Is having a strong female protagonist enough for a mystery to make up for their apparent thrill in having weak victims? I mean, how bad can the antagonist be if he only picks on damsels in distress and children?
Some of my earliest reading was Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, and I love watching mysteries. My taste has, shall we say, matured since then, and now I like more of the thriller variety of crime drama. Lately I like to watch murder mysteries from all over the map. (For instance, these European crime dramas listed in New Republic). I like a good protagonist to battle wits with a worthy antagonist, whether or not our hero is a powerful female character.
I just think there ought to be a murder mystery equivalent of the Bechdel test.
If you’re wondering about the Bechdel-Wallace test, it asks that movies have at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. An additional requirement? That these females have actual names. For more explanation, check out this explanation by Melanie Russel, “The Bechdel-Wallace test and how it can help us.”
I am proposing that we try to find, write, create, and put on the air more crime dramas that don’t get caught up in fetishizing rape and the victimhood of powerless women and children. I love mysteries, but why do they so often involve sex trafficking? Are murderers only compelling if they have a propensity for separating the weak from the human herd?
Prime Suspect was ground-breaking television. Who doesn’t admire Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Jane Tennyson, the intelligent and incisive detective, whether she wades through sexism or outmaneuvers her privileged adversary. But the story centers on rent boys and the systematic abuse of young boys either left unchecked or perpetrated by people charged with their protection. Why can’t the bad guys pick on somebody their own size?
I am currently watching the Icelandic series Trapped, and it is definitely better than some. Unfortunately, though, we begin the series with an accidental death of a young girl, complete with gratuitous tasteful European-style nudity. We also have a side-plot involving the trafficking of two Nigerian girls, one sister a teenager and the other an toung child. The series treats this as cringe worthy and doesn’t seem to glamourize it, but still, it’s there. I’m about halfway through, and the murders seem to have something to do with a land deal with the Chinese or something, which is another murder series motif.
Many Americans will be familiar with The Killing, set in Seattle and based on the Denmark series. (There’s a reason this genre is called “Nordic Noir”). The strong female lead uncovers a landscape of depravity around the killing of, you guessed it, a teenage girl.
The Missing is another series that is complex, emotional, and definitely well-done. However, both seasons deal with kidnapped children who are victimized.
The Australian Deep Water centers around violent killings perpetrated by a man using a gay hook-up app. Not all the male victims are physically weak, but much of the story shows how vulnerable and powerless the victims are against a system that has turned a blind eye for years.
The Bridge, first done in Sweden, the it begins with a body found on the border between Copenhagen and Malmo, is full of intrigue and, of course, dead prostitutes. The same series was retold centering on the American/Mexican border as The Bridge and the French/British border as The Tunnel.
France’s Witnesses has a first season centering on a perpetrator with a healthy preoccupation disturbing fixation with family and grave digging, but the second season is all about kidnapping women, putting them in a re-created set resembling their high school bedrooms, and “marrying” them to create some sort of devil-worship babies.
The British version of Wallander is almost darker than the original Swedish Wallander. Both series based on Henning Mankell’s flawed (male but conscientiously feminist?) detective explore a variety of foul killings that don’t always have a sexual component.
Perhaps because it, too, is based on a popular and acclaimed book series, Vera also stretches into many different kinds of murders. She battles a harsh landscape to uncover cold-hearted antagonist
She is the boss, leading and directing her team to the truth, but it is ultimately Vera herself who outsmarts the killers. (Anne Cleeves’ novels are also the basis for Shetland.)
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good mystery and many of these dramas feature strong female characters. They even have women who have names and titles, talk to each other, and they’re active agents who don’t sit around and discuss men. They often discuss the criminals they’re after, who are often male, although that isn’t quite the same as two ladies discussing the husbands they want to catch.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I would be happy to entertain discussion about crime dramas that are worth watching, whether or not these shows are worth watching.