Locke 1990), and Kathleen Turner’s private investigator in V.I.Warshawski (Kanew 1991). The woman as the action hero represented a transgression of generic codes that dictated that women should be passive in Hollywood action films and let men be the heroes. As Jeffrey A. Brown notes, the reaction to the action woman, both from the public and critics, was mixed: some regarded the action woman as signaling “a growing acceptance of non-traditional roles for women and an awareness of the arbitrariness of gender traits,” while others saw her as recycling the same gender politics of the 1980s’ action film by presenting essentially masculine women (52-3). The failure of the female detective as cop action-hero with audiences and critics was not necessarily the result of the sex of the heroine. The genre of the action film was, in general, entering into a phase of self-conscious parody from Kindergarten Cop (Reitman 1990) and The Last Action Hero (McTiernan 1993) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cliffhanger (Harlin 1993) and Demolition Man (Brambilla 1993) with Sylvester Stallone. The detective genre moved away from the crime-fighting in the literal sense with an emphasis on action and, instead, embraced more of a sleuth-type hero (the criminalist) with a focus on forensics, profiling, and technology as the new weapons for triumphing over the criminal.

Millennial Crime Scene Investigators

The Silence of the Lambs, as Barry Keith Grant notes, “brought serial killing squarely into the mainstream” (23). It also brought the female criminalist squarely into the mainstream. The professional female detectives of the 1980s, like the female lawyer, were presented as professionally deficient: the vast majority of them were unable to bring the criminals to justice within the bounds of the law and, instead they had to pursue vigilante justice (Black Widow and Blue Steel). And the future of their professional careers was often jeopardized (Blue Steel) or they chose to quit (Betrayed [Costa-Gavras 1988] starring Winger) because of their negative experience with patriarchal authority. Silence broke this pattern, however, with a decidedly feminist portrayal of F.B.I. profiler, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who excels at her career. In the 1980s, for the female detective to be successful as a crime-fighter, she must be masculine; however, by the end of the film she is “re-feminized,” typically through her acquiescence to a “healthy” relationship with a male love interest. Silence, however, is one of the few films that does not require its heroine’s re-feminization at the end of the film: instead, Clarice enjoys her professional success, graduating from the academy with her career well underway, without any caveat. In her review of the film, Amy Taubin responds to Ron Rosenbaum’s scathing commentary (published in Mademoiselle February 1991) on the film: “Perhaps what bothers Rosenbaum in The Silence of the Lambs is […] the two-hour spectacle of a woman solving the perverse riddles of patriarchy—all by herself. Clarice’s heroism renders paternalism superfluous” (5 March 1991). Or, as Yvonne Tasker suggests, “The film does not simply allow Clarice Starling her autonomy; it is positively celebrated” (21). Indeed, Clarice is a landmark female detective, essentially breaking the genre’s rules: she is an investigator that is empowered by her femininity and without consequence.

Although Clarice’s example would spawn an entire cycle of female criminalists in the late 1990s and early 2000s—including Copycat (Amiel 1995), Kiss the Girls (Fleder 1997), The Bone Collector (Noyce 1999), Murder by Numbers (Schroeder 2002), (Caruso 2004), Twisted (Kaufman 2004), and Untraceable (Hoblit 2008)—few would be granted her unqualified success as a detective. Instead, the majority of the female criminalist films that followed—especially those in the 2000s—reverted back to the 1980s legal thriller model of tying her “success” with her acceptance of a heteronormative relationship (most often with a male colleague) at the end of the film.

The Crime-Fighting Chick Flick

The female detective has also appeared frequently in recent years in female detective comedies and action films that offer crime-fighting chick flick heroines. Charlie’s Angels (McG 2000), Miss Congeniality (Petrie 2000), and Legally Blonde (Luketic 2001) offer a less serious approach to law enforcement and crime-fighting and are a testament to the popularity of female detective comedies because, unlike their more serious sister films that I have discussed above, they have all spawned sequels: Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle (McG 2003), Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (Pasquin 2005), and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde (Herman-Wurmfeld 2003). Comedy has traditionally been more popular with audiences than with critics and scholars. Although in perhaps a less sophisticated or challenging way, Natalie (Cameron Diaz), Dylan (Drew Barrymore), and Alex (Lucy Liu) of Charlie’s Angels seem to manage to embody successfully (if cartoon-like) the contradictory associations of action hero (masculine) and beautiful woman (feminine)—or what Marc O’Day has coined the “action babe” (201). Although lacking the action component, Legally Blonde presents its heroine, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), as a disruption of normal expectations for its chick flick audience: here Elle’s seemingly vacuousness as a fashion student is contrasted to her ability to make it into Harvard law school and then solve a case (albeit through her knowledge of women’s beauty routines). As Carol Dole asks,

