An Intersectional Postmortem on Criminal Minds Season 12

The following analysis is presented with thanks to the following individuals for their help:

Francesca P (quantitative analysis)
Carol Tuite (editing)
Maggie GD (analytics)
Siobhan C (analytics)

This analysis may not be reproduced without permission. Findings and observations may be quoted, referenced, and shared with credit and original link. Neither the cast and crew of Criminal Minds, ABC, CBS, nor any other entity endorsed or funded this undertaking. However, if CBS had funded it, it would have been at a lower rate than an analysis conducted by men.


An Intersectional Postmortem on Criminal Minds Season 12

The ability of television to influence viewers’ perceptions and behavior places a burden on creators – one that often goes unrecognized – to produce content that, at the very least, doesn’t harm viewers. At best, creators can accept this burden as an honor and use it to affect positive change. At worst, they can reinforce negative stereotypes that feed structural discrimination and promote or minimize problematic behavior.

Evidence shows that television impacts audiences’ perceptions, particularly among adolescents and young adults, though studies have demonstrated the impact of television across a wide range of demographics. Attitudes and aspirations toward certain careers, including law enforcement, can be swayed in both positive and negative directions, and there is evidence of behavioral changes associated with these attitudes. Views and expectations of sexual activity, single parenthood, intimate relationships, and crime have all been linked to television viewership. Most importantly, for the purpose of this critique, is the evidentiary support for television’s ability to both reinforce and transform attitudes towards gender and race, and in the current political climate, that capability is extraordinarily important.

Diversity and Representation of Women and Minorities

In terms of representation of women and minorities, Criminal Minds went from a show with one character of color in its first season to three characters of color in its current form. Until the departure of Shemar Moore last season, the show had maintained a majority male cast for eleven straight seasons. The gender ratio was briefly balanced for the last few episodes of the season, and actually skewed in favor of the women for one episode when Paget Brewster returned for a guest spot. This season has seen the gender balance shift again as more cast changes have occurred: the departure of Thomas Gibson, the return of Paget Brewster, the introduction of Adam Rodriguez and Damon Gupton, and the intermittent absences of Matthew Gray Gubler and Aisha Tyler. It seemed for a brief time that the show would actually keep its ratio in favor of the women, with Brewster’s Agent Prentiss running the team, which was an enormous – and exciting – shift after eleven years. However, the introduction of Gupton at the network’s behest rebalanced the gender ratio, and it is admittedly disappointing that it was deemed necessary to add another male character, making it the largest cast the show has seen to date and effectively preventing a female majority. With the departure of Gupton for Season 13, there is again a chance for a female-dominated cast, though it remains to be seen whether more cast changes will be made.

While the increased representation of women and people of color is positive, particularly in comparison with some of the show’s peers, there is a danger in the rose-colored image of diversity that Criminal Minds presents. There is virtually no acknowledgement of the challenges that come with being a woman or person of color in an institution like the FBI, an institution that, in reality, does look more like the season one cast. While a diverse cast is important, the failure to acknowledge the systemic obstacles that women and minorities have to overcome in order to achieve and maintain their place in the organization feeds audiences, whose only exposure to many professions comes by way of workplace dramas, a false impression that harassment, discrimination, and sexism are not matters of concern within the Bureau. Or, as Paula Matabane put it nearly three decades ago,

“The illusion of well-being among the oppressed may lead to reduced political activity and less demand for social justice and equality.”

The commendably diverse and gender-balanced cast presents the opportunity to explore some of the systemic challenges that female agents, agents of color, and queer agents face (while the show has not presented any of its characters as LGBTQIA, there are several characters whose sexuality is not definitively established). Crafting a true-to-life story with the input of someone who has lived these experiences firsthand is well within the realm of possibility given the show’s access to consultants and to the members of the law enforcement and intelligence communities who have spoken publicly about those experiences. One missed opportunity that stands out is the ascendant Agent Prentiss, whose position as a female chief would undoubtedly, in the real world, face pushback within the agency and with respect to local law enforcement. In fact, Criminal Minds has on several occasions made the resistance of local law enforcement to their methods a focal point, but has almost entirely sidestepped the hypermasculine tendencies and racial tension that plague police departments across the country. Instead, the system in which Criminal Minds operates is largely an idealized, postracial, postfeminist one.

