Misconceptions of Women in Law Enforcement Due to Inaccurate Hollywood Portrayals

By: April Clayton

Hollywood Costumes Verses Reality

hollywood cop Hollywood does a great deal to entertain us, every year American’s spend millions of dollars at the movies and spend thousands of hours in front of screens. But how much does Hollywood actually influence our thoughts and behaviors? I aim to show you that the influence may be greater than you think. When it comes to the public perception of women in law enforcement, this influence can be very damaging and potentially dangerous. Public misconceptions of the effectiveness of women in law enforcement can be derived from exposure to unfavorable media portrayals. The role of women in the field is ever changing, but Hollywood seems to be evolving more slowly than reality. More often than not, these characters are comedic, ineffective/incompetent, over-sexualized, poorly trained, or require a man to save them.

real cop

There are many genres of film out there that feature law enforcement, there are action/thrillers, dramas, romance, and comedies. When I ask you to think of a movie featuring a female police officer, what comes to mind? I have a few examples if you fall short.

A Top 10 List of Female Cops in Movies:


As you can see from many of these examples there are a variety of different depictions, some much more realistic than others. Women make up only 13% of law enforcement in the United States, but 50% of the population. Since gender equality is a current and relevant issue (and political platform), you’d likely assume that Hollywood may want to use its powerful influence to push the agenda and get more women into the field. Unfortunately, many of the most recent films and television shows featuring female police officers have over-sexualized the characters, used them for comic relief, or made them in some way ineffective or incompetent.

Here’s a few examples:

Officer Anne Lewis / RoboCop:


The Heat:


I will be the first to admit, this comedy is very funny. The depiction of these characters is extreme and does the job of making the audience laugh. The tactics (or lack thereof) these characters utilize to bring bad guys to justice is less than ethical and 100% comedy. The straight laced FBI Special Agent, Sarah Ashburn (played by Sandra Bullock) is an arrogant perfectionist. The other character, Detective Shannon Mullins – Boston Police Department (played by Melissa McCarthy) uses her bad attitude, foul mouth, and general street smarts to capture suspects. The comedy ensues when these two have to work together to bust an organized drug crime ring. The characters wear inappropriate clothing, Bullock’s character uses her sexuality to bug a suspects’ phone, and the car chases and shootouts (and stabbings) are far from tactical. Again, these depictions are far removed from reality and are reminiscent of other (male) buddy cop comedies such as: The Other Guys (2010), starring Will Ferrell and Mark Walberg.

And speaking of ridiculous car chases, the next film, Pineapple Express, doesn’t fail to amuse its audience.

Pineapple Express Police Car Chase:


The New York Times author who wrote the review for Pineapple Express, Manohla Dargis, is one of only a handful of female film critics. Her decade’s long career in film and literature has resulted in her being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize 3 times. She takes a direct approach to her reviews. Holding a master’s degree in cinema studies gives her more credibility than most film critics. Her work has been included in several books including, Women and Film: A Sight and  Sound Reader and American Movie Critics.

Having watched this film and then read this review, I took away a little different perspective of the movie and its goals. I tend to judge films that portray women in law enforcement more harshly than others. This film isn’t trying to make much of a statement, beyond utter silliness. I suppose an overall moral objective might be to stay away from marijuana if you want to: a) stay out of trouble and b) make thoughtful and critical decisions without the neurological deficit impact of drugs. To back up this thought, each time the pair gets high in the film their problems increase. When it comes to Rosie Perez’s character portrayal of the corrupt female police officer, Dargis identifies her as, “unsmiling and unamusing” and as part of a murderous Hansel and Gretel team. This isn’t a very solid review of her character. I would tend to agree with Dargis, that the character is flat, unrealistic, and lacking credibility. Overall, in a comedy about pot smokers, I suppose this is easy for the target audience to overlook. The concern is that portrayals such as this further the misrepresentation of women in law enforcement and alter the credibility the public believes they have on the street. This character also fails to wear a ballistic vest, has her uniform unbuttoned, and never considers her backdrop when aiming her weapon. As a character who is supposedly in a supervisory role, her credibility is lacking a great deal.


