Jayne Atkinson sums it up nicely in the infuriating documentary, That Gal Who Was in That Thing: “I look like a bitch: hard and strong and ambitious…[I played] a bitch, a bitch, and a bitch…I played women in power, a woman in charge, an ambitious woman in charge.”
It’s the prevailing stereotype of a woman in power, both on television and in the real world. Atkinson, as Section Chief Erin Strauss on Criminal Minds, was cast as the cold, ruthless bureaucrat willing to step over as many bodies as need be in order to climb the career ladder. She was ambitious, and her ambition meant danger.
And gosh, does that sound familiar.
It was the portrait painted over twenty-five years of another woman, one who had the audacity to seek the ultimate seat of power, whose demeanor was derided as cold and her personality, robotic. She was called disingenuous and chided for not smiling enough. There were persistent rumors from the fringe – conclusively proven false, ironically, by Criminal Minds producer Jim Clemente, among others at the FBI – that she’d killed people in her quest to ascend to the position to which she was said to feel entitled. And when she launched her campaign for the highest office in the land, the mantle of “bitch” hung over her every second of every day.
Hillary Clinton was not the first, nor will she be the last woman to bear that burden, and it’s not confined to the political arena – but it’s especially pervasive when it comes to the idea of a woman with authority. There are a slew of reasons that notion exists and persists, and television is hardly the lone culprit. But television does play a role in shaping perceptions (see here, here, here, here, here, and hey, this one I wrote) and has the unique distinction of, as Geena Davis puts it, being “the one area of gender disparity that can be changed overnight.”
It would stand to reason that a full decade after Criminal Minds introduced the Erin Strauss character as the ice queen willing to step on Hotch, the unit chief described more than once as “Captain America,” and in the process catalyze the dissolution of his family, things might have changed. Strauss was redeemed and her character fleshed out a bit before being killed off at the end of the eighth season, and season twelve saw Emily Prentiss, who once sacrificed her own job to stand up to Strauss and defend her boss, elevated to unit chief in Hotch’s stead (something over which the fandom is still at war, and it’s gotten more than a little bit sexist, but that’s another story).
Erica Messer now runs the show, and the proportion of female writers and directors has increased in recent years. On top of that, it’s abundantly clear from social media that many of the show’s cast members, writers, and directors supported Hillary Clinton and have thrown their support behind feminist causes, including the #MeToo movement.
And yet, somehow, “it seems quite clear that’s it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”
Last week saw the introduction of another ambitious woman whose determination to someday become FBI director threatens to tear apart our beloved BAU (let’s ignore for a moment that nobody is really keen on being the FBI director right now and also, I would not object to the writers at least dropping a reference to the fact that there’s never been a female director of the Bureau, but that’s just a compulsory aside). The show has been completely up-front about the fact that the character, Linda Barnes, is “purely political animal,” and the latest episode had her attempting to get Chief Prentiss to throw another team member under the bus.
The whole thing, in addition to being a toxic stereotype and a subtle indictment of women’s ambition, manages to further draw a distinction between the sort of behavior acceptable for a woman in power. As Rossi reminds Prentiss that she earned her place on the team, it’s impossible to separate the condemning depiction of Barnes from the fact that Prentiss, who was eminently qualified to step into the role of chief, never sought that position – something she made clear to Strauss and to Hotch a decade ago.
This isn’t a blanket indictment of Criminal Minds as antifeminist or regressive, and it’s hardly the only show on television committing this particular sin. Nor is it the only problematic thread of feminist folly running through the show’s history. What makes this so egregious is that the show should know better, and yet it’s committed a foul that’s especially painful given the current political reality. We need shows to reject the stereotypes that help maintain a system in which women who try to get ahead are condemned and to use their power to reshape how we view women who dare to want more.