Watching the Detectives: On TV’s Finest and “Girl Crushes”

I’m not sure when I first noticed a very specific common thread in many of my favorite movies and TV shows. I think it was Scully – dear, rational Scully – who triggered my self-actualization. She would be proud of the scientific solidity with which I can now say: I fall in love with lady detectives.
There’s just something about Olivia Benson (Law & Order: SVU) wrenching herself toward justice despite her emotional involvement with a case, about Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs) turning corners in basements and minds with self-assured precision, about Dana Scully (The X-Files) honoring friendship, wide-leg pantsuits, and the truth with unwavering reliability, that draws my eyes and heart in a way nothing else can.

Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) on Law and Order: SVU

I have thought about this pull at length and have decided the reason for my endless capacity to watch, talk about, and search out GIFs of these characters is the same reason there are so ridiculously many detective shows and movies in the first place. The crime movie and the monster of the week offer dramatic catharsis, but they also give us some highly satisfying role models. In almost all cases, our detective protagonists are unusually competent: by-the-book (or not) investigation skills, physical strength, and knowledge of the type of arcane classical references that serial killers apparently love — all rolled into one neat package!

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in Silence of the Lambs

This competence is (usually) just as prevalent in female as in male detectives, sometimes even more so thanks to the TV-enhanced womanly powers of intuition and wiles. This means that my lady detectives offer something that far too few female characters do: skill and career commitment combined with beauty and drama.

Maybe I focus too much on the beauty and the drama. Certainly Olivia, Clarice, and Scully are all pretty in a certain white, TV way. There are too few lady detectives of color, and I, I admit, have not sought them out as much as I could. I also feel traitorous for responding positively to the many ways that Hollywood puts even its most competent women in display cases. Every moment I spend dwelling on regal noses rather than substance, murder, and intrigue is a little victory for the patriarchy. Yet these moments are a part of my ongoing detective-watching ritual (I am still only halfway through The X-Files, so please do not tell me anything) that I would struggle to dispense with. Maybe in part because of the scarcity of these role models, I relate to my beloved lady detectives in a very personal way.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) in The X-Files

What I have described as love for these characters is often referred to as a “girl crush.” I am not a fan of the term. The “girl” qualifier makes female-on-fictional-female infatuation seem smaller and more trifling than other types. As with “man-crush,” there is also a certain, delicate homophobia involved with making sure everyone knows you don’t have, like, a real crush on a member of the same gender.

I do not have a “girl crush” on Olivia, Clarice, or Scully. For one thing, none of us are “girls.” They are savants, experts in their fields, servants of justice. I am a woman on her way to emulate them, at least in the sense that I will someday be able to tell people “I’m a medical doctor” before swooping in to provide my unfailing knowledge, possibly while wearing a pastel blazer and a brooch. I should note that I use “lady detective” jokingly (which only I am allowed to do) – attaching qualifiers to these fictional women’s occupations is just as condescending as “girl crushing.”

The fact remains that my relationship to these characters is more than a crush. Olivia, Clarice, and Scully are media role models of a type we do not see often enough. They are strong, competent, and ingenious. I want them to take me into their homes and lives and consult me as an expert on their cases and go out for sushi with me. But I also want to be them.
What is the proper name for this? I wish I knew.

Molly Munsell 

Community Outreach Chair, What the F Magazine


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