They’ve been running ancient episodes of Cagney & Lacey on one of the local unaffiliated stations here in St. Louis. I’ve been tuning in from time to time, just to see if it plays the same for me now as it did when I was 30 years younger.
Women were a novelty as protagonists in action dramas in those days.
I remember Honey West from my teenage years. Anne Francis played a sexy, alluring detective for an hour every week. Even back then I could see programming logic. Feminism was just becoming a household word. So television executives could appeal to what they saw as militant women as well as to male sexual fantasies.
Did I mention Honey West was sexy and alluring?
She lasted for a single season before they took her off.
Get Christy Love! was on about 10 years later. Civil rights was on the verge of becoming an accepted national ideal.
So Teresa Graves played a black sexy, alluring detective for an hour every week.
Christy Love lasted for a single season before they took her off.
About ten years after that, Cagney & Lacey had better luck. Women detectives were still a television novelty. But this time, executives discarded the sexy alluring part and cast two women who looked like somebody’s sister or mom. And it was a buddy show.
I suppose we get a false impression when we judge only from a few anecdotes. But it’s hard for me not to picture the television executives who ruled in those times as clueless dolts. Remember how they objected to Star Trek’s Spock because audiences would never relate to a pointy-eared non-human?
Network executives pushed for the Christine Cagney character to be more feminine, sexy, and alluring. Luckily, producers and the cast resisted.
As it turned out, ratings were high. The show was renewed for a second season, then a third. It went on for eight years. It was comfortable escapism and I liked it.
Of the cast, I mostly remember Tyne Daly, the Mary Beth Lacey character, as a fast talking working class mother. I remembered her from a Clint Eastwood movie a few years before, when she and Dirty Harry risked their lives to rescue a clueless, anti-police, liberal mayor who had been kidnapped by ruthless left-wing militants, thus giving the mayor a new appreciation of police work and of conservative sensibilities. I think Tyne Daly was killed off in the obligatory gun battle.
As with most police dramas, very few of the plot lines in Cagney & Lacey were noticeably original. Eugene McCarthy once reacted to criticism by some columnist, observing that someone facing two deadlines a week for intelligent commentary would sometimes be forced to submit a rash statement instead. As with any of us, the imagination of writers has limits. Cagney & Lacey was somewhat formulaic, as any weekly drama kind of has to be.
Character development is usually not devoted to villains. Shortcuts are needed to make sure the audience will not merely identify bad guys, but will detest them. I remembered one bit of dialogue. A criminal has Lacey trapped at the top of a tall construction site. He gets ready to throw her off the building.
In real life, trying to throw a detective out of a skyscraper would pretty much establish the guy’s credentials as a lowlife creep. But the script called for him to be a real stinker, someone who deserves to get the merciless pounding he’s about to receive.
So he snarls:
You got a big mouth, lady.
You-got-a-big-mouth-lady is a well worn phrase but it still performs. It fits a fellow who is willing to throw someone down to the street far below. It shows he has a little extra enthusiasm because the victim will be a woman. It demonstrates the source of that enthusiasm. She does not show the proper respect for his manhood. She does not know her quiet little place.
You-got-a-big-mouth-lady is often used to quickly establish that we’re dealing with a bully who can’t feel secure about his own manhood when he’s confronted by a strong, non-submissive woman. It might be a wife-beating tough guy, a woman-hating killer, or some loser with a propensity for violence against women. It can even be a little boy who can’t stand losing a verbal battle with a girl.
Gahh! You got a big mouth, lady!
– Nathan Kress as Freddie Benson, iCarly
on Nickelodeon, September 8, 2007
Of course, there are other formulaic shortcuts in television and movies involving some drooling sort of prejudice.
I have enjoyed watching the television version of Fargo. The Native American character, Hanzee, is a cold blooded killer, loyal only to his adopted family, and even then only until he hears familiar racial slurs directed at him by a family member.
Jesus Christ, you mongrel… Just shoot these two and get me to a goddamn hospital.
– Fargo, Loptop episode , November 30, 2015
And so Hanzee kills.
It only takes a few racial slurs to transform him into a sympathetic character during a fight scene in and around a bar filled with bigots. That they are cowards is shown by having a group attempt to bully their lone victim. That they are bigots becomes apparent in dialogue just before he maims the three who follow him outside.
Where you going, Geronimo? You gonna grab your bow and arrow there?
– Fargo, Loptop episode
And, of course, Hanzee delivers the assigned mayhem.
The racial and sexual slurs make it easy to identify screen types.
Bigots, cowards, bullies, insecure little boys.
I started thinking about those television character types, and how easy it is to recognize them as I listened to a newscast covering a political rally.
I was being hit by Pocahontas. That’s Pocahontas. Pocahontas, that’s Elizabeth Warren. I call her goofy. She is — no, no, goofy. She gets less done than anybody in the United States Senate. She gets nothing done, nothing passed. She’s got a big mouth, and that’s about it.
– Donald Trump, Anaheim, CA, May 25, 2016
It isn’t hard to make the connection.
I was being hit by Pocahontas.
Where you going, Geronimo?
You gonna grab your bow and arrow there?
Pocahontas, that’s Elizabeth Warren.
You got a big mouth, lady.
She’s got a big mouth, and that’s about it.
Gahh! You got a big mouth, lady!
Okay, I suppose not all television typecasting is off-base.
Maybe at least a few of those television executives aren’t so clueless after all.
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