Babes in blue

A DVD review of 1970s jiggle-cop show "Police Woman" turns into a discourse on televised feminism.

By Rebecca Traister
Published March 13, 2006 4:15PM (EST)

I was both perplexed and impressed by Sunday's DVD review of the 1970s Angie Dickinson cop show "Police Woman" in the Chicago Sun-Times. Critic Doug Elfman began by calling the series "female liberation in a skirt, breaking down barriers for women on TV, opening doors and blouses." He observes that in the 1970s, "if there was a heroine cop in a movie or TV show, she had to be the sexy lady who went undercover as a hooker and got rescued by a male."

As Pepper Anderson, Elfman writes, Dickinson did a lot of time as a faux prostitute, and was "perfect casting for the part of an objectified person of power ... [a woman who] would crack a case but get saved from a kidnapper by her male co-workers. In the process, her halter dress would fall, and she'd grab her breasts just before they greeted the world."

At first, I read Elfman's review -- headlined "Feminist Exploitation at Its Very Best!" -- as positive on these points: Bring back the jiggle cops!! But in fact he goes on to bemoan the fact that even after Dickinson's role as Pepper, police shows were -- and are -- for the most part a male domain, and that female cops still have to occasionally dress like whores. As Elfman observes, even Marg Helgenberger's tough "CSI" criminologist Catherine Willow used to be a professional stripper.

The Sun-Times also includes a sidebar list of other female television cops, including Peggy Lipton on "The Mod Squad," Betty Thomas on "Hill Street Blues," Helen Mirren in "Prime Suspect," S. Epatha Merkerson in "Law and Order" and Mariska Hargitay in "Law and Order."

And yes, there is a nod to (in my humble opinion) the greatest fictional TV cops of all time, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless as Mary Beth Lacey and Christine Cagney in "Cagney & Lacey," which ran from 1982 to 1988. I remember the show (admittedly, from when I was a kid, so maybe time has clouded my judgment) as being more progressive, honest and forward-thinking in its portrayal of women than just about any series I've seen since. Why are there no DVDs?

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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