Last week I was looking into the split of shows where the show is named for the main character, when said character is queer. They were an even split of comedy and cop. While this straight line wavered considerably when I looked at more and more queer led (though not titularly so) shows, it did make me wonder why cop shows.
Now, I know that saying ‘Batwoman is a cop show!’ can be a little divisive, and it may seem like a stretch, but the reality is that it’s not. It’s showing us ‘heroes’ who fight crime. Even so, the first drama on the “Big Three” networks that was headlined by a lesbian character was Tommy. And it was a cop show. And no, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
It’s not a secret that the police shaped Hollywood. For decades, television has pushed ideas that cops (and by extension the military) are for the most part troubled heroes. Even if there’s a problem one week, it rarely carries over to the next. There are few, if any, bad shootings, and the cops who are found guilty are the ‘rare’ bad cop.
Anyone looking at the real world in 2020 would probably snort-laugh, disparagingly, at the concept.
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, at the same time CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News were airing live coverage of the nationwide protests against police violence, cable audiences also had other options for what to watch. On PopTV, there was a marathon of NCIS: New Orleans. On WE, Criminal Minds. On WGN, Blue Bloods. On Ion, Law & Order: SVU. And on USA, a marathon of Chicago PD that began 11 hours earlier and continued until Sunday morning, followed by an episode of CSI.Cops Are Always the Main Characters By Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture
It’s not an accident. Even shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine are incredibly effective propaganda machines. We look at Law & Order and CSI and see heroes trying to save us. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine we have a chance to watch the hijinks of an incredibly diverse band of police that are culturally different and safe to laugh at.
Steven Thrasher in particular derided Brooklyn Nine-Nine and said it was “a way to really keep people accepting the police and to get them not to question the institution.”
The police story is something indelible in American television. Armed with a gun and his true heart, an officer steps forth to do right. Television glamourizes the ideas about policing that, perhaps ironically, are fundamental in dividing the United States. And this is all at the behest of the all-enchanting dollar, both in drawing in an audience with action, and with funding.
Make Us Look Good
Everyone has a wish to look ‘good’ on TV. We want the LGBTQ+ characters to be the heroes because, after 60 years of having queers on TV, it’s only been the latter half where we began to regularly be the positive stars. So for the police to want to be portrayed in a positive light is both understandable and, to a degree, laudable.
Back in 1910, the International Association of Chiefs of Police condemned the baby movie industry, and adopted a resolution to formally state as much because “the police are sometimes made to appear ridiculous.” They were, of course, referring to things like the Keystone Cops.
Related to this, in 1915 the Supreme Court argued that the censorship law in Ohio, which forbad negative representation of the police in television and movies, was not, in fact, a violation of rights. This changed 37 years later, but the gist then was that movies weren’t going to get First Amendment protection.
What we see today on television is primarily due to the 1950s show Dragnet. The actor, and creator, Jack Webb made a deal. The LAPD had veto rights on the scripts in exchange for access to equipment, fast-tracked permits, and off-duty officers to play extras.
For all its pretensions to accuracy — each episode began with the sonorous promise, “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true” — the version of the LAPD that Webb presented was the one [LAPD chief William] Parker wanted the world to see.How Police Censorship Shaped Hollywood by Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post
There is a drive in all of us to be accepted. We want to be seen as good people so that others will be inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt. We want to encourage the next generation to keep pushing and moving us forward. Part of this means we want, on a basic level, to be integrated visibly in all aspects of the world. From the barista to the dentist, queer people are everywhere in our lives, so should we not be also in the police?
At the same time, it’s impossible to untangle the relationship of queer rights (or truly any rights for any minority) from antagonism with the police. Stonewall was a riot, first and foremost, and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was the official United States policy on military service by queers from 1994 to 2011. Even so, DADT was considered progressive at the time, because the alternative was simply to not permit queers to serve at all.
Having queers in the police has brought us to an interesting, if depressing place. If we work under the assumption that the police are still pressuring (be it via money or other methods) Hollywood to have a majority of positive portrayals of the police, then it stands to reason that the police see a benefit to having queers on the fictional force. The obvious benefit is that by pushing the conceit that ‘most cops are good cops’ and showing that some cops are queers, it draws a line of ‘the good queer cop.’
