Common sense dictates that if you watch a single episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation where a gay character is depicted as a serial killer, you won’t assume all gays are murderers.
But what happens if you watch 1,000 episodes and in 800 episodes all the gay characters are portrayed as serial killers?
Red Deer College instructor Carlen Lavigne raises the question in her award-winning paper, Death Wore Black Chiffon: Sex and Gender in CSI.
Using the popular prime-time crime series CSI as a case study, Lavigne took a microscope to the 25 episodes of Season 5 (September 2004 to May 2005) to determine whether prime-time television engenders shallow stereotypes in their depictions of women and sexual subcultures.
“We tend to form impressions about the world around us based on the messaging that surrounds us in television and in movies,” said Lavigne, a RDC communications and media studies instructor.
“It’s not as simple as I watched an episode in CSI and it had a gay serial killer, therefore I now assume all gay people are serial killers. That’s really simplistic.”
Lavigne recently presented her paper and opened the conversation recently as part of RDC’s Homegrown speaker series, highlighting some of the RDC faculty’s research.
Lavigne specializes in communication and media studies with a particular interest in gender and queer studies and race studies.
Her paper was published in 2009 and she won a faculty scholarship recognition award a year later. “One of the things that struck me when CSI came out was this very patriarchal nuclear family structure where you have the straight white male in charge,” Lavigne said. “You have this straight white female second in command.”
She noticed the stereotypical depictions throughout the casting, including the secondary characters who were only on the screen for a few minutes, for example, as a suspect in a crime.
Lavigne said the writers did not have time to develop them into complex characters so they used a lot of stereotypes as sort of shorthand to move the plot along.
“Which is why you get episodes where suddenly they are in the ghetto and they are surrounded by black youth, stereotypes like this,” she said.
“The only way to get around that is to allow more diversity in the regular characters. We need to see gay detectives on TV. We need to see women in charge rather than answering to the patriarch father figure. That’s the kind of change that I’m really talking about.”
Lavigne said she noticed this format in the original series and again when CSI: Miami debuted in 2002 and CSI: New York followed in 2004.
“At that point, I thought this is getting blatantly repetitive where they are just using the same structure over and over again,” said Lavigne. “That was when I started paying more attention.”
Lavigne said she was surprised at the blatant sexualization of women’s bodies in the show. There are 15 episodes in Season 5 where women are killed and in 12 episodes, they are found in lingerie or party dresses.
“They are lying on the bed,” said Lavigne. “They are in their mid-20s. They are thin and attractive. Their bodies are displayed for the viewer. There is a really uncomfortable necrophilia element. There’s even an episode where the coroner comments on how beautiful the body is.”
Lavigne said it’s important to pay attention to what is shown on television and to take a step beyond just watching for entertainment value and to think about the larger message. She said we should start thinking about what kind of stereotypes are showing up and what are not on the screen.
“There is no iteration of CSI that has a gay detective for example,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to see an example of that once in a while? I think we need to continue to pay attention to it. CSI is probably going off the air in the next year or two but we still have Bones, Castle and the Mentalist and Law and Order.”
Lavigne said there are some new shows that are changing the dynamics, mostly niche cable shows, but they are not showing up on the larger networks like CBS, ABC or NBC, which flood the Canadian airwaves.
“Networks do not like taking chances,” said Lavigne. “They like making money, which means they have a tendency to copy everything that has been successful in the past, which is why we get Law and Order: SVU and Law and Order: Missing Pets. I don’t think they are going to change it until audiences start indicating they would like to see a change.”