- Dressed to Kill:Postfeminist Noir
In 2004, I published a book about the character of the woman detective in visual culture. I wanted to call it Picturing the Female Dick, but my publisher was perhaps picturing repercussions in the age of Ashcroft and would not let me use the title. Eventually, I decided on Hardboiled & High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture. It was only much later, asked to write about cinematic postfeminism, that I realized the title could be read as a description of the woman detective as a postfeminist phenomenon, the Title VII poster girl, the dick as chick with wardrobe [End Page 121] choices. I am using the term "postfeminist" here not as it has been formulated theoretically but instead as it has been used popularly, to refer to the savvy woman who no longer needs political commitment, who enjoys feminine consumerist choices, and whose preoccupations are likely to involve romance, career choices, and hair gels.1 Using this template, one could argue that the cinematic woman detective endured her grimmer, less fun feminist phase as the harassed rookie cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) of Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1990) and as the earnest FBI student Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster)—whose fashion-challenged shoes are mocked by Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins)—in Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). But by the end of the 1990s, the woman detective was the dishy federal marshal Karen Sisco, played by Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998), with a better haircut and a far happier ending. The detective as beleaguered feminist? Case closed. She can take her place in Central Casting as yet another postfeminist success story.
This is not, of course, my argument in Hardboiled & High Heeled. A feminist/postfeminist division of the history of the woman detective would foreclose its most interesting questions about gender and genre.2 Yet, during the year that Hardboiled & High Heeled was in production, the woman detective character showed up in some snappy incarnations that made the postfeminist reading of my title more likely. In the first few months of 2004, Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie starred as women investigators in two A-list movies, Twisted (Philip Kaufman) and Taking Lives (D. J. Caruso). Both women play expert veterans, not rookies, and although neither actress is dolled up on the job, their fitted leather jackets and snug tank tops remind us of the super-model bodies underneath. On television, meanwhile, in the fall season of 2003, a record three primetime series featured women investigators. For the first time since Honey West (1966-67), this character had a show with her own name on it—Karen Sisco, with Carla Gugino as the eponymous federal marshal played by Lopez in Out of Sight. Gugino's Karen wore minis, dated a pro football player, and tended to sink into bubble baths as she contemplated villains she had blown away that day. In less glitzy versions of the female investigator, Crossing Jordan went into its third season with Jill Hennessy as the outspoken forensics examiner, while Cold Case opened to rave reviews for Kathryn Morris's homicide detective, whose authority and smarts were taken for granted by respectful guys at the office.
Polished, buff, and confident in a male milieu, these most recent heroines seem likely to be included in what Charlotte Brunsdon has described as "the Hollywood cast of postfeminist characters," along with the girly heroine of romantic comedy, horror's Final Girl, and melodrama's monster career woman.3 I would argue, as Brunsdon does, that "something to do with feminism is going on" in these genres and characters despite their seeming disavowal of second-wave feminism, and that "postfeminism" is a misleading rubric in its assignation of feminism to one era and one set of debates.4 Yet I join my colleagues in this forum—including Brunsdon with new thoughts on this topic—in arguing that postfeminism as a cultural shorthand and popular characterization—embodied onscreen by girly heroines, Final Girls, and female dicks—needs to be addressed in media studies [End Page 122] as a factor in both production and reception, as an interpretive grid...