Sexual Violence in Crime Dramas of the 1950s

Curator's Note

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.  


Samantha thanks so much for writing such a great piece and starting the week off with a discussion of the cop show's history and in particular the way in which 1950s series dealt with such sensitive topics as trauma and sexual violence. Your conncection between the episode of Decoy to contemporary series like SVU masterfully illustrates a narrative strategy of how cop shows have relied on female cops to serve as the face and voice of empathy and compassion.

Your focus on gender and how societal expectations around gender norms such as female officers are more compassionate and sympathetic than their male counterparts and thus are useful to the police force in this function reveals how problematic and conservative cop shows were and in some cases continue to be when thinking about issues related to the job of policing America's streets. Indeed, after last week with the media and the country's concentrated focus on questions about policing and police methods in the wake of George Floyd's death your post demonstrates the troubling inequities in policing and the cop show because too often cops have needed to be depicted as efficient, tough, and by the book, especially male cops or they would be viewed as too feminine if they demonstrated positive qualities like empathy, compassion, and sympathy, qualities which American society often attributes only to women. 

Thanks so much for this excellent piece, Samantha. As a question of history, this feels like a very useful intervention into a narrative that particular historical social and cultural shifts led to what we now think of as depcitions of sexual violence. You've opened up a really fascinating door into questions of how early television series handled taboo subjects in ways that were often profound and long-lasting. I'm really curious to hear your take on what you see as the ideological stakes of these representations and the tropes that surround them. I hope there's more to come from you on this subject!

This is a terrific piece. Thank you so much for writing it. I like your focus on the sympathetic female detective/cop trope. This trope has long fascinated me and I often think of it whenever I watch episodes of SVU and other shows. I also like your discussion of the treatment of sex crimes on 1950s crime dramas. Like the sympathetic female cop/detective trope, the treatment of sex crimes on pre-1970s television programs fascinates me. I will have to try to watch the "Stranglehold" episode of Decoy in its entirety.

I have never seen this show but have plenty of SVU and Criminal Minds where sexual violence is very graphic, or at least for network television standards. In each of these shows, we see the sympathetic cop/detective trope that must coexist with the cop/ detective that does not believe in the victim or has some doubts. The victim often trusts the sympathizer and discloses information pertinent to the case. That dynamic seems to be present in the 1950s and today. I would like to see how race also affects the image of the sympathetic cop. Is a white cop/detective read as sympathetic as opposed to a woman of color? Or a male cop/detective of color? I am not versed in the research of this trope, so I wonder whether the sympathetic female cop/detective has been of color in the past. I can only think of Aisha Tyler in Criminal Minds, as a special agent with a unique set of skills, but not actual detectives or cops who are supposed to meet and interrogate people daily. I love this topic and all its possibilities! Thank you. 

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