In addition to minimizing the need for progress, this idealized view can also create a set of false expectations for young people whose career aspirations – as mentioned previously – are impacted by television, potentially setting them up for disappointment or even for the delayed realization that they’ve invested time and money into pursuing a career for which they are unsuited. There are more egregious examples in other programs – take, for example, Homeland’s depiction of mental health and the unrealistically low impact it has on a career in the intelligence community – but Criminal Minds occasionally finds itself underemphasizing the difficulty of balancing parenthood and career advancement. This is especially apparent with respect to A.J. Cook’s JJ, whose ability to simultaneously maintain her career and family, even with an extraordinarily supportive partner who offers an exceptional level of support, belies the enormous challenge women face in “having it all” and the role that it plays in perpetuating both the wage gap and the real-life gender imbalance in institutions like the FBI.

Gender Roles and Stereotypes

While an idealized view of gender and race remains problematic, the show’s portrayal of women as competent, brave, and equal to their male peers is nonetheless important – not only for the potential impact on young women’s career aspirations, but for normalizing the presence of women in law enforcement positions and in physically dangerous work. Sally Ride’s oft-cited quote, “you can’t be what you can’t see,” is a critical concept for the television industry, perhaps more so than for film, as the characters return to reinforce the message on a weekly basis. The decision to have Agent Prentiss succeed Agent Hotchner as unit chief breaks with the custom on many legal and crime shows, in which women who are shown in leadership roles are more often secondary characters, and as such, their authority is not a constant presence. That Prentiss is regularly shown in an authoritative role while maintaining a fully fleshed-out characterization is extraordinarily meaningful in terms of reshaping gender norms.

While season 12 marks an important stride in terms of overt gender roles, Criminal Minds still falls into the trap of subtly reinforcing gender stereotypes, ostensibly without intent or even conscious recognition by writers or directors. A noteworthy – and quantifiable – example of this is the skewed gender ratio in scenes behind the wheel. Season 12 depicted a total of 29 instances in which main characters, in their capacities as agents, were shown in or exiting one of the ubiquitous black SUVs. Of those 29 instances, the driver was a male agent 24 of those times, compared with five instances of a female agent driving. There is a multitude of evidence to support the view that the driver and passenger roles reflect deeply ingrained gender stereotypes, with the role of driver signifying dominance and agency and that of the passenger signifying a passive, submissive role. The position-as-power theory is reinforced by the fact that physical position as an indicator of power is a recurring pattern throughout Criminal Minds, albeit in a less gendered way. In scenes aboard the team jet, the team typically gathers around an arrangement of four seats, which becomes the focal point of the discussion. In each case, the lead and senior agents – Brewster’s Agent Prentiss and Joe Mantegna’s Agent Rossi – are seated while the remaining team members rotate through standing and sitting positions from episode to episode. In scenes of the team presenting a psychological profile to local law enforcement officers and agents, in which the members stand in a row facing their audience, the same agents – Thomas Gibson’s Hotchner and Mantegna’s Rossi in the second episode, Prentiss and Rossi in later episodes – are consistently positioned beside one another, typically flanked by the remaining team members. It is noteworthy that deviations from these usual arrangements occur in each female-directed episode. Given how recurrent these arrangements are and the consistent way in which power is subtly assigned, it becomes impossible to ignore the imbalance in men versus women driving. Such subliminal messages – intentional or otherwise – not only suggest subconscious bias by directors, but can serve to shape the way in which viewers regard the characters.

As a show dedicated to telling stories of the most depraved individuals and their victims, violent imagery is an integral part of the storytelling process, and the criticism that Criminal Minds has received over the years for tending towards gratuitous imagery is not completely without warrant. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that exposure to violence against women, including sexual violence, desensitizes male viewers (findings consistently show disparate responses between male and female subjects), negatively influences their attitudes towards victims, and normalizes or even fetishizes male-on-female rape.

