Rainbow Rant: Give us butches without badges

Why are there so many lesbian cops in TV?

Joy Ellison
Da'Vine Joy Randolph in "Only Murders in the Building"

“Only Murders in the Building,” the new Hulu TV show starring Steven Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, accomplishes a rare feat: It’s both a wry comedy and a compelling mystery. 

The series also boasts a satisfying amount of diversity, with plenty of characters of color, Jewish characters and characters with disabilities. Even during an episode shot mostly in silence to better capture the perspective of a deaf character — a device that could easily become heavy-handed — all of the diversity feels organic. It’s like the writers wanted to reflect the actual demographics of New York City, or something. 

By and large, I loved the way that “Only Murders in the Building” portrays social identities, but the series also engages in what has become one of my biggest pet peeves in queer representation: There’s only one reoccurring queer character and she’s a cop.

The character in question, Detective Williams, is well-developed and charmingly portrayed by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. But depicting queer women as cops has become a TV cliché and a tired one.

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Queer female police officers are over-represented on TV and you don’t have to take my word for it. According to LezWatch.TV, an online database of queer women and transgender TV characters, 9 percent of queer women characters on TV are members of the police or military and 10 percent are criminals. Add the two together and criminals and police form an overwhelming proportion of queer women’s representation on TV, nearly tying portrayals of students, the most common type of female queer characters. 

It’s not hard to understand why consistently portraying queer women as criminals is harmful to real-life people trying to navigate the world offscreen. Representations of queer women as duplicitous, violent, and predatory make for painful viewing. Scholars have also convincingly demonstrated that representations of queer people as criminals contribute to biased media coverage of real-life criminal trials, as well as the disproportionate number of queer people inside jails and prisons. These “queer criminal archetypes” especially damage queer and trans women of color. 

The impact of queer female cop characters is more complicated. On the surface, this representation might seem positive to many. But overrepresenting queer women as police officers obscures the discrimination that many queer female cops endure within police departments, as well as the violence that queer women have long faced as the hands of the police. 

Anyone paying attention to the news in Columbus knows that queer and trans people, especially Black queer and trans women, are abused by police. That doesn’t change when lesbians, such as former police chief Kim Jacobs, put on a badge. When the over-representation of queer women as fictional police officers is hailed as “positive representation,” our efforts to hold police accountable for their actions are undercut. 

But why are there so many female queer cops on TV, anyway? One answer is that policing fits in with stereotypes of queer women as tough and comfortable in roles typically associated with masculinity. 

But the most compelling explanation is that there are simply tons of cops on TV. Shows either about or heavily featuring policing made up nearly 20 percent of scripted shows on network TV in the 2019-20 season. 

Cop shows aren’t innocent entertainment. Research shows that they spread misinformation about crime and policing. They traffic in stereotypes of people of color, including queer Black and Brown people. Worst of all, they normalize and justify illegal and racist policing practices, undercutting calls for police accountability. 

The time has come for cop shows to go. I’m all for tough-talking queer women in leather jackets on TV, but let them hang up their batons. Give us butches without badges. We deserve broader and better queer representation.