“Can Elle remain a feminine, sexy blonde and simultaneously become a powerful East Coast lawyer? In the age of third-wave feminism and Sex and the City the answer for the film’s target audience of young women must be yes. This is a Hollywood comedy, after all.” (64)

While the Miss Congeniality films might appear more superficial than Murder by Numbers (which also stars Sandra Bullock), they explore the same core issue: a gender-bending heroine who attempts to balance her personal life while hunting a criminal and attempting to succeed professionally in the male dominated world of law enforcement. Whether one takes comedy seriously or not, what one must take seriously is that Armed and Fabulous is centered on the relationship between two strong female characters who succeed in the male dominated world of law enforcement and who consider the most significant relationship in their personal lives the one they have with each other. In other words, while the majority of the (serious) female criminalist films offer qualified or even reductive messages about female empowerment, the female detective comedy offers strong female characters and their successes to slip under the radar without the need to qualify them. Ultimately, however, the image of empowered women that these detective comedies offer is undermined by the very comic tone that facilitates it.


Christina Lane describes the group of female detective films of the late 1980s and early 90s—including Blue Steel, Silence, and Copycat—as “one of the few genres that focus on women’s subjectivities, especially women’s experience as sexual objects” with “investigative heroines trying to overcome their own powerlessness through their conviction to stop some kind of male villain from preying on women” (137-38). This earlier generation of female detective films offered a position of subjectivity to female audiences, a heroine empowered to prevent male violence against other women, and an address of the problems that women faced in a male-dominated profession. The millennial female detective films—criminalist and chick flick—have seen a shift in the debate amongst feminist critics from whether the placement of a woman in the position of the male protagonist of the detective film constitutes a feminist model (as was the debate in the early 1990s), to whether the female detective reflects a feminist (i.e. second-wave) discourse anymore or embodies a postfeminist commodification of feminist discourse. Even if millennial female detective films such asTwisted and Taking Lives imply that the postfeminist heroine have transcended the “problems” of the female detective as feminist because she is now imbued with “girl power,” Mizejewski comments that “the messiness of the crime film—its gendered violence, haunted masculinities, and obsession with the body—resists declaring feminism a closed case” (“Dressed” 126). I concur with Mizejewski who suggests, a “feminist/postfeminist division of the history of the woman detective would foreclose its most interesting questions about gender and genre” (ibid. 122).

Whether the millennial female detective film is consciously articulating questions about the clash between personal and professional life or whether those questions are more the by-product of the attempt to generate drama and suspense, these films echo their predecessors in that their investigating heroines struggle to find a balance between being a successful and respected crime-fighter and being a fulfilled woman—the latter still defined by being in a healthy, heterosexual relationship.

Copyright © 2004 Philippa Gates

Further Reading

For a full history of the female detective in Hollywood film from 1929 to today, check out Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film by Philippa Gates (SUNY Press, forthcoming 2010).


The author gratefully acknowledges that financial support for this research was received from a grant partly funded by Wilfrid Laurier University Operating funds and partly by the SSHRC Institutional Grant awarded to Wilfrid Laurier University.

