Cagney & Lacey: Women in a man’s world

I’ve just re-watched (twice) the first season of Cagney & Lacey on DVD, and I’m going to be writing a series on it. To introduce it, I wanted to give some context first. And explain why 80’s TV set me up to be so disappointed with what came later.

The Fight to make a Female Buddy Show

Cagney & Lacey was developed in response to the observation that there had never been a buddy movie about two women. It took nearly a decade of fighting with the network to get a pilot made. The pilot featured Loretta Swit as Cagney, even though she was still on M*A*S*H and couldn’t take on another series… because CBS was that confident the project would never be more than a TV movie. But magazines advised viewers to write to CBS and demand more. CBS made six more episodes, featuring Meg Foster as Cagney. CBS canceled it after two episodes. Producer Barney Rosenzweig then urged viewers to write in, which they did. He called executives and “made up” demographics. Finally, they got the go-ahead for a full season: this time with Sharon Gless as Cagney. (Source: First season DVD Featurette “Breaking the Laws of TV”.)

That’s how hard it was to get this show made. Not only did it feature a woman; it featured two. Who weren’t all about the men in their lives. Since then, the only show that’s come close is Xena: Warrior Princess – a straight-to-syndication fantasy cult classic that could be safely ignored by mainstream TV. In the twenty-five years since Cagney & Lacey debuted, American TV has backpedaled into the seventies.

The Normality of Women

In hindsight, I’m realizing something very significant about Cagney & Lacey that I haven’t seen much in shows since: the two leads, Mary Beth Lacey and Christine Cagney, are shockingly like, ya know, real women. They carry purses. They wear skirts and dress fashionably. They have haircuts that are stylish and feminine but low-maintenance. They stand in the ladies’ room at the precinct and touch up their makeup. Sometimes they giggle or show way more enthusiasm than the guys.

And yet they are accepted by the otherwise all-male detective squad.

This is significant because a lot of the shows I give high praise to take a more gender blind approach. Da Vinci’s Inquest and Law & Order: Criminal Intent strip the cues of feminity from their female detectives: we never see them carry purses or hear them giggle. Are they accepted as women, we might wonder, or have they just been assimilated as pseudo-men? Gender blind is a great alternative to pushing stereotypes, but it tends to default to “male” behaviors and is therefore not as effective as showing women who “act like women” being accepted by men. Because that means the men of Cagney & Lacey have looked beyond the cues of femininity and found two good detectives.

That’s what I thought liberation was going to be about: women accessing “men’s” worlds, without first being asked to change.

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out that there are shows from the UK and Canada which feature multiple women leads or lead women with multiple female colleagues. I edited the third paragraph to make it more clear I’m writing from a US-centric view (I love several British and Canadian shows, but there are plenty I’ve never heard of).


  1. says

    Wow – great post. It really got me thinking. With all the crime based TV shows, you are right- you never see the female characters carrying purses, or putting on make-up or doing otherwise “womanly” things. But I also think these shows are so plot driven, that they really don’t take much time to develop the characters.

    Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great there are female characters who are not only accepted, but excell at their professional roles in what might be considered more male dominated professions.

    But are they characters I can relate to? Do those shows stay with me? No. It’s been years, even decades since I saw Cagney and Lacey yet I can still remember several episodes. That’s how powerful that show was.

    The only female character that comes to mind who stikes me as being truly authentic, someone I can relate to – is Medium. She has a husband, and kids, and gets calls from the school principal. I find it almost as interesting how she handles her personal life as her professional life.

    The Closer is another interesting one to watch.

    But boy would I love a true female buddy show again. Not some situation comedy, but something real.

    Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on this subject.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Thanks, Holly. Medium and Closer are both good catches – I haven’t seen The Closer much because her accent drives me insane, but from what I hear around the net, she sounds like a well-developed character with definite “feminine” traits.

    And I have seen enough of Medium to agree that Patricia Arquette’s character feels like a whole person, with definite shades of “womanliness”.

  3. says

    Cagney & Lacey is somehow connected in my mind with Scarecrow and Mrs. King. They were certainly on the same years. Was it the same night? Were they on opposite each other? I seem to recall rarely watching C&L because maybe I like S&MK more. That could be wrong though.

    Mrs. King (Kate Jackson) was spy instead of a cop, and her partner was a man, but if I recall correctly there was only one other spy who was a regular, and she was also a woman. There was, I think, an undertone of rivalry, since both female spies were interested in “Scarecrow”.

    What I remember, though, is that Mrs. King was both “really good spy” and also “Supermom,” a single, divorced mom with two school aged kids. They played up both aspects of her personality on the show.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    S&MK was definitely on during at least some of the same years, but I don’t recall the night or anything. I mostly saw C&L in syndication.

