Ten dysfunctional female TV cops

What a wonderful crop of young women we have in our crime thrillers just now. They are all obsessive, let’s say. Their work-life balance isn’t what it might be. Some stray into the autism spectrum and some claim great chunks of it. I make ten, and counting….

I don’t pretend to say what this rash, outbreak, riff or trope of messed-up young women means or is meant to mean. But it’s there, and I love it.

(My headline cheated: Salander isn’t a cop, but an investigative researcher.)

One could say that Jane Tennison started the rot (a sort of den mother): she was what these youngsters might yet become. One could also say that, like Tennison, Rachel Bailey, Lydia Adams and Katrina Ries Jenson make the case for women cops who suffer very obviously career-based problems: they are normal women stretched to the limit by their devotion to a demanding job. Most of the others would have been mentally-troubled whatever their work.

I’m guessing that young women identify with these characters (at least as much as I used to with Steve McQueen in Bullet).

These women investigators mostly flout authority and convention and all have profoundly messed-up private lives. The subtext may be that females cannot succeed in the work world without breaking the rules, and will be punished for it, at work and in the heart or home. Their female intuitiveness is valued, but its corollary – impulsiveness – also punished (Carrie, Sarah). Some have men, but reduce them to machine satisfaction (Saga and maybe Lisbeth). Some hopelessly adore unavailable men (Katrina). Others mother dysfunctional men (Laure and Rachel).

The appeal of these characters to their creators (or to us) may be that they are (a) feminine avenging angels on the track of screw-up violent men (who often target women) but also (b) that these are young women who have cast off generations of fictional portrayal of women as passive, nurturing, supportive, collegiate, consensual and sensible.

The Chick-dick list

Carrie Mathison (Homeland, US) Bi-polar and then some

Saga Noren (The Bridge, S, DK) Asperger’s and then some

Laure Berthaud (Spiral, FR) Cosmically needy

Linda Wallander (Wallander, S) Depressive (Reality note: this was a doubly sad business.)

Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larrson saga, S) Presumably Aspergers, and then some, and maybe more

Sarah Lund (The Killing, DK) Deeply sad and obsessive

Rachel Bailey (Scott & Bailey, UK) Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Katrina Ries Jenson (Those Who Kill, DK) Obsessive, sad, w/l balance out of whack

Lydia Adams (Southland, US) A marginal case, maybe. Still, she’s finding finding a man of her own extremel tricky

Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect, UK) Not at all crazy, but w/l balance out of whack, and a pioneer.


Certainly all sad, to varying degrees. But isn't the same true of male detectives? Notable exception of Barnaby, Midsomer Murders, but he can be countered by similarly nostalgic Miss Marple! It's not a career path that attracts optimists.....
RDN’s reply
Thanks, Nicole Point taken. I do agree that very few male detective heroes are bog-standard, averagely cheerful homebodies. Still, our crop of young women do seem particularly out-there and I don't think it's an untoward parlour game to note it and figure out why.. lightly. I have tickled the piece above, spurred to it by yr note.
I loved them all! They are a refreshing relief from the usual formulaic persons we were fed in the past.

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Publication date

07 May 2012


On TV & Radio