Forbidden Writing, or Rizzoli & Isles Pt. 2

Having only written about 490 words yesterday, there is no way I should be writing here this morning. As someone who can follow every rule, but the one she set for herself — well, it’s probably pretty predictable that I would be writing here this morning.

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.  Last year, Susan J. Douglas’s book Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done was published, and if it is not 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 slighly 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 compared to their actual presence in the criminal justice field.  It is of course more complicated than that – the article is a fascinating read.

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 memeories 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.

A constant companion to embedded feminism, enlightened sexism 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.

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