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).