I was looking for something fun to watch while crunching a lot of numbers yesterday, so I watched the first six episodes of Cagney & Lacey. While it’s not remotely challenging in terms of format or dynamics — the show’s an entirely conventional slightly melodramatic New York police procedural, and even though the two cops are both women (that is kind of revolutionary — you can have two men or a man and a woman, but not two women) they’ve got a similar dynamic to a standard pairing, one tougher than the other — it’s so awesomely, naturalistically feminist I’m not surprised it was canceled and retooled. And it offers a good look at what the Prime Suspect remake should try to do if it’s going to move away from a caustic depiction of sexism in the police department.
First, on Cagney & Lacey, the cops who are sexists are also people, rather than just creeps who wander around talking about a “beef trust,” a phrase that makes me feel pretty physically disgusted, as they were in the Prime Suspect pilot. Some of the sexism is occupational, like the fact that the characters get put on an assignment where they have to go under cover as hookers to catch a murderer. “You see, when you’re doing a man’s job, you don’t want anyone to think you’ve lost your femininity,” Cagney jokes. And some of it’s personal. When Marcus Petrie, the African-American vegetarian cop they work with is having a baby shower for his wife, you’d think his female colleagues would be logical invitees. But Petrie doesn’t invite them, out of fear that the cop’s wives will be uncomfortable and suspicious about the fact that the male cops have attractive female coworkers. It’s hurtful, and it illustrates the critically important fact that well-meaning guys can do hurtful things.
Second, there are actual debates between women. When Cagney is chasing a dangerous assignment too hard, Lacey tells her partner “I’m a mother-wife cop, emphasis on mother-wife. I’m not going to go looking for trouble.” Neither of them is right—they just have different preferences informed by the different places they’re coming from. The show also isn’t afraid to throw in a duty guarding a notorious anti-feminist spokeswoman, a kind of Phyllis Schlafly, and to show that both women hate it. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” complains Lacey. “I could be out finding Harvey our anniversary present.” “Helen would love that,” Cagney quips back at her. Feminism isn’t just an issue between women and men — it’s between women and women, too, and it would be too bad to leave Jane hanging by herself without a female counterpart in the department or outside of it in Prime Suspect.
Third, don’t be afraid to show the characters having setbacks, especially those that relate to gender. Whether it’s Jane realizing she might have offended by her boss by asking for a dead colleague’s job too soon after his passing, or Lacey complaining that a date’s gone badly, telling Cagney, “Check me out. See any hickeys? Any beard burn? Nothing…We had this little argument about the criminal justice system. I might have ruffled his feathers,” the path to victory’s boring if it’s smooth. There needs to be actual debate, discussion, and mistakes on both sides for this to seem real.