Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Policing Race and Gender: An Analysis of "Prime Suspect 2"

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Policing Race and Gender: An Analysis of "Prime Suspect 2"

Article excerpt

As a cultural production, the crime genre spans short stories and novels, film, radio, and television, and is a predominant genre across these media (Mandel, 1984; Rafter, 2000). Despite some notable exceptions (e.g., Agatha Christie earlier on, and Sara Paretsky more recently), for the most part, crime has been a male-oriented genre (Reddy, 2003). Literary critic Kathleen Klein (1995, p. 200), in a word-play on the title of a P.D. James novel, notes that the genre is so male-identified, often so deeply misogynistic, that the task of discovering "Whodunit" may be "an unsuitable job for a feminist."

Crime has been a white-oriented genre as well. Literary figures like Chester Himes in the 1950s and Walter Mosley more recently are notable exceptions to the "whiteness" of the crime genre (Bailey, 1991; Reddy, 2003). In many films and novels, people of color are depicted as the Other, esoteric figures who symbolize the shadowy, menacing opposite of whites (Gray, 1995, pp. 16-17). People of color are portrayed in Stereotypie, caricatured roles (Hobson, 2002).

A recent exception to these rules-of-thumb is "Prime Suspect", a series of seven made-for-television films about London policewoman Jane Tennison. Critics hail the fictional Tennison as one of television's most popular policewomen, and praise the series for its accurate and trenchant portrayal of women professionals. In addition to its sensitivity to gender issues like women working in traditionally men's jobs, "Prime Suspect" addresses other social issues, such as racism in policing (Abercrombie, 1996, pp. 72-73). Deborah Jermyn (2003) credits the series with beginning the "forensics realism" trend which is a common feature of CSI and other successful television crime dramas.

Other critics see "Prime Suspect" as a failed attempt to transcend stereotypes common to this genre. Notwithstanding socially relevant plots, in the end the series returns to the narrative convention of a detective solving a crime (Tome, 1995). Moreover, there is a tendency to paint Tennison with a marked postfeminist hue: she increasingly becomes isolated and bitter (Thornham, 1992). Some critics argue that the series fares badly in its treatment of race. According to Dianne Brooks, "Prime Suspect 2"'s portraits of black women and black men reinforce racial stereotypes (1994, p.102).

In this paper, we consider the second film in the Prime Suspect oeuvre, "Prime Suspect 2" (1993). We consider the film's treatment of race and gender. We analyze the film's depiction of police-community relations in an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood, and its depiction of individual-level racism which it condemns, and institutional-level racism, about which it is more ambivalent. We attend to Tennison's characterization in terms of gender, including the portrayal of a woman police detective, and postfeminist elements in the film's narrative structure.

We assess the subversive implications of "Prime Suspect 2." We draw upon Patricia Hill Collins (1990), Dorothy Smith (1996, 1999), and Iris Marion Young (1994) to develop the concept of "progressive moral fiction." This concept refers to fictional works that illuminate the impact of structural oppression in everyday lives and offers visions and hope for collective challenges to these oppressions. Works of progressive moral fiction include elements that (1) draw on insights from the experiences of those who are socially marginalized and oppressed, (2) locate the experiences within their larger social context, (3) reveal fissures in the predominant ruling apparatus, and (4) offer vision or hope for collective empowerment and challenges to unjust social arrangements and organizations.

Our concept is informed by the analyses of Doric Klein (1992) and Maureen Reddy (2003), who describe a new feminist crime fiction consistent with our concept of progressive moral fiction in that it subverts the conventions of the genre and advances notions of social justice. …

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