Privilege And The White Dude Super-Detective

By Tami Winfrey Harris

I’m a sucker for a good mystery. It doesn’t matter whether the detective sports a deer stalker cap, a rumpled raincoat, a string of tasteful pearls, or my name (sistah detective Tamara Hayle. Check her out!); whether the action takes place in London, L.A., the English countryside, Maine, or Newark—give me a suspicious death, a handful of clues and red herrings, and an intrepid sleuth, and I’m in.

My long love affair with the mystery genre (love you, Quinn Martin!) has taught me many life lessons: for instance, no one—no matter how benign the questions—wants to give up information to the po-po; professors, waitresses, street toughs—all resolutely anti-snitching. I have learned to avoid both the University of Oxford (Inspector Lewis) and fictional Hudson University (Law & Order), as they are hot beds of murder and mayhem. I have also learned that my invisibility as an aging woman will make detective work a perfect career in my dotage. (Can’t wait for the little old lady detective parties, where Jessica Fletcher and Miss Marple explain how being unassuming lets one uncover all the dirt.) And I have learned that race and gender matter, even in the fictional detective world, thanks to a currently quite popular mystery genre type: The White Dude Super-Detective.

White Dude Super Detective (WDSD) isn’t a police officer, but he is so much smarter than the official (and legal) keepers of law and order, that authorities follow his lead. But unlike, say, Jessica Fletcher or Jane Marple, he is no picture of propriety. WDSD is given power over criminal investigations despite traits that usually result in marginalization: Drug addiction (Sherlock Holmes), mental illness (Monk*, Monk; Dr. Daniel Pierce, Perception; possibly Holmes again), a criminal history (Patrick Jane, The Mentalist); general immaturity (Richard Castle, Castle).

As unbelievable as WDSD characters are, they would become infinitely more so if their race or gender were changed. In The Mentalist, WDSD Patrick Jane once grifted clients as a fake psychic, but now works as a hard-to-control resource for the California Bureau of Investigations. What if the Jane character were a Latino ex-grifter? Would his arrogance and propensity for sneaking into suspect’s homes and accusing wealthy businessmen of impropriety read as quirky and charming? Would anyone believe that a police force would allow such behavior? Could the Scotland Yard of fantasy be down with a coke-addicted black Sherlock—no matter how clever? The San Francisco police department abides Adrian Monk’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, as the FBI allows Perception’s Dr. Daniel Pierce to assist on cases, despite his unmedicated schizophrenia and paranoia, which results in hallucinations. Could a black woman be cast in those roles to the same effect? I submit, that even in the fictional worlds of literature and television, race and gender matter. Belief can only be suspended so far. And this archetype is reliant on power that comes with white maleness in American society.

Arthur Conan Doyle may have created the granddaddy of all WDSD in the late 19th century, but modern-day Sherlocks are popping up all over, of late. See them almost 24/7 on the US cable channel, TNT, home of Perception, The Mentalist, and Castle. Indeed, it’s my habit of leaving the TV on this channel while surfing the ‘net at night that crystallized the archetype for me. It seems the WDSD archetype is having a heyday, and it’s worth asking why. Art is often the conduit for backlash against societal change. For instance, author Ariel Levy argues that the rise of “raunch culture,” including sexualized female images in television and film, is a response to feminist gains. Is the prevalence of white dude super detectives in American pop culture simply a continuation of the way race and gender have always been portrayed in art or a backlash against changing racial demographics and female success–an opportunity to elevate white maleness, which isn’t as universally and unquestionably elevated as it once was?

*Though Tony Shalhoub — who not only starred in Monk but became an executive producer — is a Lebanese-American, his character’s ethnicity was never explicitly addressed, making him written to embody “mainstream” white, male American culture.

  • whattamisaid

    Yeah, but the way the US views people from Middle Eastern countries is complicated and I wanted to avoid an is Monk “of color” or not argument like the ones that always pop up around Lebanese Americans. (See: Kardashian, Kim)

  • groove365

    There’s nothing especially compelling about a show where the bad guys get what they deserve 99% of the time so i don’t watch any of these shows regularly.
    I’ve seen episodes of many of them but they’re just fantasies for the crowd who actually believes that if you are innocent the criminal justice system will treat you fairly, that’s why the Super Detective is always a white guy because I don’t think very many people of color believe that myth and so don’t buy really into that sort of show.

  • springaldjack

    It occurs to me that if we look back in time a little from current TV I can think of some White Super-Lady Detectives. Most prominently of course would be Jessica Fletcher, protagonist of longrunning TV show Murder, She Wrote. In the avenue of books she is of course a close kin to Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple, and I think there have been several relatively successful book lines featuring White Super-Lady Detectives, though none as prominent.

    Not disputing the WSDD pattern, just noting that there have been (more rarely) white women characters allowed to be super-dectives.

