Alright, so, I had to write a paper for my English Composition 102 class about an ideology shared by a community that I am part of that I would like to see change. I chose the Criminal Minds fandom as my community, and the way that female characters are viewed as my topic. I sent out a request for people on livejournal and tumblr to let me know their feelings for Elle Greenaway, Jennifer Jareau, Emily Prentiss, Penelope Garcia, Ashley Seaver, and Haley Hotchner. I received over seventy responses - not all of them negative - and I am extremely grateful to everyone who was involved.
I neglected to add screen names into this, so all quotes are instead accompanied by a gender and an age (where applicable). I would like to stress that not all of the responses I got were negative - even some that I quoted had positive things to say about other characters.
Due to time and length constraints, I was unable to get into Garcia (who most people have no problem with) or Haley. The two of them, along with Strauss and Jordan Todd, are characters that I intend to talk about in another post.
One last note: This paper was due the Tuesday after "Lauren" aired. That is the time frame that I was working in.
“She’s a female agent. Sometimes being a bitch comes with the territory.” These are the words of a nineteen-year-old female fan of CBS’s hit crime drama Criminal Minds. When I asked people in the online fan communities—on blogging sites tumblr and Livejournal —their opinions on the female characters of the show, I was expecting negative responses. I wasn’t disappointed. This comment is just the beginning of an onslaught of misogynistic, unfounded hatred for many of the female characters on the show, especially those who don’t fit into the stereotypical female roles. I am personally a huge fan of Criminal Minds and of nearly all of the characters. I’m an active member of the online fanbase (or “fandom”) for the show, but the constant bombardment of misogynistic comments about the female characters is disheartening. If there was anything I could change about the Criminal Minds fandom, it would be the overall consensus that characters like Elle or Ashley Seaver are considered “not submissive enough” to be tolerated, while characters like Jennifer “JJ” Jareau and Emily Prentiss are only liked after they become more nurturing.
Elle Greenaway is the fandom fall-guy. The agent joined the Behavioral Analysis Unit in the first episode of the show, and left in the sixth episode of season two, after undergoing a major trauma and suffering through PTSD on her own. An abysmally small portion of the viewership is even civil when talking about her. “She comes across as someone who relates better to men than women,” said a female fan in her thirties. Other words used to describe Elle were “abrasive”, “cold”, “forgettable”, “defiant”, “sarcastic”, and the ever-present “bitchy”. Many of the responses cited Elle’s brusque take-no-prisoners attitude. All of these stereotypically male traits were frowned upon, adding up to a character that is almost universally hated within the fanbase.
One of the complaints I’ve heard about Elle (and later, Ashley Seaver) is that she “wasn’t submissive enough” to Hotch. According to many fans, Hotch’s word is law, and anyone who goes against that is wrong. (Unless, of course, they’re Reid. Or Morgan. Or Rossi. Just not the girls, okay? They have to listen.) The fact that the whole team is intentionally made up of characters with vastly different personalities and backgrounds of experience seems to escape these fans. There’s a reason that profilers work in teams—because arguing with each other, debating the different points from different perspectives, will help keep one person from making mistakes based on a bias. The characters are meant to debate various aspects of the profiles they give—again, this is okay if it’s Reid or Morgan debating Hotch, but not when Elle or Seaver do it.
Emily Prentiss, Elle’s successor, started out on the show as a new agent notable for her compartmentalization skills. As JJ says in the season two episode “Revelations”: “You came off a desk job. Now suddenly you're in the field surrounded by mutilated bodies, and you don't even flinch.” Many fans admitted to not enjoying Prentiss’s character until she softened up, becoming more of a big sister to the team. They thought she was too “mannish”— apparently, having a grip on your emotions isn’t the feminine way to behave. Emily is now a female fan favorite—second to Garcia—but only after she loosened up and showed her more stereotypically feminine side. She has become a standard by which the other characters—especially Elle—are held to and judged. Prentiss is an amazing character, there’s no doubt: She’s widely admired for her determination, strength, and for being a well-adjusted, confident self-professed nerd. People didn’t like her in the beginning because she was “mannish”, and they warmed up to her later—something that also happened with Jennifer Jareau.
Fans of JJ’s repeatedly gushed about JJ’s warmth, compassion, and Team Mom position in the BAU, but none of these really work into her actual characterization on the show. JJ has always kept people at an arms’ length, and has always been career-driven. For the first two and a half seasons of the show, JJ was always the calm, clinical liaison between the BAU and the rest of the world. And yet, once she became a mother (due to the actress’s real life pregnancy), fans seemed to think that motherhood was all her character revolved around. To them, she was no longer the career-driven, emotionally-detached, ambitious JJ of seasons past, but instead only a “gentle female presence” as one fan put it. JJ was not actually written so differently. Her maternal instincts surfaced slightly more often, and she lost a small bit of her detachment, but the fans blew it completely out of proportion from her actual characterization. Nearly every response I got praised JJ for her warmth and maternal spirit. The love for JJ increased tenfold once there was some hint of maternal instinct for people to latch onto.
