April, 2013

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Re-run – Rizzoli & Isles Pt. 2

Having vented a little of my general frustration with Rizzoli & Isles, I can actually be a little more articulate about what it is that bothers me about the show.  Rizzoli & Isles is a textbook example of embedded feminism being used to mask enlightened sexism.   Susan J. Douglas’s book Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done, needs to be on your reading list already, put it there.  Douglas defined embedded feminism as “the way in which women’s achievements, or their desire for achievement, are simply a part of the cultural landscape” (9).  Embedded feminism is partly achieved through the representational parity numbers game.  The networks can say, “Look at all the women doctors, lawyers, cops, etc.  on tv, clearly women can be anything they want now.”  Networks can claim that airing shows with strong women in professional careers some how makes up for the blatant misogyny in a show like Two and a Half Men, or the only slightly more subtle misogyny in Big Bang Theory.  If you are, like me, a little crime show obsessed, Dr. Kimberly DeTardo-Bora’s 2009 article in Women & Criminal Justice, “Criminal Justice ‘Hollywood Style’: How Women in Criminal Justice Professions Are Depicted in Prime-Time Crime Dramas,” is a fascinating read. The short summary is that women are over-represented on television compared to their actual presence in the criminal justice field.

Taking its name from the two lead women, Rizzoli & Isles clearly establishes a kind of embedded feminism; it also establishes a “look how far we’ve come” ethos by subtly calling Cagney & Lacey to mind.  I’d love to do a stronger comparison between the two shows, but I don’t have many clear memories of Cagney & Lacey, and haven’t seen an episode since I was nine. Both titular characters are strong women, and have achieved success in their careers, and really that is about it for feminism in Rizzoli & Isles.

Douglas says, a constant companion to embedded feminism is enlightened sexism, which is “[the insistence] that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism – indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved—so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women” (9).  This explains why we are supposed to laugh when Rizzoli is tricked into a dress and a date by her mother.  Her inability to conform to accepted modes of femininity, while clearly embodying those forms, is constant fodder for humor in the show. Nothing is funnier than trying to get Rizzoli in a dress, but … damn, if doesn’t she fill out a dress perfectly.

But what about Dr. Isles she is amazing at her job, and manages to do it all in style with perfect hair, fashionable clothes, and always, always in killer heels.  I’d have to go through episodes again, but I’m pretty sure we’ve never seen Dr. Isles (even mid-autopsy) in scrubs.  I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain the absurdity of that.  Even if I’m wrong about the scrubs, the bigger issue is that despite the fact that she is clearly smart, and feminine, she can’t keep a date because she only looks feminine. She drives men away because she cannot hide her intelligence.

At their very core, these two characters, who are supposed to embody at least one feminist goal (having a career), are played for laughs for all the ways they do not conform to cultural stereotypes about women.  Yet, because it is couched in humor, and we’re supposedly smarter than buying into the stereotypes, if we find the show’s treatment of its titular characters offensive, it is because we don’t know how to take a joke.


In an effort to get back into the swing of blogging, I read through some of my previous posts.  I think these two posts about Rizzoli and Isles deserve a re-run. I will re-post them over the next couple of days.

As a fan of Tess Gerritsen’s books, when I learned TNT was giving two of Gerritsen’s central characters a show of their own, I was excited, and set my dvr accordingly. Then, I set about waiting to see who had been cast in the titular roles.  Don’t ask, it never really occurs to me that I could, you know, use the internet to find out stuff like that in advance.  It was obvious from the first commercials I saw that whatever TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles was going to be, it wasn’t going to be too much like the books.  For about 7 books I’d imagined Rizzoli, as she is described, with a mop of unruly dark curls, and as good looking, but in a unconventional way;  Dr. Isles was, as she is often described, the queen of the dead, a little goth, with red lipstick and straight black hair cut in a bob with straight bangs – which is, as it turns out, how Ms. Gerritsen looks (well, not exactly goth, but you get the idea).  While there was never any doubt in my mind these women would be beautiful in their own ways, um … Angie Harmon and Sasha Anderson were not exactly the faces that lept into my mind as I read these books.

To paraphrase Mr. Gump, casting is as casting does.  It was silly to have any hopes that these women might be cast differently.  This is a review of the show not the books, so this is the last comparison I will make between the two.  One of the most compelling aspects of these characters as written are their insecurities, and Jane Rizzoli’s insecurities are tied to her place in a male profession, and what she sees as her inability to meet feminine standards of beauty; it is impossible to make those insecurities play when the woman playing Rizzoli is Angie Harmon.

Like I said, although I’d initially hoped for something a little different, this review isn’t about comparing the television show to the books.  The characters, stories, and tone of each is distinct enough that a real comparison is impossible.  The books are detective fiction, pure and simple.  The television show walks the genre lines between serious police procedural and comedy.  It is almost as if the producers really wanted an hour long comedy, and knew stretching a sit com that long would grow tedious, so they decided to incorporate a police procedural to bump up the story.  I’ve never seen an episode of Nash Bridges, so I could be wrong, but Rizzoli & Isles makes me think it is like a female version of that show.

It might surprise you, but the light nature of the show is not really what bothers me.  A lot of police procedurals err in the opposite way, taking themselves too seriously. What bothers me about Rizzoli & Isles is that the light tone is achieved at the expense of the title characters. At every turn the show undermines the power of two strong women working together, and becoming friends by making every second conversation between the two about getting, or having, a relationship, every third conversation about the case – as if their jobs are an afterthought, and the remaining conversations about clothes and shoes.  There has to be some sort of heterosexual romance for at least one of the women in nearly every episode because the writers are working overtime to ensure that it is clear Rizzoli & Isles are not lesbians.  (Well, except for those episodes where they pretend to be lesbians – you know, for laughs. Because apparently that is funny.)  As a viewer it is impossible to take either Rizzoli or Isles seriously because at every turn we are reminded that Rizzoli can’t get a man because she is not feminine enough, and that despite looking like a fashion plate Isles can’t function socially because she is just too smart.

I keep watching, hoping, for that moment when instead of going for the obvious – undermining women stereotype or joke, the writers will surprise me, but it never comes.