Hot Pursuit:

In the comedy, Hot Pursuit, Rose Cooper (played by Reese Witherspoon) is a small statured and uptight cop who is known for her screw-ups. She wants to redeem herself when she gets assigned to protect a federal witness, Daniella Riva (played by Sofía Vergara), the tall and glamorous widow of a drug boss. Like so many of these cop comedies, there are crooked cops and mafia connected bad guys involved. Cooper’s role is shown as small and weak, largely incompetent, and lacking credibility as a female officer. Although this role is funny, it’s yet another example of Hollywood portraying female officers as less effective than their male counterparts.

Then there’s the mixed bag examples…

Michelle Rodriguez Films:





Appropriate uniform with ballistic vest VERSES made for Hollywood sex appeal.

Michelle Rodriguez, a Hollywood bad girl, has an extensive action film career that extend just a tad bit longer than her real life arrest record. Rodriguez has played in a variety of armed roles (both military and police) and has done so with both realistic and over-sexualized characters as seen above. For this piece we’ll examine her role in the police thriller, SWAT (2003).

Rodger Ebert, a famous film critic, reviewed thousands of movies in his lifetime (he passed away in 2013). His reviews were syndicated to more than 200 newspapers in the United States and abroad. He reviewed the movie S.W.A.T. and gave it 3 out of 5 stars. For this review, Ebert was part of the target audience and critically viewed the film through the lens of a typical summer cop thriller.

In his review of the movie, Ebert discusses the realistic portrayal of police activities and compares them to the typical police thriller movies that usually require a great deal of special effects. Ebert seems to think the characters in the movie have more depth than the average police thriller. I disagree with his thoughts on this. While I agree that more tactical maneuvers and less special effects make more realistic and easier for the audience to buy, I see less depth in these characters than I would’ve hoped for; especially the role of the female police officer, Chris Sanchez (played by Michelle Rodriguez). What I also find interesting and possibly telling, is that this review was obviously completed by a man (who was intended target audience for the film), whereas, I am female and have a very different perspective on how these characters were written. I also come from a perspective of someone who works within this field and am, therefore, a tougher critic than most when it comes to realistic depictions of my work environment portrayed in film.

To be fair to Hollywood, there are a few characters who try very hard to be effective, and representative of real women in the field (sometimes they fall short, but overall, these depictions are more favorable). Here’s a few examples:


 Law and ordercagney and lacey

Olivia Benson/Law and Order and Cagney and Lacey

The TV drama, Law and Order – Special Victims Unit, portrays a female detective named, Olivia Benson. Her character is intelligent, effective, and has depth rarely seen in female roles. Her attire is usually appropriate (although sometimes tight fitting, or missing ballistic or other protective wear).

Another TV drama from the 1980’s is Cagney and Lacey. One of female lead characters were portrayed as a single and the other married with children. They were shown as effective and well respected and consistently overcoming sexism and other workplace obstacles typical of women in law enforcement at that time.

Clarice Starling, FBI Agent – Silence of the Lambs

silence of the lambs

Lastly, but certainly not least, comes the character Clarice Starling; a new FBI agent sent to interview the character Hannibal Lector in the thriller movie, Silence of the Lambs. Lector is a psychiatrist and a violent psychopath, currently serving life behind bars for multiple counts of murder and cannibalism. The character of Starling, is highly intelligent, well dressed, and competent; so much so, that she successfully profiles and locates a serial killer prior to her graduation from the FBI academy.

Considering the great influence and power Hollywood can have over the public and their perception, great responsibility should be exercised in portraying people who have a history of misrepresentation or who are frequently discriminated against on the basis of their sex, race, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation or preference, and people with physical or mental handicaps. These groups and status are federally protected in most circumstances regarding employment, housing, and as consumers. Hollywood does not offer these protections and often utilizes the stereotypes and extremes of these people for comedic effect or drama.