Now, with the firing of AJ Cook and Paget Brewster (JJ and Prentiss, respectively), there are no experienced female profilers on the team. There is a new agent on the team—Ashley Seaver, a cadet. Rachel Nichols’s character has quickly become a target for fans to push their irritation about AJ Cook’s firing onto. Fan opinions on her ranged from hopeful to…well, to someone referring to her exclusively as “it” throughout their comment. If that isn’t misogyny at its finest, I don’t know what is. The most common words used about Seaver are “useless”, “stupid”, and “Not!JJ” or “Replacement!JJ”. Because both characters are blonde-haired, blue-eyed women, people automatically say that Seaver is trying too hard to be JJ. This line of thinking is damaging not only to Seaver’s character, but to JJ’s, as well. It reduces both of them down to The Token Pretty Girl, completely ignoring their different personalities, backgrounds, and experiences. People latch so hard onto Seaver’s perceived “uselessness” and JJ’s “maternal warmth” that they don’t take the time to actually look at who these characters are. Instead of citing the implausibility of Seaver’s inclusion to the team or bland storytelling as reasons to dislike her, people consistently listed reasons like her possible relationship with Reid and her resemblance to JJ.
Seaver has been the most harshly judged based on her relationship to Reid, who is the most widely loved character on the show. This is disturbing in quite a few ways. To begin with, the idea that Seaver was brought onto the show solely as a love interest is degrading. Characters shouldn’t be love interests first and characters second. Criminal Minds has a simple policy about inter-team dating: It doesn't happen. The writers have established this policy repeatedly since the first season of the show. They like to keep the show romance-free because the show looks at the group of profilers as a family. Most fans blatantly ignore this policy—along with multiple statements from the writers, show-runners, actors, and make-up artists of the show saying that Seaver was not being brought on as a love interest. The fans have an impossible way of judging Seaver when it comes to Reid. If she’s nice to him, they all get upset that she’s “trying to steal [their] man”. If she teases him (much in the way that Derek Morgan teases him), then she’s condemned for not doing everything she can to be nice to him. It’s absolutely impossible to appease people when these vastly opposing opinions seem to exist in harmony within most of the fanbase.
These women are put down by because they have traits generally attributed to men, or because of the role they play in the storylines of the male characters. Considering that Criminal Minds is well-known (and respected) for the way that it plays with gender roles and continually casts competent, intelligent women, it’s disturbing that so many fans are so opposed to women as independent, dominate personalities with their own storylines and lives that don’t revolve around the male cast. Elle, Prentiss, and JJ are the three field agents of the group, the three women on the front lines with the guys. It should be inspiring to see an ambitious woman positively portrayed on television—instead of ambition being written as a bad thing—but instead it’s considered a serious crime by fans. The male characters—Hotch and Gideon most notably—get away with being clinical, dark, or distant. It’s alright for them to be that way, because people expect male characters on cop shows to be stoic and in-control of everything. The women are supposed to be the rookies—the ones who are always asking questions and obeying orders without question. Seaver fits this role well, and even then, the fanbase can’t be satiated.
If fans of the show can’t accept fictional women with ambition and agency, how are they going to accept real women with the same traits? This mindset and attitude is holding back progress. It’s not even just sitting back and being content with the glass ceiling already forced on women; this attitude is coating that glass ceiling with bricks, bringing it even lower. If women can’t be allowed to have ambition, or to be career-driven, what does that say about our society? Have we really come so far from the 1950’s view of women? It’s frightening how many of the fans who responded to my posts were younger than seventeen. Instead of taking this show and gaining positive, strong female role models, these girls are trashing the characters, or only starting to love them after they stop pushing the boundaries of perceived gender roles.
I love the Criminal Minds fandom and many of the more intelligent people within it, but people need to learn that it is wrong to hate a character so passionately just because they dare not to be a damsel in distress. I don’t know if, at this point, there is anything that can be done to change this core belief that women should only fall into their stereotypically feminine roles. It’s so ingrained into so many people that I don’t think I’ll see a drastic change in the world in my lifetime, let alone the fandom. If everyone could get behind strong women on television, then maybe it would be easier for real women to break past the boundaries that have been set for them. But the scrutiny and disdain of women with agency, who stand up for themselves and have minds of their own, is something that will be hard to push past. The way it’s currently being fought within the fandom is by a handful of girls who do their best to change the way these characters are viewed. Sometimes, writing essays on character development and pointing out when someone broadcasts their internalized misogyny isn’t enough to really change things. The probability of gaining an overall positive view of every female character on the show—the way there is a positive view of every male character—is slim. But that doesn’t mean that I will stop fighting it, and trying to force that change.