Crime dramas are among the most popular and oldest genres in television’s history, and they have long depicted sexual violence. Previous scholarship has located the proliferation of sexual violence on television to the late 1970s, when popular media reflected the feminist anti-rape legislation and reform movement of that era, but TV crime dramas have investigated sex crimes since the 1950s. Such depictions were more implicit and tame than the explicit content of the 1970s or the graphic depictions in today’s TV series like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC 1999-). Because sexual violence was a cultural taboo in the TV industry and society at large during the 1950s, crime dramas from this period used techniques like aesthetics, narrative tropes and character reactions to convey when a sexual assault has occurred. Using Decoy (1957-1958) as a case study, we can more closely examine one specific trope that is still with us today: the sympathetic female cop/detective.
In this Decoy episode titled “Stranglehold,” policewoman Casey Jones goes undercover and befriends the girlfriend of a murder suspect. In the beginning of this scene, Casey aggressively provokes Molly, the girlfriend of the murder suspect, for more information. Casey learns that Molly killed the murder victim in self-defense while the man was sexually assaulting her. While Molly does not use explicit language to describe her attack as a sexual assault, Casey immediately understands, as we hear her tone immediately shift from combative to sympathetic. As Molly continues to describe her assault using coded language, we cut to an extreme close-up of Casey’s face seconds before she gently closes her eyes as she processes this information. Her head is tilted, her brows gently furrowed as she listens to Molly with empathy. This early example is remarkable for its depiction of sensitivity toward sexual violence, as Casey believes, sympathizes and repeatedly calls her a “friend” while Molly points a gun at her during most of the scene.
While this episode is more than sixty years old, we can see elements of the sympathetic female cop with us today in characters like Detective, now Captain, Olivia Benson of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and even more recently in Detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall in Unbelievable (Netflix, 2019). By analyzing the female sympathetic cop trope among other narrative conventions of the 1950s, we can better understand how the crime drama genre since its inception has represented sexual violence in ways that are strikingly familiar to us today.