The depiction of violence against its main female characters is particularly problematic, as it risks feeding into the persistent view of women as weak, vulnerable, and liable to drag down the productivity of a mixed-gender team. The latter argument is continually cited as a rationale to keep women out of combat roles in the U.S. military, following the release of a study that appeared, on its face, to show proof of that liability (which was not the case). Whereas a man being injured in the line of duty, in reality and on television, is often seen as a battle scar and celebrated as a badge of courage, the same injuries to women tend to be viewed as signs of weakness, perhaps even inflicted because the woman was not fast enough or strong enough in the field. Even when a storyline implies no such bias, gender stereotypes are so pervasive that viewers will frequently interpret the storyline through an unconscious lens of bias. While there is no marked difference in the frequency or level of violence sustained by male versus female main characters, it is the different implications that makes that violence, when directed at female characters, of special concern. Given that viewers are emotionally invested in these characters, and in some instances, identify with them, there is a higher risk of internalizing such messages, as well as the possibility of triggering an empathetic response to beloved characters that can make a fictional trauma feel personal.

Following injuries, main characters of both genders are rarely shown contending with the physical or emotional trauma after the fact, and if they are, it frequently serves either as a secondary storyline for a single episode or as a vehicle to introduce another storyline. In multiple instances – notably, the immediate aftermath of Prentiss’ return following the Doyle story arc, which focused not on her near-death experience and subsequent months in hiding, but on the reactions of Matthew Gray Gubler’s Agent Reid and Shemar Moore’s Agent Morgan – the brief period of post-trauma struggle is shown through the character’s interactions with a man, which one can argue serves to appropriate a woman’s pain for use by a man. While it may seem like a stretch, it’s more apparent when considering the way that issues deeply personal for women – their sexuality, reproductive rights, motherhood – are reduced to commodities in service of political or commercial agendas. The brevity of trauma also belies a much more complex reality in which recovery, even from a minor injury, takes time and requires support. For major injuries and traumatic incidents, the psychological toll can be devastating. The implicit message sent by shows, Criminal Minds among them, is that recovery and return to normalcy should be nearly instantaneous, and when a sufferer does finally turn to someone around them for help, the support character is open, understanding, nonjudgmental, and nothing is lost in translation. While this does have the benefit of reassuring an individual that reaching out for help is acceptable, it also goes back to the issue of painting an unrealistic picture that fails to acknowledge or encourage the need for progress.

While the brevity of most post-trauma storylines is problematic and its consistency in dealing with repercussions inconsistent, Criminal Minds has shown that it is capable of addressing the reality of such situations sensitively and in a compelling manner. This was the case in the aftermath of Reid’s encounter in season 2 with Tobias Hankel and subsequent drug addiction, which played out in a nuanced way over a number of episodes, even coming up again – albeit in response to Prentiss’ reappearance – following the Doyle arc. It is also worth making note of the secondary storyline at the beginning of season 10, in which Kirsten Vangsness’ Garcia struggled with the aftermath of a violent confrontation at the conclusion of season 9 and conviction of the man responsible. In exploring Garcia’s guilt over the would-be-killer’s death sentence and her need to connect with him, the show not only took a novel approach, but did so in a way that was thought-provoking and deeply true to Vangsness’ character.

Quantifiable Gender Representation

Despite the change in gender ratio, Criminal Minds’ twelfth season did not see the anticipated improvement on measures of gender representation compared with previous seasons. On the Bechdel Test, which requires that two female characters talk to one another about something other than a man, the season did rank higher than nine other seasons, with 55% of episodes passing. For the purposes of the Telefeminism Project, strict criteria are applied to the Bechdel Test in order to ensure consistent results, which does set a higher bar than some applications. The criteria, however, are by no means unreasonable, as demonstrated by the “inverse” Bechdel Test, which requires two male characters to talk to one another about something other than a woman. Prior to this season, Criminal Minds had only failed to meet the criteria of that test on one occasion, demonstrating that it is reasonable to expect a similar rate of passage for the standard Bechdel Test. In actuality, only 47 percent of episodes in seasons 1 – 11 passed the standard Bechdel Test.