A somewhat less obvious benefit is that by giving the queer minority a positive representation within the police, it engenders a feeling of trust. Queers are more likely to trust their own, and believe that the same-ness of their shared queerness will be more important to the queer police officer than the uniform. In short, just like everyone else, we’re being trained to trust the police, thus furthering their agenda of generally positive representation.
Queer or Cop
What the propaganda machine does its best to disguise is the reality that when a real person joins the police, they are forced to adopt the archaic but ongoing Irish Machismo of the force. This is a common underpinning of the fictional force as well, but it’s always painted in a positive way. A character is not giving up their self identity and uniqueness, they’re finding strength and power in the uniform and the brotherhood.
This creates an inequality of shared identity. The uniform, which has provided for the fictional character a veneer of acceptance and found-family, becomes more important than the unchangeable aspects. A queer will always be queer, but they may not always be a cop, and yet the uniform and what it represents is now more important.
Furthermore, this reinforces the claim that most cops are good cops. If a queer character is show with positive representation, is always the hero, and is a cop, then it stands to reason that it really is just ‘a few bad apples.’ Of course, this isn’t true, and it’s been demonstrably proven that a police officer who is a minority will generally side with the police rather than their ‘otherness.’
There are shows out there which challenge the narrative. Both Homicide and The Wire are two examples which tackle the racial and sexist ideologies of the police, showing us the nuanced complexity of being an ‘other’ while also being part of the mainstream majority. Still, for queers it’s not until we look at a show like Orange is the New Black that we clearly see the injustices by the police. Yet even then, a series about women in prison often ends with any queer officers choosing the uniform over their queerness.
So Why Cop Shows?
Both Batwoman and Tommy are shows where the title character, our main character, is a queer who fights crime. Part of Kate Kane’s story is that she wanted to serve, like her father, and yet made the daring choice to be the ‘other’ and not lie about being queer. As remarkable as that story is, the end result is still that Kate joins the ranks of superheroes, donning a costume and embracing the same fight as her father.
Unlike Gotham, where we see all cops are bad cops, Abigail ‘Tommy’ Thomas leads a diverse group of police officers and tries to change the world. She too is shackled by the same backstory. Her father was a cop, her grandfather, and so on. Tommy always wanted to be a cop, to be the kind of good person she saw, and to make up for the bad ones. And in Tommy’s Los Angeles, many cops are good cops.
From both we learn that if a queer woman can embrace the strict lines of what being ‘the police’ means, she can have success. But both warn us that if she steps out of those lines, if she deigns to have a love life, if she goes against the boys’ club, she will be discarded. This quickly becomes a win-win situation for the propaganda machine. Join or die becomes the mantra, and in order to have a successful series with the support of the police, the character further the police-positive narrative.
This makes a cop show, or a vigilante show, a ‘safe bet.’ The main character is sexually off-limits by being a queer woman (in both Tommy and Batwoman, they are lesbians), and thus ‘one of the guys.’
[Brooklyn Nine-Nine] Series co-creator Dan Goor originally imagined that Capt. Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher, securing his place in the fictional police hall of fame) would be a character whose career was constrained by homophobia. But Jon Murad, a technical adviser for the show, pointed Goor to the example of Charles Cochrane, the first New York City police officer to come out as openly gay. Murad convinced Goor that an officer like Holt might have been embraced as proof of the department’s progress, but in the process, might have been turned into a mascot and denied the opportunity to do real police work.Blue Lives: Pop Culture’s Minority Cops by Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post
In both Batwoman and Tommy we have our safe mascots, making it no surprise at all that the first non-comedy shows to be named for their queer-female main characters, are both about law enforcement.
Looking to understand more about the history of police in Hollywood? Here are some places to get you started:
- Protests against police brutality spur reflection on TV cop shows Social Sharing, by Jessica Wong – CBC
- Normalizing Injustice, by Color of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center.
- How 70 years of cop shows taught us to valorize the police, by Constance Grady – Vox
- Cops Are Always the Main Characters, by Kathryn VanArendonk – Vulture
- How Police Censorship Shaped Hollywood, by Alyssa Rosenberg – Washington Post