    • whattamisaid

      Take another read of the article. It mentions both Fletcher and Marple and explains why they are different–though they surely embody an archetype all their own.

      • springaldjack

        That’s my mistake for not remembering they were in the article, and I apologize for that. Total brain misfire.

  • http://twitter.com/rebelwerewolf Ike

    Grimm is a supernatural detective drama that also follows the white male lead / non-white male sidekick pattern.

  • MoseyM

    THANK you for this! I’ve only ever seen Sherlock, The Mentalist and (as McLicious points out) House from this list, but I”ve been stewing over this trope for months, ever since I visited my parents where we watched The Mentalist. During the first ten minutes I was trying to figure out what made the show “great,” as Mom & Dad said it was, rather than just another one of those WDSD shows. And, to my horror, I realized my parents liked it BECAUSE it was another one of those WDSD shows! I noticed that whenever The Mentalist pulled off a “gotcha” plot-line my dad (a white man) seemed to identify strongly with the WDSD while my mom appreciated the wit of “the writers.” I think Mom was identifying with the female sidekick because of the nanny-like role the sidekick is forced to take on with the main character, yet she still wants to be (or identify with) the WDSD. But since the entire show is written so that the audience identifies with the WDSD, audiences who aren’t white men have to do the work of making peace with wishing they were the awesome white dude. Internalized self-hate, anyone? And that made me feel pretty damn icky.

    My Mom claimed that the female sidekick was “cool” because she’s smart and head of the department (or whatever achievement, I don’t really remember). But to me the entire structure of the show subverts this: you have, at the end of the day, a white man who is allowed to be an immature asshole to others and to break the law, with a posse of brilliant beauty queens and cool-dude POC whose entire dialogue consists of asking eager, earnest questions of the white man. The point of the woman’s brilliance is not to make her an admirable character, but to add to the white man’s worth, as in men who brag that they’re dating a hottie who speaks six languages. An audience who identifies with the WDSD gets to experience the female sidekick’s achievement as ego inflation. And by the same function the cool-dude POC cops who assist the WDSD function from this POV as “hey, Black people love me!” nonsense. That’s why when Lucy Liu was cast as Watson I thought for a split second “awesome!” before realizing this means that audiences will be subjected to a beautiful, brilliant woman of color character reduced to asking questions of a WDSD for an hour.

    And as much as I have an undying love for Hugh Laurie I feel exactly the same way about House and Sherlock. Whenever the non-WDSD characters are right about something or are able to perform the job for which they’re actually qualified on their own, it’s always noticeable precisely because it’s an exception. It makes me angry how they’ve blinkered audiences into accepting this and thinking, “oh, smart role models for my daughters, awesome! A diverse cast, how progressive!”

    “It seems the WDSD archetype is having a heyday, and it’s worth asking why.” I guess the only difference I really see between the WDSD structure and actual-member-of-the-PD WDSD detective shows of yesteryear is that nowadays the white male conservative base is more anti-government than it was 40 or 50 years ago, and the new WDSD shows allow them to see the renegade outsider bust through bureaucracy and show those incompetent government workers how it’s done. And in an era where most of those guys probably have women and POC as co-workers and even superiors at work, it must be comforting to see that no matter how smart and qualified the woman and/or POC, they need a white man to bring the humor, character and true brilliance to the party. I guess I don’t see the WDSD as new, really, just a slight tweak that allows the old formula to work in modern times.

    Maybe I’ll reconsider when Prime Time is full of unqualified-but-brilliant mediocre-looking women-of-color-super-detectives with wash & go hairstyles and nasty self-centered attitudes surrounded by the world’s most brilliant PhD-toting white male models who spent an hour with their flattening iron just so they could have the privilege of playing her eager student. I’ll just be over here holding my breath till then….

    PS: Sorry for writing a novel! This has been bugging me for a long time and it’s such a relief to see your awesome post about it and really think through the points you brought up!

    • whattamisaid

      Great comment. Interesting that your mom sees the Teresa Lisbon character on “The Mentalist” as cool and smart, because I think the show undoes any statement about women in power by having this smart, female law enforcement officer who has risen to a leadership position then have to play nanny (You are dead on with that description) to a manipulating man-child.

  • http://mclicious.org/ McLicious (Sarah Hannah Gómez)

    Don’t forget House! Especially since he’s supposed to be Sherlock Holmes, the doctor.

    I have similar curiosities with this, and also with the entire Moody clan on “Californication.” Right away, you know that if you had a girl Hank, she’d be a ho or they would make it more of the slapstick comedic variety, but the other characters take awhile longer to tease out, and I wonder (well, actually, I have a pretty good idea) how they would be received if they were a family of color or a mixed race family.

    I think you’re right that it’s (at least somewhat, and definitely to a point unconsciously) about reclaiming the white man as a power player, and I wonder if there is also some amount of, like, weakling-fighting-back-at-the-brawny-man fantasy in there too.