Works Cited

Brown, Jeffrey A. “Gender and the Action Heroine: Hardbodies and the Point of No Return.” Cinema Journal 35.3 (Spring 1996): 52-71.
Dole, Carol M. “The Return of Pink: Legally Blonde, Third-Wave Feminism, and Having it All.” Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. Eds. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2008. 58-78.
Grant, Barry Keith. “American Psycho/sis: The Pure Products of America Go Crazy.” Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. Ed Christopher Sharrett. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1999. 23-40.
Kaplan, Cora. “Dirty Harriet/Blue Steel: Feminist Theory Goes to Hollywood.” Discourse 16.1 (Fall 1993): 50-70.
Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Lane, Christina. Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Break. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.
LaSalle, Mick. Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000.
Lucia, Cynthia. “Women on Trial: The Female Lawyer in the Hollywood Courtroom.” Cineaste 19.2-3 (1992): 32-37.
Mizejewski, Linda. “Dressed to Kill: Postfeminist Noir.” Cinema Journal 44.2 (Winter 2005): 121-27.
_____. Hardboiled and High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Noble, Jean. “Bound and Invested: Lesbian Desire and Hollywood Ethnography.” Film Criticism 22.3
O’Day, Marc. “Beauty in Motion: Gender, Spectacle and Action Babe Cinema.” Action and Adventure Cinema. Ed. Yvonne Tasker. London: Routledge, 2004. 201-18.
Tasker, Yvonne. The Silence of the Lambs. London: BFI Publishing, 2002.
Taubin, Amy. The Silence of the Lambs [Rev]. Village Voice (5 March 1991): 56.

Selected Filmography

Betrayed. Dir. Costa-Gavras. Perf. Debra Winger and Tom Berenger. United Artists, et al., 1988.
Black Widow. Dir. Bob Rafelson. Perf. Debra Winger and Theresa Russell. Twentieth Century Fox, 1987.
Blue Steel. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Perf. Jamie Lee Curtis and Ron Silver. Mack-Taylor Productions, 1990.
Bone Collector, The. Dir. Phillip Noyce. Perf. Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures, 1999.
Charlie’s Angels. Dir. McG. Perf. Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu. Prod. Columbia Pictures, et al. 2000.
Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle. Dir. McG. Perf. Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu. Prod. Columbia Pictures, et al. 2003.
Class Action. Dir. Michael Apted. Perf. Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Twentieth Century Fox, 1991.
Coma. Dir. Michael Crichton. Perf. Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1978.
Copycat. Dir. John Amiel. Perf. Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter. Regency Enterprises and New Regency Pictures, 1995.
Defenseless. Dir. Martin Campbell. Perf. Barbara Hershey and Sam Shepard. New Visions Pictures, 1991.
Guilty as Sin. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Rebecca De Mornay and Don Johnson. Hollywood Pictures, 1993.
Impulse. Dir. Sondra Locke. Perf. Theresa Russell and Jeff Fahey. Warner Bros. Pictures,1990.
Jagged Edge. Dir. Richard Marquand. Perf. Jeff Bridges and Glenn Close. Columbia Pictures, 1985.
Kiss the Girls. Dir. Gary Fleder. Perf. Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Paramount Pictures and Rysher Entertainment, 1997.
Legally Blonde. Dir. Robert Luketic. Perf. Reese Witherspoon and Luke Wilson. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2001.
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde. Dir. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. Perf. Reese Witherspoon and Sally Field. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2003.
Mike’s Murder. Dir. James Bridges. Perf. Debra Winger and Mark Keyloun. Skyewiay, 1984.
Miss Congeniality. Dir. Donald Petrie. Perf. Sandra Bullock and Michael Caine. Castle Rock Entertainment, 2000.
Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. Dir. John Pasquin. Perf. Sandra Bullock and Regina King. Castle Rock Entertainment, 2005.
Murder by Numbers. Dir. Barbet Schroeder. Perf. Sandra Bullock and Ben Chaplin. Warner Bros. Pictures, et al., 2002.
Music Box. Dir. Costa-Gravas. Perf. Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Carolco Pictures, 1989.
Physical Evidence. Dir. Michael Crichton. Perf. Burt Reynolds and Theresa Russell. Columbia Pictures, 1989.
Silence of the Lambs, The. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. Orion Pictures, 1991.
Suspect. Dir. Peter Yates. Perf. Cher and Dennis Quaid. TriStar Pictures, 1987.
Taking Lives. Dir. D. J. Caruso. Perf. Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke. Warner Bros. Pictures, et al., 2004.
Twisted. Dir. Philip Kaufman. Perf. Ashley Judd and Samuel L. Jackson. Paramount Pictures, et al., 2004.
Untraceable. Dir. Gregory Hoblit. Perf. Diane Lane and Billy Burke. Cohen/Pearl Productions and Lakeshore Entertainment, 2008.
V. I. Warshawski. Dir. Jeff Kanew. Perf. Kathleen Turner and Jay O. Sanders. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1991.

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