From the village bobby on his bicycle to elaborate games of cops and robbers in mid-20th century America, detective fiction often harks back to the past. From a feminist perspective, this is a can of worms.
Consider Mad Men: feminist and social justice bloggers hated and loved it in equal measure. It certainly highlights the sexism, racism, antisemitism and homophobia of the 1960s. But Mad Men also replicates many of the same problems: white men are still the central characters, and they still hog the screen time. People of color are still sidelined; yes, just like in the 1960s. Ultimately it allows the viewer, particularly the privileged viewer, to take a safari into the past, commenting on how much worse things were then. But it turns out we haven't moved on so far as to spend equal time exploring the lives of the most marginalized people in that time and place, rather than adopting the gaze and perspective of the white protagonists. (Broadwalk Empire arguably does this better.)
Plenty of detective shows are set in the past, but I want to talk briefly about Life on Mars because it most directly applies the Mad Men ethos to the police force. In Life on Mars, Sam Tyler is a detective in 2006. He gets into a car accident that leaves him in a coma, which somehow transports him back to 1973. Through him, we the viewer get to experience what it was like in the police force in England at that time. Tyler is constantly shocked at methods which modern policing would deem corrupt, sexist, racist, etc.
Here's a clip which shows the dynamic at work (warning, contains offensive language):
The viewer is meant to identify with Tyler, the enlightened 21st century cop, as he's shocked again and again by life in 1973 (or an approximation of 1973, based loosely on The Sweeney).
It's especially interesting because the show doesn't reveal whether Tyler is imagining his vacation to the past, or if it's somehow real. If it turns out that these scenes of 1973 British life are part of Sam's imagination, then why has a straight white police officer sent himself back in time to fix the misdeeds of the past? Were police officers of 2006 such a shining example? It's just... odd. (I should mention that the sequel, Ashes to Ashes, does the same thing with a female cop sent back to 1981.)
Obviously the mid-20th century is a favorite setting for "hard boiled" detectives too, as writers and audience are taken back to a world where men are men and women are broads. LA Noire, an elaborate game of cops and robbers set in 1940s "golden age" Hollywood, is one of the latest, and it takes a perhaps less self-conscious approach.
I've just started LA Noire, and I'm having fun, but right away you're plunged into the past through the viewpoint of a young white male police officer (again!). Immediately, characters are making sexist and racist remarks; so far it seems that this has just been used as part of the "period dressing" of the game.
Creators of period pieces like this will often explain that they recreate the oppression of the past in their work because that's just what life was like back then. But when this is done uncritically, it risks becoming an excuse to indulge in a bit of nostalgic time travel.
With games, the medium means you're pulled into identifying even more with the character, so you can lose some of the critical distance of audiences for more passive entertainment. But, not wanting to pass judgement too much as I'm still pretty close to the beginning to LA Noire, I thought I'd check out the conclusions of some people who've finished the game.
"For the most part, the female characters were victims of horrific crimes and whilst I know this is the central theme of the game, the graphic content was pretty full-on. Added to that the other female characters were either manipulative wives or home-wrecking femme fatales," said one of my Twitter buddies, Paul Colnaghi. Some reviewers have also noted that the faces of the female characters look eerily alike, as though the developers haven't been bothered to individualize the women—ironic given the stress placed on the use of sophisticated face capture technology for the main characters.
"It's more of a matter-of-fact part of the time in which the game is set," Jenn Evans, a reviewer at Femme Gamer, says:
The lead character, Cole Phelps, is actually interesting as a character about such issues. He himself behaves respectfully towards women and minorities (with the exception of occasionally pushing racist buttons in interrogations, such as when he's questioning a Jewish businessman about the murder of an Anti-Semite). In wartime flashbacks with his squad in Okinawa, he's shown berating other troops for making racist remarks about the Japanese soldiers and people and tried to maintain a perspective of humanizing the enemy.
In situations where he's eager to impress his company, though, he's more likely to remain silent and say nothing about such issues (like when his new Vice partner, Roy Earle, takes offense to being touched by a black doorman and is shown berating and striking a woman). The most egregious examples of racism and sexism in the game are exhibited by characters like Earle, who are clearly meant to be seen as bad people.
At the same time some of the good guys also display an affable sort of discrimination from time to time, such as referring to women they don't know as "princess." Generally speaking, the women and minorities shown in the game occupy fairly subservient, one-dimensional roles...none of them are particularly fleshed out and they mostly tend to be either criminals or victims. Even the female lead, Elsa Lichtmann, is there mainly to look pretty and serve as the love interest without much characterization involved.
The intentions of the developers seem opaque to me (I'm hoping it becomes clearer as the game progresses). Are we meant to feel uncomfortable about the sexism, racism, and homophobia in LA Noire, or just soak it up as part of the scenery, like the old-style clothes, cars, and police procedure (such as picking up guns without gloves because presumably it's not possible to take fingerprints in the 1940s?!)?
Where does this nostalgia come from? And what is the outcome? Are we looking at the past to acknowledge current flaws? Or just taking a vacation in the past to make us feel better about the progress that has been made, and see ourselves as more "enlightened"?