  • silvertesh

    Would “UnderCovers”, the show starring Boris Kodjoe by J.J. Abrams count as super detective? I mean they’re super spies, so they do have to do some “detecting”, and think quickly on your feet and such. I feel that is a very good representation of African-Americans and at no time (at least what I’ve seen in the show) do they ever point out otherness and the fact that the protagonists are black.

  • ericacbarnett

    Does The Wire in the Blood’s Tony Hill count? I’m inclined to say no, because he’s such a hapless, lovable loser (and because Val McDermid is my favorite mystery writer ever).

  • http://twitter.com/TheParableMan Jeremy Pierce

    Psych fits that pattern too. Criminal Intent would except for the arbitrary stipulation that the main character not be a cop. Goren is certainly a cop, even though he usually doesn’t act like it. But otherwise it’s exactly the same phenomenon discussed in this post, with a white male genius who does most of the crime-solving on the show, at least in the Goren-Eames episodes (there was more balance in all the other duos on that show).

    But one thing that’s interesting about some of these shows is that many have a non-white or woman sidekick, who is usually not a genius but also is no slouch. Goren has Eames, who is a good detective, even if she’s not up to his ability level. Psych has the black sidekick, who isn’t just there for comic relief but often does play a role in solving the case, even if it’s usually only a small role. Elementary has an Asian woman as Watson. Perception has another woman as a sidekick. Monk had two different women throughout the show. Bones even reverses the gender dynamic, with the genius as the woman and the male cop sidekick tagging along.

    Some of these shows do a better job of having the sidekick play a role in solving the case than others, and on many it varies from episode to episode. But it’s certainly better than the older model of two white men, like the original Holmes and Watson, which for all its modernness Sherlock didn’t manage to escape.

    • whattamisaid

      Good point about Criminal Intent. Incidentally, I read that Vincent Donofrio was inspired by Sherlock Holmes in creating his character…so there you go.

  • http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com/ Blake

    Great article. Makes me think back to my childhood and how even Brains-Benton, the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, Bruce Wayne, and probably others escaping me at the moment fit this archetype. If Inspector Gadget was black…

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neville-Ross/100002343524258 Neville Ross

      Thank the stars he wasn’t; the character is nothing but a blundering idiot with bionics. Black kids need somebody better as a hero to look up to than Inspector Gadget.

  • Le_Sigh

    Also – House! And Tim Roth in Lie to Me. Fox seems to love this format.

    • JosephLamour

      And Touch, to a certain extent.

  • littleeva

    Great article. Though I have to say that it’s no secret that on Law and
    Order, “Hudson University” was supposed to be Columbia University, they
    even filmed scenes on Columbia’s campus. Hudson was Columbia, and
    “City University” was NYU.

  • EinSC

    Excellent points. Of these, I’ve only watched Elementary regularly, to see how Lucy Liu’s Watson was handled, and because Holmes is such a screwed up character. I generally prefer cop shows like Law and Order simply because I don’t like the super investigator type. Although I loved Nathan Fillion on Firefly, Castle hasn’t grabbed me. One of the few episodes of Castle I’ve seen actually had a fleeting “race” moment when the Latino detective protested a surveillance cover: “Why does the brown man have to be the homeless guy?” But that was it.
    Could the super white PI type be a response to increased diversity in cop shows (which I think still have room for improvement)? Why can’t there be another series like Hawk? Avery Brooks was awesome.

  • elusis

    I was waiting for this article to talk about “Luther” and how it breaks up this pattern… :-/

    • whattamisaid

      Can you share more about how you believe “Luther” breaks this pattern? I didn’t include the show in my analysis, because I haven’t watched it. (Though it’s definitely on my list.) From my understanding of the series, the character does NOT break the pattern. A key feature of the WDSD character is that he is NOT a police officer, as “Luther” is, yes? What helps these characters represent inordinate privilege is that they are regular citizens brought in to lead actual law enforcement because of their superior intellect. (Monk was, at least, a former police officer.) – Tami

      • robobt

        Alas, Luther is a DCI for the London police, so he doesn’t technically count. He is however the super genius who solves the crime every time, and usually through unconventional means, so no WDSD is ever necessary — I feel like Luther at least breaks the *spirit* of the mold. Also, the closest he has to a brilliant outside consultant is essentially the female version of Hannibal Lector, which is its own blazed trail. (BTW, I highly recommend the show. Highly.)

        • http://marknmays.com Mark Mays

          Also, he’s uncontrollable, prone to fits of rage, has been, I believe, twice accused of murder, usually tells his superiors to get bent. But this is the BBC. Even though he is an officer still, he usually acts outside of the rules and regulations set by his position of authority. That’s the real reason the WDSD characters are often not “actual law enforcement,” to have them act outside regular channels. (see also, any “I want your badge” moment from any number of 90s action movies.