TV GUIDE Feb. 2-8, 1985
A Female Cop's Testimonial: "I'd walk through a dark alley with Cagney or Lacey behind me."
A policewoman-turned-novelist has strong feelings about lady cops and how they're presented on TV.
In 1955, I was one of 10 women members of the New York City Transit Police Department. Our assignment, in plain-clothes, was the same as our male partners'. We patrolled, investigated and made on-the-spot arrests ranging from molesters to pickpockets to pocketbook snatchers to juvenile delinquents; from fare beaters to armed robbers; from degenerates to armed rapists. The public was, by and large, unaware of our existence.
When I was assaulted by an armed rapist and managed to disarm and capture him, I became the property of the media. No one like me had ever been seen working with Joe Friday on Dragnet; all "police-type" women on TV were fat, surly uniformed guards whose only function seemed to be to walk female prisoners into and out of the room at the pleasure of the male officers. The public perception of me and the work I did reflected my own experience with non-police friends. The New York Journal-American ran a congratulatory editorial; Dorothy's Little, But Oh My! The New York World-Telegram's editorial was headed: Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman.
I was sent on a round of television shows and my experience on the Dick Van Dyke early-morning talk program just about aid it all. Mr. Van Dyke by-golleyed and gee-whizzed me as he measured his 6 feet 1 inch against my 5 feet 5 inches and kept gulping and wondering if I could "take him," and "Would I demonstrate?" I have one wonderful memory of that particular experience. A very gentlemanly newscaster took me aside and said, "Mrs. Uhnak, my name is Walter Cronkite and I want to congratulate you on a job well done."
Ten years later, when my first book, "Policewoman" was published, no producer on television would touch it. The idea of a female in a position of authority was completely unacceptable. I was invited as a guest on The Mike Douglas Show, in Cleveland, and while I was being interviewed- unknown to me-I was being parodied by an actress who was dressed as a Keystone Kop. As I spoke, she was on camera frantically going through her pocketbook, tossing out makeup and jewelry and hair rollers in search of her gun. It was hilarious.
It was not until the civil-rights and women's lib movements that women were finally offered the same opportunities as men in law enforcement. It seemed impossible to men of my generation that one day a woman might be their superior officer. It would never happen. Of course, it did happen, as more and more young women were qualified as police officers.
The hue and cry on the part of policemen's wives worried about their husbands being paired with a woman was not only silly, it was ludicrous. After all, the front seat of a squad car isn't exactly conducive to a romantic interlude. The intensity of the time spent together by police partners leaves little space for enchantment. In a patrol car, on public display, virtually cut off from any other person, eight hours can seem endless. Every normal quirk of personality becomes intensified; if he tells the same story one more time...is he aware of the fact that he clears his that once every three minutes?...How did I ever get stuck in this car, with this guy? And finally, thank God he goes home to her at the end of the tour!
The concern of policemen's wives regarding the competency of their husbands partners is valid. They should be concerned about any partner, male or female. There are terrific cops, male and female; average cops, male and female; and not-so-great cops, male and female. The competency of any police officer depends on a great many factors; training, education, motivation, experience, personality, confidence, supervision. Sex has very little to do with competency.
As more and more women become police officers throughout the country, TV made some moves toward reflecting reality. Very small moves; very unreflective of reality. The TV series Police Woman (not connected in any way with my book of the same title) did not do the kind of job for women officers as had been done by the same production company (David Gerber Productions) for male officers. Police Story showed male officers in a new light, as complex human beings. But Police Woman had gorgeous Angie Dickinson decked up in skintight outfits, getting herself into ugly, suggestive situations, forever playing at whoredom and forever pulling back ad the last moment. In nearly every episode, she got herself into life-threatening trouble; her male partners rescued her. Young policewomen around the country felt that this show made their lives a little harder. They felt degraded by the image presented.
Then along came Cagney and Lacey.
At last! To a very great extent, this is what it looks like, feels like, sounds like to be a police officer. Male or female.
The team is wonderfully balanced; two very different women of disparate backgrounds, different outlooks, who might never have selected each other as friends, but who have ended up as partners. No matter what their differences, they respond immediately and completely when the transformation is required from two individuals into one team. Their relationship is representative of a typical good partnership. The personality clashes that occur are normal between any two people who work together closely on a job that is often tedious, exhausting, boring, but may suddenly turn into a life-death situation. What is really extraordinary is the way their differences are so clearly established, and yet we know without question that they can rely on each other completely.
I think there is a greater leeway for TV writers to show qualities of compassion through women officers. They feel more comfortable allowing vulnerability to be a part of a woman's character. In a way, I think this will lead to a greater freedom in expressing the same feelings on the part of men officers, who traditionally have had to keep the tough mask in place in public, but who do harbor many mixed emotions about their job.
There is a unique difference between police work and any other kind of work. The important fact to me about Cagney and Lacey is that we are shown a couple of complex, capable, caring and intelligent police officers at work and they just happen to be women. The same scripts, cast with male leads, would still play. That is authenticity and shows a respect for reality. (It is probably worth noting here that of the 22 episodes of Cagney and Lacey that will be seen this season, 15 were written or co-written by women.)
I am delighted and grateful that CBS had the good sense to return this program to the air. I'd walk through a dark alley with Cagney or Lacey behind me. That is the ultimate compliment from one police officer to another.
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