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VOICES

Gill Perdue From Cagney and Lacey to Bad Sisters, strong female characters are a joy to watch

The author’s new book is built around strong female characters and here, she looks at others who have inspired her.

LAST UPDATE | 22 Jun 2023

ONE OF MY earliest TV memories is from the sixties – watching Batman on a black and white set with my big brother Keith. He loved it so much that afterwards, he let me play it with him, even though I was ‘only a girl.’

I reminded him that Robin was an expert fighter because he used to be in a circus act with his parents before they were murdered, and I demonstrated my best cartwheel-into-roundhouse kick (I did gymnastics, Keith didn’t) and so I got to be Robin – the smaller half of the crime-fighting duo. The one who had to do everything Batman said, apparently, and get him snacks from the kitchen. (I’d never seen that episode, but Keith swore it was true.)

We fought crime in our back garden, on the walk home from school, and once – memorably, after scaling the high wall – in a neighbour’s swimming pool.

1960s-1966-1968-tv-series-batman-adam-west-and-burt-ward-as-batman-robin 1966-1968 Batman Adam West and Robin Burt Ward in the 1960s. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

More siblings arrived and, in the seventies, we watched TV together, elbowing each other for prime space on the battered couch while snacking on Opal Fruits and Desperate Dan bars.

‘Book him, Danno,’ quipped Jack Lord (Captain Steve McGarret), at the end of every episode of Hawaii Five 0, and James MacArthur, playing Danny Williams, would be on hand to click those handcuffs in place.

Meanwhile, over on ABC, Starsky and Hutch (Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul) raced around in their custom-painted red car with the vector stripe (that’s what it’s called FYI), catching the villains without getting any blood on that rather fabulous cardigan.

hawaii-five-0-us-tv-series-with-jack-lord-centre HAWAII FIVE-0 - US TV series with Jack Lord centre. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

We watched Californian patrol cops Ponch and Jon, (Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox) on their trusty Kawasaki KZPs flexing their biceps in short-sleeved shirts as they rode the highway in weather we could only dream of, grinning to reveal dental work we couldn’t begin to comprehend in the motorcycle cop show Chips.

erik-estrada-during-the-filming-of-the-television-series-chips-70s Erik Estrada during the filming of the television series chips, 70s. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The eighties brought us Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon, Stallone and Russell in Tango and Cash, in Turner and Hooch we had Tom Hanks and I don’t know his real name but, yes – a male dog.

Even KITT, the talking car in Knight Rider, was a bloke. Well, he seemed part spy, part butler, but the point is, he was clearly male. (By the way, quiz night info, KITT stands for Knight Industries Two Thousand.)

Where were the women?

Male crime-fighting partnerships were everywhere. What started with Watson and Holmes segued into Morse and Lewis, Regan and Carter in The Sweeney, Tommy-Lee and Will in Men in Black et al.

What about the girls? Were we always going to be bringing in the snacks? Where were all the crime-fighting women?

Little by little, things began to change. It seemed that if you had a husband, you could maybe fight crime (McMillan and Wife), or if you were fantastically beautiful and didn’t mind receiving instructions from a creepy male voice over the phone (Charlie’s Angels), yes – you could get a look in.

But then, in 1982, along came the gritty, thrilling, and realistic Cagney and Lacey with Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly in the lead roles of Chris Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey. A female buddy cop show.

glessdaly-cagney-and-lacey-1981 Cagney and Lacey Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

A ground-breaking female cop series, it was originally written as a screenplay by two female writers – Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday. And what a show! Consistently well-written, it gave us the hitherto unseen perspective of two female officers set in the male-dominated world of the cop show format.

They took on social issues, but never in a preachy way – issues were explored in the context of the workplace.

The set-up was their partnership – Chris Cagney, a single, somewhat obsessed career officer and Mary Beth Lacey, a mother and wife who needed to work to pay the bills. Both of them were brilliant cops. Both of them had real lives outside of the job – Mary Beth constantly juggling the demands of childrearing and work; Chris wrestling with the rollercoaster of alcoholism – with dramatic scenes which have stayed with me for decades. The series aimed to be more than a police procedural. It succeeded in showing the complexities of each individual behind the badge.

But the best thing of all about the show was the affection and loyalty the two women had for each other. Their friendship was real and visceral. They weren’t afraid to disagree or to challenge the other’s opinion. They argued and made up. But they always, always had each other’s backs. At the time, Gloria Steinem wrote that Cagney and Lacey’s partnership ‘honours women’s friendships and represents a radical departure from the myth that women can’t get along.’

Women as allies

And this was so true. At a time when women had been traditionally encouraged to see each other as rivals, Cagney and Lacey showed us the support and friendship of women in a new light.

It could be argued that Cagney and Lacey paved the way for female duos – and not just in the crimefighting world. Is there a glimpse of their feisty presence in the practically perfect Thelma and Louise? In the brilliance of Doctors Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy, in the sisterhood of Anna and Elsa, in the friendships of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants? Did they open the doors for Lorelai and Rory in The Gilmore Girls, for Donna, Tanya and Rosie in Mamma Mia, for Enid and Rebecca in Ghost World, even for Buffy and Willow in Buffy?

Now, media depictions of female friendship and shows with strong female leads are enjoying a long-overdue golden age. The joy of watching the brilliantly believable banter of the Garvey sisters in Bad Sisters has been for me, a highlight of 2023, and one which has justly received the recognition of BAFTA’s Best Drama Series Award.

newyorkny-august102022anne-mariehuffeve Shutterstock / lev radin Shutterstock / lev radin / lev radin

We don’t have to go far to find strong, intelligent, and well-written female characters in novels, on TV or in film. Think of Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, Vera in Shetland, Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, and the unparalleled Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley.

Then there are more brilliant pairings of comics, broadcasters and writers – Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes, Vogue Williams and Joanne McNally, Anna McPartlin and Sinéad Moriarty and so many more.

Brave and brilliant or flawed and fearful, these real women are everywhere in crime and psychological thrillers. We have Paula McGuire in Claire MacGowan’s state pathologist series, DS Maeve Kerrigan in Jane Casey’s brilliant books, Sinéad Crowley’s DS Claire Boyle stories and the list of female crime writers serving up excellent female characters is almost too long to mention – Catherine Ryan Howard, Andrea Mara, Jo Spain, Amanda Cassidy, Edel Coffey, Michelle McDonagh, Liz Nugent, Andrea Carter, Liz Moore, Patricia Gibney and so many more.

When I began researching the work of the Garda SVI (specialist victim interviewer) for my first book, it was the dynamic of the partnership between the interviewers that I found most fascinating, and which led to the creation of the friendship between Laura Shaw and Niamh Darmody.

When They See Me_Book Jacket

SVIs prepare the video evidence which, when used in court, can mean that the vulnerable victim will not have to give evidence or be cross-examined. It is a complex and demanding job requiring great communication skills, training, and emotional intelligence.

Laura and Niamh are, I hope, realistic, believable characters – a dynamic duo of two fabulous, flawed, funny, serious, brave and brilliant women, whose strength comes from their friendship, whose loyalty to each other is never in question. Take a break, Batman and Robin. The girls have got this.

Gill Perdue is an author. Her new book, When They See Me is published by Sandycove and is available in shops and online now.

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