In contemporary British and Canadian television programs, women are portrayed as the prominent police officers, with men of colour as their main complements, and white men presented in demeaning ways or absent altogether.
Scott and Bailey (British) is both produced and directed by women. It features two white female detectives, both constables at first, then one is promoted to sergeant. Their supervisor, the detective chief inspector (DCI), is a white female; her boss, a detective superintendent (DSI), is a white female; and her white female boss is chief superintendent or assistant chief constable. The white men are presented as clumsy, incompetent or corrupt – and those are only the other police officers. White men, in general, are shown as sexual abusers, kidnappers and murderers. The only impressive male is a black police superintendent.
Vera (British) features an older white woman as detective chief inspector. She has a sharp tongue, and regularly makes demeaning, insulting and humiliating remarks to her white male subordinates.
In Silent Witness (British), the central character is a white female pathologist and medical examiner. Her boss and other members of the examiner’s office are all white males, except for a white female researcher in a wheelchair; however, her boss’s boss is a tall, imposing black man.
In Happy Valley (British), the main character is a white female sergeant, working in a small and run-down town. Her constable is a man with a Middle Eastern or South Asian background. Her superior is a white male, as is the detective superintendent.
In Rookie Blue (Canadian), although the main character is a white female rookie police officer, there is close to an even balance of white women and white men, plus several black male and female officers.
Unforgotten (British) stars a white female DCI, assisted by a South Asian male DI. A white male DS and a white male DC are marginal characters and rarely seen.
The Detail (Canadian) features two female detectives, one white and one black, and their white female staff inspector supervisor. Their white female medical examiner is a proud lesbian. The Crown attorney is a black woman. There are a few white and brown male detectives, but they rarely appear and are largely marginal to the action. Typical dialogue (female staff inspector to white male sergeant): “If I wanted your opinion, I would have asked for it.” The female detectives tackle a large white male, and exchange blows until he is vanquished and shackled. Most of the rapists and murderers sought by the detectives are, of course, white males.
All these programs are well-done and entertaining. But how can this trend of downgrading men in favour of women and white men in favour of men of colour be explained?
One possibility is marketing targeting women and visible minorities. Men are known to favour watching sports. Perhaps appealing to women in police programs is a strategy to draw more female viewers.
Another possibility is the feminist logic that men have run things and marginalized women for all of history and now it’s time for women to run things. And women police, who physically fight men and use firearms, are an excellent example of the feminist mantra of strong women.
Consistent with the feminist motive is the social justice theory, which classifies heterosexual white men as the oppressors of the world, and women and men of colour as their victims. Remedies involve suppressing the oppressors, heterosexual white males, and empowering females and men of colour. This may prove difficult in reality but in fictional television programs, this utopia can be achieved.
What doesn’t explain this trend is the demography of real police forces.
In Canada, according to Statistics Canada, “More recently, women are accounting for an increasing proportion of those among the higher ranks of police. The proportion of senior officers who were female began increasing notably in 1995 at 1.6 percent, and has more than doubled from 5.5 percent in 2005 to 12.4 percent in 2015. The proportion of female non-commissioned officers, with a rank between that of a constable and lieutenant, has similarly increased from 9.7 percent in 2005 to 18.0 percent in 2015.” Female constables have increased from five percent in 1986 to 22 percent in 2015.
Women have an even lower representation in American police forces, at just 11.6 percent of all officers. Among detectives and criminal investigators, 26.2 percent are female. It’s much the same with forensic pathologists in the U.S.: 21 percent are female.
Among police officers in England and Wales (2017), the gender ratio by rank was as follows: 31 percent of constables were female; 23.3 percent of sergeants; 21.7 percent of inspectors; 25.1 percent of chief inspectors; 23.2 percent of superintendents; and 22.9 percent of chief superintendents.
I don’t object to female police officers. But shouldn’t we be concerned about an agenda for advancing women at the expense of men and people of colour? Shouldn’t we strive for universalistic criteria that select public servants and employees according to their abilities, capabilities and merit? Is anti-male sexism and anti-white racism any more moral or socially desirable than the original versions?
The female-dominated police of TV programs are fantasies, but the agenda of replacing men with women has succeeded beyond all feminist dreams in our universities. In 1971, 69 percent of 25-to-29-year-old Canadian university graduates were men; by 2006, 60 percent were women.
Female students dominated in the social sciences at 68 percent, humanities at 83 percent, law at 53 percent and medicine at 59 percent.
During the last five years, the senior anthropology seminar I taught at McGill University consisted overwhelmingly of female students with only a handful of males. In the last fall term, there were 18 students in my seminar, all females.
The same circumstances exist in the U.S. While in 2010 the national male-female ratio for 18-to-24-year-olds was 51 to 49, the male-female ratio in public universities was 43.6 to 56.4, and in private colleges and universities it was 42.5 to 57.5.
Is a straight white male judged according to merit in university admittance, funding and post appointment competitions? And are they fairly judged in competitions for private industrial and public service jobs and promotion? Will female applicants be favoured, while your sons are blocked?
Do television trends foretell social norms?
Philip Carl Salzman is professor of anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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