It is rare to find a strong female character on a network show, much less two or three. Criminal Minds had three such women in Jennifer Jareau, Emily Prentiss, and Penelope Garcia. These women are smart, complicated, not at all fragile, and essential to the success of the team, not to mention the success of the show. Yet CBS has fired A.J. Cook and limited Paget Brewster’s episodes for the upcoming season, leaving only Kristen Vaughness and a new actress to be determined supposedly for creative reasons ” to refresh a veteran drama series.” As amazing as Vaughness’ geek goddess Penelope Garcia is she can’t make up for the now 4-1.5 split that turns the BAU into a boys club with quirky tech support. Irin at Jezebel already called out the sexism of this move in “Women Are Expendable on Criminal Minds” :
Whatever CBS’s motivations were, the sheer fury that this decision alone [has caused] is a sign of how badly viewers want strong roles for women on television — and how rare they seem to be, at least on networks.
The cast of the show expressed their disgust via twitter:
“Creative Reasons” has been an Executive Bulls— excuse for DECADES. It IS financial. AJ is a dreamboat. And yes, I am hurt, too,” Paget tweeted. “Thanks to all the fans. From me, AJ and the cast. We love you. We will always appreciate your support. You are kind and wonderful. KISSES!!”
Mantegna and Vaughness stuck to tweeting a petition to keep Cook and Brewster. Despite the negative reaction, CBS and the show’s producers aren’t backing off the decision. Their response has been but we are bringing on a new woman! Therefore we are not sexist, give us a cookie! This is just par for the course in a culture that values men over women. To anyone who doesn’t understand the sexism inherent in this decision, let me break it down for you. In evaluating how to trim their budget, (or spice up the show as CBS has suggested) they decided to fire a cast member. This cast member was female. They decided to cut another cast member’s episodes. This cast member was also female. You know whose hours they didn’t cut? The four male characters. CBS assumes the show’s success owes nothing to JJ (who has been part of Criminal Minds since the pilot) and that her absence will not only not hurt the show, but will help it. CBS also assumes the show does not have a female audience, that a female audience is unnecessary for the show, and that any female viewers they do have will not care that female representation on the show is down from 3 to 1.5 or that one woman is the same as another and female viewers will not notice the difference. So we have #1 women are less important than men, #2 women have no buying power as consumers, #3 women are interchangeable, #4 women have no value.
Firing a cast member on an ensemble show with high ratings may seem insane, and kind of self-destructive. Until you consider the idea that the executives view women as expendable, unimportant to the success of the show. If JJ is just there to give the male viewers something to look at and is valuable only for her appearance then another woman of similar attractiveness would have the same impact. A Criminal Minds promotional image shows us exactly how CBS views the relative importance of these characters:
The three most masculine presenting characters are foregrounded, while Reid (arguably the most interesting and popular character on the show), Garcia, Jareau, and Prentiss are in the background. Hotch, Rossi, and Morgan also get more screen time than these characters, and more episodes devoted to developing their background and inner life. This speaks to a culture that values men’s stories over women’s. Hollywood and television court a male audience, and see a female audience as a sign of trouble. Yet most franchises with overwhelming success are backed by a female audience, as explained by Sady Doyle :
Yet, if the numbers are any indication, you don’t need male fans to dominate the marketplace. In this decade, teen girls have backed the success of Taylor Swift (who ranks above every artist on the pop charts except for Michael Jackson), Miley Cyrus (responsible for multiple best-selling albums, a television series, a concert film, a movie, and various merchandise including a best-selling book), and the blockbuster movie franchise High School Musical. In the 1990s, teenage girls were responsible for the runaway success of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Titanic, the top-grossing movie of all time. A fan base of teen girls launched Madonna’s multi-decade career. And there was that 1960s boy band — the one with all the catchy, cheery pop songs and the cute, nonthreatening members who made girls squeal. I believe they called themselves The Beatles.
Yet shows created by and about women are assumed to fail. Women are just not interesting.
Networks are typically owned and run by men. Television shows are mainly created, written and produced by men. CBS and Criminal Minds are no different. Out of CBS’s Board of Directors there are two women. There is only one female CBS Executive. Two women directed a combined total of 4 Criminal Minds episodes. Six female writers are credited with a maximum of 16 episodes out of the series. Most have written 2 or 4 compared to series creator Jeff Davis who has written 109. While there are many female producers, the majority are male, and the executive producers (i.e. the ones with decision making power) are overwhelmingly male.
Now let’s get down to the heart of it, which is what these two women bring to the show.
Here are some clips to get you started:
Jennifer Jareau is the anchor of the show. She is our guide into the world of Criminal Minds and carries the perspective of the viewer. In contrast to the SSAs, JJ is affected by the darkness and the horror of their jobs. She humanizes the show and the team, highlighting voices of the victims and their families over the unsub. Though often underappreciated, her role in the team is essential. She chooses their cases, she manipulates the press and speaks for the team; communicating with the unsub who they know is watching. Several times throughout the series she has advocated for a case that her colleagues wanted to pass over and every time she has been right. These tend to be the most dire and difficult to solve cases: the couple that kidnapped dozens of children over decades without detection in “Mosley Lane,” the three soccer players who were kidnapped and forced to kill one of their own in “North Mammon,” and a serial killer taking homeless people and prostitutes through a sadistic game with the illusion of escape in “Legacy.” Her absence during her maternity leave was deeply felt, and Agent Todd was unable to fill the void.
Prentiss is dark, cynical, sarcastic, and scathing. She is fluent in Arabic, Italian, and Russian. She is a sometime geek and goth. She brings a humor and mocking comradery to the show that is sorely needed when dealing with such dark subject matter. She is tough, smart, and doesn’t take shit from anyone. Whenever they enter a hostile situation she is right up front with the boys. “In Birth and Death” Prentiss goes into the unsub’s house alone to get the team reasonable cause to enter, as she is not currently employed by the BAU. In “Seven Seconds” she breaks the woman who has kidnapped and left her niece to die. Prentiss is full of heart, determination, insight, and courage. Basically Emily Prentiss is an incredible badass and deserves every bit as much air time as the men.
The chemistry between the cast members has always been the key to the show’s success. CBS apparently has failed to realize this, even after making keeping the team together a staple theme. Hotchner is prepared to step down as the leader to keep the team from being broken-up. Prentiss was willing to quit the BAU (when this job has been established as her passion and goal she has been working toward for years) rather than be used against Hotch by his boss. The team’s devotion to their jobs and each other knows no bounds. Hotch lost his family, and his wife died because of this job yet he will not stop. Each member will and has risked their own life to protect each other and catch the unsub. The show is about a team that has become something more. This job is their life, the office their home, the team their family. To suggest anything else is dishonest and a disservice to the characters the cast and crew have spent five years building.
It is important to see a woman like Jennifer Jareau on television, who can fall in love, get married, get pregnant and have a baby without compromising her demanding and often dangerous job, who when faced with the choice to warn her child of potential danger or follow the protocol of her job, chooses to do her job. Though she is not a field agent, when an unsub holds the BAU at gunpoint, JJ shoots him in the head with no hesitation. Likewise Prentiss is a kickass agent who is never condescended to by the team or in need of “saving” anymore than her male colleagues and takes a beating to protect Reid when their cover is blown inside a cult stronghold. “Demonology,” the episode dealing with her childhood abortion is done without blame or shame and even critiques the church’s stance on abortion. If CBS actually wants to spice up the show they should give these women more to do. Not less.
Without Jennifer Jareau I know I for one will not be watching. Will you?