One remarkable trend in season 12 was the dramatic change in the rate of passage for the inverse Bechdel Test. Whereas the pass rate for the previous 11 seasons is over 99 percent, only 73% of episodes this past season passed. This trend suggests that there may be more gender equity this season in terms of on-screen speaking time. However, there is not enough available data to draw any statistical conclusions as to factors association with the pass/fail rate of the inverse Bechdel Test, as there are only seven instances on which to draw.

Seemingly common-sense justifications or explanations for the series-long disparity between standard and inverse Bechdel Tests, when examined closely, fall short of providing an explanation. Whether or not an episode passes the Bechdel test has no statistical relationship to the number of female main cast members, nor to the ratio of male to female main cast members. There is, however, a statistically significant negative relationship between the gender of the “villain of the week” and whether or not an episode passes the Bechdel Test – meaning that an episode featuring a female villain is more likely to pass the Bechdel Test, while an episode featuring a male villain is less likely to pass – though this doesn’t mean that an episode passes or fails because of the gender of the villain.

On the Mako Mori Test, which requires at least one female character to have her own narrative arc not about supporting a male character, season 12 scored lower than any previous season, with only 32 percent of episodes featuring a storyline unique to a female character. Given the shift in cast ratio, the unusually low passage rate is particularly surprising. The most likely explanation for this is the heavy season-long focus on Gubler’s Dr. Reid. While individual characters, including female characters, were rotated through weekly side stories involving Reid, none of these met the criteria of the Mako Mori Test, as the impetus for and focus on such stories ultimately went back to a male character’s predicament. There is no statistically significant relationship between whether an episode passes the Mako Mori test and any of the variables tested, including the number of female main cast members, the gender of the villain, the gender of the director or writer, or – surprisingly – the ratio of male to female main cast members.

Takeaways and Looking Ahead

Based on the disparate passage rate of the Bechdel and inverse Bechdel Tests, there is a mathematical basis to suggest that the show consistently places more focus on its male characters than its female characters. This is in line with the general tendency of the entertainment industry to focus more on male than female characters, which is often chalked up to “what audiences want.” This justification lacks support. Even with a narrow focus on crime procedurals, there is little to no evidence that female-driven narratives are less compelling or popular. In fact, there is a renewed focus on and interest in female characters in the current political climate, one that Criminal Minds has an unprecedented opportunity to seize upon. Based upon the statistical findings above, it seems that it would require a conscious decision by the writers, directors, and producers to place a greater, and thus more equitable, focus on female characters.

While the shift in this season’s gender ratio seems to have coincided with some slight improvements in gender representation, quantitative analysis suggests that it is primarily a coincidence. Overall, the research suggests that the women of Criminal Minds have been underutilized – a notion that has consistently been given credence by the differences in compensation between male and female cast members. Longtime followers of the show are aware of some of the widely reported ways in which the female cast members have been undervalued, and it is unlikely that the characters themselves will truly reflect an empowered view of women if unequal treatment persists behind the scenes.

The totality of this analysis is presented in the hope that it will inspire critical thought among viewers and perhaps even encourage the team behind Criminal Minds to reflect on the way in which its female characters are represented and the impact those characters have on viewers. The decision to seriously analyze this show, versus any of the other long-running series, was largely by chance, and does not suggest, by any means, that the show is more or less deserving of criticism than any other.

Criminal Minds has done an admirable job over the years of improving the diversity of its cast, and it cannot be overemphasized how important it is to show women succeeding in a traditionally (and persistently) male-dominated profession. It is the fact that the show has proven itself capable of presenting fully fleshed-out, realistic characters and depicting difficult topics with sensitivity and grace that spurs the criticism above – a suggestion that there is room for improvement, an attempt to argue for the necessity of such progress, and a reminder that television is a powerful mechanism for defining social attitudes and norms.

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