Editor’s Note: Most writers tend to get cranky about inaccuracies in television. Madeleine Robins is no exception. This post originally appeared in 2011.
I am fond of procedural crime dramas, lawyer dramas, medical dramas, and I am pleased to note that women are well represented in the roles of FBI agents, detectives, CSIs, lawyers, reporters, doctors, mad scientists, etc. I am less pleased because so many of these characters don’t seem to have a clue how to dress.
I’m not talking dressing badly, or tastelessly, or even doing stupid things like wearing really high heels in a job where you’re on your feet all day (like, say, being an ER doc or a detective). I’m talking about dressing inappropriately for a woman in a position of professional responsibility and authority. Like the woman pictured above. The show is Unforgettable; the character is Detective Carrie Wells, played by the extremely slender and beautiful Australian actress, Poppy Montgomery. And unless it’s snowing in a scene, she runs around Manhattan in tank tops and low-cut t-shirts. I can’t even begin to consider the show on its merits because every time the character arrives on screen, I want to take her aside and talk to her about her wardrobe. Who is going to take her seriously? Her low-life witnesses are surely staring down her cleavage; her co-workers wonder why she dresses like she just came from yoga class. She doesn’t look like she takes her job seriously.
Better than Carrie Wells is Teresa Lisbon, lead agent for the California Bureau of Investigation on The Mentalist. Lisbon favors blazers and blouses–and heels, of course. I like her because her clothes don’t look expensive–she has a slight working class vibe about her–and because she rarely looks over-made-up and over-coiffed (they leave the coiffing to Simon Baker, the lead on the show). She is often shown wearing Henley-style sweaters, or t-shirts, but usually she has a jacket too, so she looks like she’s attempting active-business-wear, She looks like she means to be taken seriously, like she is less interested in being noticed for her clothes (or her body) than for her authority.
I really like Anna Torv, who plays Olivia Dunham on Fringe (I love Fringe), The clothes she wears are usually well-made, well-fitted, and tasteful; she’s the Dana Scullyof our age. On the other hand, she often looks as if she forgot to iron the blouse, and her style–long straight hair, often pulledback in a ponytail–makes her look sort of no-nonsense. Her faintly melancholy deneanor suggests that she’s someone to be taken seriously. That helps when you are dealing with aliens and multiple universes and shapeshifters… Torv and Montgomery have a similar look and body type (all of these women are slender and athletic looking–even the short ones) but somehow Torv rarely looks like she’s showing off how svelte and limber she is.
Then there’s Kate Beckett on Castle. She dresses well, in a sort of New York casual style. I do have a real problem with the heels–they may be stylish, but when I saw her trying to kick out a wall the other night (there was a tiger on the other side…long story) in high-heeled boots I couldn’t help but think, you know, Merrells would have been more comfortable for this. I don’t expect her to sport Adidas, for heaven’s sake, but really: if she’s supposed to be able to sprint after bad guys on a moment’s notice, the heels aren’t selling it for me. Occasionally Beckettsits around the stationhouse in a t-shirt or (if it’s hot out) a tank top, but you can be pretty sure that when she’s out meeting the public she’ll throw a jacket on over it. Business casual still means business.
Okay, I get cranky about this. What may be more surprising is that my husband, who is not above ogling a pretty woman, is quicker to snap “Put a jacket on!” at a character committing offenses against being taken seriously than I am. But I am the mother of girls, or rather, young women. I have discussions with them about the semiotics of clothing, especially for women. They’re coming of age in a world that is very different from the one I grew up in (in which I was once told I should learn to type because it was a good job for a woman. I compromised by learning to type badly). But I can’t help thinking that some of the old verities pertain: if you want to be taken seriously, dress seriously.
Where, then, does that leave Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds? Well, the show sets her up as her own sweet, eccentric, brilliant self, and even the FBI isn’t going to change her. Plus: she rarely goes out to be the Face of the Team or interact with the public; her authority is entirely based in what she can do to support the people with guns. Not all the butterfly hair clips and chunky plastic jewelry in the world can distract from ability, and her team knows it. And anyway: she may dress like a Kewpie doll on occasion, but she never dresses like she’s holding down a business on the corner of 10th Avenue and 36th Street.