Academic journal article Post Script

Manhunting: The Female Detective in the Serial Killer Film

Academic journal article Post Script

Manhunting: The Female Detective in the Serial Killer Film

Article excerpt

In the 1980s, Hollywood film enacted a backlash against feminism that was evident in the detective film through the representation of troubled masculinity masquerading as tough and triumphant and through the representation of women as demonized or excluded from the center of the screen. Neo-noir films like Body Heat (Kasdan 1981) dealt with the female threat by offering women cinematic space only to present them as evil and destructive for the male hero; on the other hand, cop-action films like Lethal Weapon (Donner 1987) excluded them from the center of the narrative altogether through the focus on a buddy relationship and presenting women on the margins as damsels in distress that needed to be saved by the hero. Although each film offered a different response to the perceived masculine crisis incited by women, both relied on the highlighting of sexual difference with a focus on the female body as seductive and dangerous and the male body as empowered and heroic.

During the early 1990s, however, mainstream film saw a shift to "sensitive men" heroes (1) in a negotiation of changing social attitudes towards masculinity that was mirrored in the detective film by the appearance of protagonists defined by brains instead of brawn. Because detective-heroes no longer had to be gun-wielding, law enforcement types that embodied a heroism defined as white, muscular, working-class, and male--like Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon or John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard (McTiernan 1988)---the detective film explored new kinds of heroes who were a more realistic size, shape, and age. The detective-hero did not need to be tough so much as smart to bring the new highly intelligent criminals of the 1990s to justice and this included African-American men, for example Denzel Washington in The Bone Collector (Noyce 1999); older men, including Clint Eastwood in Blood Work (Eastwood 2002); and women, such as Sandra Bullock in Murder by Numbers (Schroeder 2002).

Following the success of The Silence of the Lambs (Demme 1991), Hollywood film saw an increasing presence of the female detective on screen. This shift away from white hypermasculinity would suggest a more liberal and feminist approach to the definition of law enforcement heroism. However, while the detective genre has brought women to the center of the narrative with a seemingly greater degree of agency as the protagonists who drive the narrative action forward, this agency is tempered and contained. The male detective is empowered in the contemporary detective film through his identification with the serial killer--the man who has the desire and ability to inflict violence on women--while the female body remains a site of objectification and powerlessness. This is not, however, necessarily due to the cinematic serial killer's tendency to seek out female victims, but because the female detective succumbs to an over-identification with the killer's victims and often is a former or potential victim of violence perpetrated by men.

In the serial killer film, masculinity is still regarded as the embodiment of strength and heroism and the female body, weakness and victimization. Thus, the female detective is portrayed as competent and successful only as a masculinized or defeminized woman; when she exhibits feminine traits--usually emotional--she is branded as a professional failure. While The Silence of the Lambs was generally regarded as "a profoundly feminist movie" (Taubin, "Grabbing" 129), the reviews of 1995's Copycat expose the possibility of dual readings of the serial killer film with a female protagonist (or two in the case of this film). Lizzie Francke of Sight and Sound praised the casting of Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver as the film's protagonists--detective and the potential victim--as "enhancing its status an instant post-feminist classic" (51); conversely, Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times argued that the casting led the filmmakers "to believe that they'[d] made a significant feminist statement, the movie's two hours-plus of almost continual sadistic abuse of women notwithstanding" (1). …

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