One of the reasons that TV crime dramas remain so popular is, paradoxically, their predictability. We may not know whodunnit, but there is always a checklist of familiar characters and plotlines: the incompetent copper, the busybody neighbour, the dramatic revelations found in the deceased’s will, and the apparently endless supply of white, middle class couples checking the property pages for a nice detatched house in Midsomer Murders (they’d do better checking the obituaries).
But there are some plot-lines that have become too familiar. Take Endeavour, the popular Inspector Morse prequel that’s returning to ITV for a seventh series. The opening scenes of the first episode, set in 1969, jump back and forth between Venice, Italy, where a holidaying young Morse has made a beeline for the opera house, and back in Oxford, where locals are celebrating New Year’s Eve and the start of a new decade.
Various close-ups show a beautiful blonde barmaid, who at one point wordlessly and good-humouredly extracts herself from the drunken clutches of a customer. Another man (obviously a jealous boyfriend) interjects.
Later she walks home alone, the camera trained on her back. Surely, I thought, it can’t be this obvious.
Reader, it was that obvious. Moments later we see her hand, scrabbling at the top of a low wall along the towpath as she attempts to escape from her unseen attacker. She dies about seven minutes in, and throughout that time she doesn’t say a single word of dialogue.
The “dead girl” trope, or “beautiful dead girl” trope, is probably one of the most common – and most critiqued – stereotypes of TV crime drama. Female victims crop up in everything from Twin Peaks, Law & Order and Top of the Lake, to more recent shows like Luther, Marcella, Netflix’s You and the Ted Bundy drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The method of murder varies, but often it’s sexually motivated, and usually there’ll be some grim, drawn-out scene where the pathologist takes isolated photographs of the victim’s body (frequently naked or barely clothed).
A female soon-to-be victim in BBC drama Luther
There are plenty of problems with using female characters as plot-fodder. It reinforces the idea of female powerlessness, for a start. It forces women into the ‘victim’ role, and the usually male detective or else avenging boyfriend into the traditional protector role. The dead girl trope is also habitually tied up with graphic scenes of sexual violence. And, although it’s often deployed for shock value, it’s also getting dull. It’s boring, being able to predict exactly which character will die, minutes before it happens on-screen.
In the opening episode of Endeavour series seven, two female characters are murdered. They’re both white, blonde, pretty: in fact, they look strikingly similar.
Shaun Evans, who plays Morse and who directed this episode, was asked in an interview with RadioTimes.com about the female characters’ deaths and the dead girl trope. “I didn’t know that was a trope,” he said, before later adding: “I’m not defending it, I’m just saying it was a choice by the writer.” It seemed like a glaring omission in Evans’ knowledge of TV crime drama stereotypes, both as an actor and a director, and particularly since later in the interview he talked about how he can always predict the outcome of the Morse detective books: “You can see the tropes,” he said.
Stephanie Leonidas as Violetta in ITV’s Endeavour
Violetta, the woman whom Morse falls for while in Venice, is also a kind of stereotype. A dark-haired femme fatale, she is beautiful, mysterious, almost wordless, and, for much of the episode, nameless. Morse (and the camera) focuses on individual parts of her body: her chest, the back of her neck, an upper portion of her face.
As she lies in Morse’s bed, her sleeping, passive form is a site of objectification. She is seen entirely through the male gaze. In another scene featuring a different female character, the woman’s male colleagues stare greedily at distinct parts of her body, as though they were farmers sizing up a heifer.
All this takes place against the backdrop of a Women’s Rights subplot. There’s also a case of #MeToo-esque workplace harassment, and it’s clear that Endeavour producers were keen to tackle the topical issue. But by kicking off the episode with the all-too-familiar “dead girl,” before adding a sexually-motivated murder and female victim to the body count, they undermined any good intentions they might have originally had.
A tip for TV crime dramas: if you really want to appeal to a post-#MeToo audience, start by ditching the dead girl.