    I remember S&MK a little, but my impression was that no one could possibly be attracted to whatshisface, so Martha’s catfighting hussiness and KJ’s interest in him just turned me off to both women and I didn’t think about it any further than that. (I was about 10.)

    You may be right, though – in that time period, we also had Kate & Allie who were very individual women, doing women things, and they were buddies to boot.

  5. Lavode says

    Meg Foster was kicked because she looked “too tough” or something like that – apparently CBS were worried that the characters would be perceived as lesbians. (Which is a shame, IMHO, I liked her better than Sharon Gless.)

  6. Ide Cyan says

    There’s a British cop show called Murder in Suburbia that stars two female characters.

    The Canadian TV series, Cold Squad, which was rather ripped off in the USA with Cold Case, had a lead female character who had female colleagues from the very start.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    Lavode, I read that on Wikipedia (that CBS thought Foster would be perceived as a lesbian). I’m not sure what to make of it – even though that sounds like typical bone-headed network thinking, Cagney’s very active and clearly heterosexual dating life is a big part of her character, so I’m not sure where anyone would get the idea she was a lesbian. The DVD featurette just said that she and Daly had acting styles that were too similar, and the sense of the two characters being opposites wasn’t coming across. Who knows?

    Ide Cyan, why am I not surprised that the UK and Canada would be more open to a multiple woman format than US markets? 😉 Actually, that’s a good point – I’ll make a note in the original post that I’m writing from a US-centric view.

  8. says

    A TV show that passes the Bechdel Test/Mo Movie Measure in every episode? Why that just can’t be done!

    Sorry for the snark, I just finished Heroes and I’m feeling a little growly.

    I obviously need to go watch Cagney and Lacey to perk me up! (Hey, maybe TV producers will get a clue from DVD sales…) Sounds like a good series – the posts and the show (which I’ve only ever seen bits of when I was a kid).

  9. S. A. Bonasi says


    I recommend the new Bionic Woman to you.

    Warning: Mild spoilers following.

    It reminds me a lot of Heroes – suspension of belief, iffy writing, questional acting, yet nevertheless as addictive as all hell – ‘cept there are women. As in, plural. As in, not only a super duper bionic lead (Jaime) but she’s not The Exception, as there’s also the first bionic woman (Sarah). Then there’s Jaime’s boss (Ruth) and Jaime’s sister (Becca).

    It’s not quite perfect — some of the comments by the showrunners suggest an intended post-feminist but also unitentionally male perspective that worries me some (I’m iffy of the wisdom of aiming for post-feminism given that the story exists in present patriarchal U.S.A.); I’m a bit let down that Becca couldn’t be a hacker and deaf (why must deafness only exist if it’s a plot point?); and the show so far suffers from Missing Women of Color Syndrome (there’s also Jae, Jonas, & Isaiah Washington’s character Antonio [who’s not in the pilot], but they’re all male, and all the women I named are white) — but overall I loved the pilot and recommend it to anyone looking for an enjoyable sci-fi series that’s more inclusive than the usual fare, a trend I hope continues and continues to improve.

  10. says

    For what it’s worth, I work in the entertainment industry, and when I’m on set, I throw a wallet in my back pocket, and I do the work, you know? I don’t bring a purse, and I wear jeans, a T-shirt, and athletic shoes.

    Your point about needing all types of real women characters on TV is valid – I didn’t jump on to disagree, because you are so, so right. But just to say that some of your “defeminized” characters may also represent real women in certain situations.

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    Lizriz, I agree and have given such characters praise in the articles I linked to. I just think C&L makes an even stronger statement.

    I’ve worked on sets too, and in my experience, the men make some adjustments in how they dress and behave, too. It’s physical work, so suits and neckties won’t do anymore than high heels or purses to lug around. In fact, the (perceived as feminine) ability to anticipate someone’s emotional needs becomes a prized skill for men who deal with actors and some of the crew.

  12. Maartje says

    There’s a Belgian cop show about two female detectives: ‘Flikken’. Which was made in the image of a dutch cop show about two women, only the Belgian version was vastly better.
    I don’t think these two shows would have been made without fuss if ‘Cagney and Lacey’ hadn’t existed.
    I know you focus primarily on the US but I think you might feel a little better knowing that this particular american show has made an impact on both Dutch and Belgian TV.

  13. Jennifer Kesler says

    Thanks, Maartje. It’s really interesting to see how many other markets can support a show about two women, when the US market seems determined C&L was just a fluke.


  1. […] Re-watching Cagney & Lacey has got me thinking about the 80’s – my formative years – lately. I keep trying to figure out how I got a lot of positive feminist messages even though I was living in a place that was so bigoted you had to be white, male, heterosexual, Republican, Protestant and a native to the area just to get those who fit those qualifications not to pretend they didn’t hear you when you spoke. […]

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