According to a recent article in Sociology Compass (2015), the female crime fighter image, fictionalized in television and film, reinforces women’s roles as either support for male crime fighters and/or as highly sexualized members of a police force. These Hollywood constructed gender norms may impact how women are treated on the job (as well as their retention and recruitment). The article calls for more scholarly focus on how women in law enforcement are impacted by these false portrayals.

As a woman who works in the criminal justice field, I have personally experienced discrimination. I have been subject to different levels of pay, difficulty in career advancement, and been viewed as less effective than my male co-workers by members of the public. Whether or not the publics’ beliefs are accurate has little to do with my performance and is greatly impacted by personal bias that may be influenced by these inaccurate Hollywood portrayals.

It is entirely frustrating to feel like I have to carry a resume with me everywhere I go to justify my presence in this field. As a reference, I have 16 years of experience working in the criminal justice field in various positions. I have worked as a loss prevention officer, corrections officer, armored transport, assistant director of security, and as a hospital security and field training officer. I have undergone the Oregon Juvenile Justice Training Academy, and hold professional certifications through the Oregon State Department of Public Safety Standards and Training as both an armed and unarmed officer. I’ve undergone multiple firearms qualifications, defensive tactics courses, and am certified to teach a course for all 10,000 employees of Legacy Health Systems on Management of Aggressive Behavior (MOAB). I have been a certified CPR/AED instructor, and D.P.S.S.T. instructor for multiple employers. I have a wealth of experience de-escalating violent or aggressive people and have performed life-saving CPR or first aid interventions on multiple occasions. I have appeared in court as a witness and a victim throughout my employment and have a stellar record of utilizing the lowest level of force necessary to arrest suspects. I have been complemented on my report writing abilities by multiple police officers and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office.

Regardless of all of this experience, if I show up to a call with a male trainee, in almost every circumstance, the witness looks directly at the trainee to explain what the circumstances are and disregards my presence as the lead officer. Or in other circumstances, I’ll show up to a call in progress and am told, “Oh, we need a male officer” or “You’ll definitely need back-up for this guy.” It’s, unfortunately, assumed I can’t complete the task on my own before I have an opportunity to address the situation. On many occasions, I find I have to prove myself before someone considers me capable; male officers rarely experience this.

I stand 5’10” tall and am athletically built (yes, I work out). I am, in fact, taller than most of my male co-workers. This doesn’t seem to impact the way I am treated at work. In fact, on a regular basis male members of the public will sexually tease me when I walk by or share an elevator with them. They say things like, “Oh, you can arrest me anytime.” Or, “If you ever need to practice with your handcuffs, I’m available.” I get winked at, whistled at, and have even been physically grouped; this happens regardless of my uniform and tactical vest. Male officer’s rarely deal with this level of harassment on the job.


me 1me 2me 3

me 4

As you may gather from looking at these photos, I am not a small person, I do not dress in a sexually revealing way, and I take the time to train in my field to be the best officer I can be. The public presumption that I am in some way incompetent must come from a personal bias. I presume that Hollywood portrayals of women in this field have impacted the public in their perception in ways most are not conscious of. This impact can become dangerous for the officer’s in the field working in contact with the public. Suspect behavior is also altered by these misconceptions and some may think it’s much easier to over power or manipulate a female officer, putting the officer in greater jeopardy and causing them to increase the level of force necessary to control a situation.

According to Curtis Crooke, from the US Department of Justice, “Gender inequality is still a defining aspect of law enforcement, even in today’s world of slowly increasing employment fairness. Women comprise only a small percentage of the local law enforcement in agencies across the nation. Though their presence in the police force dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, it’s only been noticeable in the past 40 years. In the 1970s, women accounted for roughly 2 percent of sworn officers, with most of the women holding clerical positions. Yet, despite progressive legislation aimed at procuring gender equality in the United States, women today make up only 13 percent of the force, most significantly in larger departments. Women in law enforcement are often inexplicitly resented by their male counterparts and many face harassment. Additionally, many women encounter a ‘brass’ ceiling and are unable to rise to supervisory positions despite their qualifications. Many women do not even try to reach these positions because of fear of oppression from male coworkers. Few women receive the guidance necessary to overcome this obstacle; however, the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) has been working hard since 1995 to mentor women in executive positions and help guide new female officers to grasp the opportunity to achieve these leadership roles.”                                                                                                        

The National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) is the first organization established to address the unique needs of women holding senior management positions in law enforcement (http://nawlee.org/).

