Some of my nearest and dearest are devoted mystery fans…mysteries of different generations. I too, have enjoyed detective shows on television since I was very young. And if you search the Amazon Prime history on my television, you’ll usually find the following three shows listed almost daily: Scooby Doo, Perry Mason, Remington Steele. Different generations, different formats, different people sitting next to me while they are on, but mysteries all. And lately, all this mystery watching has made me reflect…on just how truly important of a role women play in these types of shows.
Take that groovy cartoon Scooby Doo, for example. Let us discount Daphne as a caricature of every damsel in distress; instead of introducing a new female each week, they just drew her in. However, if one watches enough of the “gang” and trust me, I have over the years, then it becomes apparent that it is usually Velma, not Fred who is meticulous about gathering the information, observing the situation, and solving the mystery at hand. He, more often than not, makes the declaration and rips the mask off revealing the villain underneath (and boy is there anything more amusing then that in each episode? It’s as if their entire head lifts off and reveals another one!) but without Velma’s help, he’d be almost as clueless and Shaggy and Scooby. Yes, Fred Jones might be the spokesperson for the “gang” but there’s no doubt that Velma is the brains behind the operation.
My personal favorite detective is none other than (pre-James Bond, Pierce Brosnon) Remington Steele. I watched at my mother’s knee when I was a little girl and am delighted to have re-discovered it on my Amazon Prime! Here, they don’t even attempt to hide the fact that Laura Holt is the brains behind the operation…as she said in the cold open intro every week “ I do the work, he takes the bows.” Of course, as their partnership and the series progressed, it became more of a give and take between them and he became essential to almost every case they were hired to solve. By the time the series concluded, they were equals, partners and each provided the other with backup and support when necessary. It went over my head as a youngster, but watching now, it is interesting to see how they advanced that storyline over the course of five years. It went from a man taking the credit for a woman’s hard work, to a man and woman learning to work collaboratively to get the job done.
You might think that the collaborative model in crime TV is a relatively new one, but in fact, it’s been around way longer than the two shows I just discussed. The timeless classic Perry Mason (which I somewhat unwillingly discovered, but now am quite fond of), has had the perfect example of that partnership since it premiered in 1957. Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale were the perfect professional couple on television. You never saw Perry at his desk or seated in the courtroom without Della at his side. And yet, it was rare to see her opening mail, bringing him coffee, or acting like his staff member…rather she was in on all the meetings right from the start, was always in court, and carried an air of “no-nonsense” about her daily. It’s interesting to note that there was none of this “will they or won’t they” drama surrounding this duo, Della was there to work and work she did; often serving as Perry’s sounding board to flesh out his theories.
And what’s my point, you might be wondering right now? It’s simply this; the concept of men and women working together as equals is not exactly a new concept. It’s been watered down and become murky, but it has existed since televisions only came in black and white floor models. Sometimes, the best way to change the way we view something in society is to go back and look at the original model. And, in the genre of TV detective, the model was quite ahead for its time; an essential female character who was not the love interest, the meek sidekick or the femme fatale…but who could hold her own against the titular character of the show.
Now, I have no trouble with Abigail watching Scooby Doo. In fact, when she is older, I am sure I’ll be introducing her to Mr. Steele as well. ( She’s met Mr. Mason…she’s not a fan!) Do I think that because of the role Velma and Laura play on the shows that she’ll perceive that women are not equal to men, that their role is secondary, that the man should get the credit for a woman’s hard work? No, of course not. I think, even at 7 ½, she can see the tropes in this television stereotype and even at this young of an age can recognize the brains behind the operation in a classic cartoon. However, I make certain I point it out to her as well, and remind her that as she gets older, her goal should be to be the voice of reason, the leader, and never ever the follower of another, be it a man or a woman.
The same message is sent out daily within the halls of 2572 Kennedy Boulevard. Since 1878, Saint Dominic Academy has been working hard to dissuade young ladies of the notion that the roles they play in the world are secondary ones. Long before Della assisted Perry, the Caldwell Dominicans tried to instill in young women a sense of equality; often working against the stereotypical norms of society at any given time. While we’ve come far and progressed in leaps and bounds when it comes to women’s equality issues, let us never forget for a moment that from 1878 onward, Saint Dominic Academy was putting women in the spotlight, not as sidekicks but as leaders.