Police officers everywhere serve their community each day knowing they may not go home to their family at night. They put on their uniform and train to the best of their ability to protect those unable to protect themselves and assist the public in more ways than can be counted. Since police deaths in the line of duty have been counted, 292 female officers have lost their lives protecting others (11 last year alone). Their deaths are meaningful and they deserve the same level of respect as any other officer. Their names and stats are listed here: http://www.nleomf.org/facts/enforcement/?referrer=https://www.google.com/

Hollywood would be well served to recognize the efforts of organizations such as NAWLEE and make efforts in improving their portrayals of women working in the criminal justice field. In my opinion, these portrayals would also be improved with the addition of more female writers, directors, and producers in the industry. The public deserves to have a real to life, deeper understanding of what it is like to be female and work in this male dominated field. It would give legitimacy and credibility to female officers and enhance the public perception. It would serve to impact the retention and recruitment of capable female officers, which would serve to make the work environment less hostile and increase both officer and public safety.



Crooke, C. (2013, July 1). Public/Private Sector Partnerships for Community Preparedness. Retrieved May 12, 2016, from http://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/07-2013/women_in_law_enforcement.asp

Dargis, M. (2008, August 05). Stoners Who Put the Bud in Buddies. Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/06/movies/06pine.html?_r=0

Davidson, J.T. (2015) Female Crime Fighters in Television and Film: Implications and Future Directions. Sociology Compass, 9: 1015-1024. Dol: 10.111/soc4.12330

Ebert, R. (2003, August 08). S.W.A.T. Movie Review & Film Summary (2003) | Roger Ebert. Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/swat-2003

Eggert, B. (1987, July 17). Deep Focus Review – The Definitives – RoboCop (1987). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://www.deepfocusreview.com/reviews/robocop.asp




This entry was posted in Spring 2016 by aprilexplorz. Bookmark the permalink.

About aprilexplorz

Hello! I am a Psychology major at PSU, and a Criminology minor. I will be applying to graduate schools this fall and hope to obtain my PsyD in Forensic Psychology in the next 5-6 years. I am happily married and a mother to 6 amazing children. I hope to be a student all my life and I look forward to exploring and learning with you.

2 thoughts on “Misconceptions of Women in Law Enforcement Due to Inaccurate Hollywood Portrayals

  1. Hi April,

    I want to start out by saying that we have very similar idea where we want to point out how the media portrays an identity wrongly. Even though I am not a female and don’t have to deal with what female have to deal with every day, but I understand the frustration when people prejudge your ability based on your gender, ethnicity, ages, or other appearance factors. I think you did extremely well at providing examples in movies. Most of them were really popular movies, which was great to support the point of how they strongly influenced the value of female officers in the audience. I have a special respect for people who work in the field where it is unusual for their identities because they have to face stereotypes almost every day going to work. I have always avoided including personal experience into my project because I’m afraid it would make my point sound bias, but I think by including your own personal experience, you gave the most insightful ideas of how it is like to be a female officer, which enhances the credibility of your points. I think your post is very touching and does make people think. Great job! I hope you have n great summer!


  2. Hey April!
    What an awesome finalized paper! I absolutely love all the stands you took and the points you made. The credibility taken away from officers just for being female is a real issue and creates dangerous situations. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to be discriminated for your gender. I know how defensive I get when people don’t respect me as much as a male counterpart.
    Although the films are funny, they do pose a threat to the credibility of female officers and I hope this stereotype begins to disappear in the future.
    Congrats to you for sticking with your guns and continuing down your career path despite adversity. We need more girls like you in this world!!
    This paper came together so well and it was a pleasure to read! Best of luck to you in the future!

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