Temporality and Femininity

I just started watching Rizzoli and Isles in preparation for my “Cops and Courts” class and quickly became intrigued by the ways that the characterizations of the two leads, Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) and Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), express issues of gender and time. Connections between gender and time have been a growing interest for me over the past few years, something I’ve noticed but not yet dug into deeply enough to take further than discussions and outlines. Maybe with Rizzoli and Isles, I’ll be able to take the ideas a little bit futher into the classroom, perhaps with a focus on gender, space, and place in televisual legal mystery.

So here’s what I’m noticing so far in this series. Both characters have profound relationships with the past, but struggle with the present and future. Jane is depicted in a kind of suspended adolescence, a tomboy who may be attracted to men but also identifies more with masculinity than femininity. Nonethless, her relationship with masculinity is as complicated as her relationship with femininity. For example, in the first episode of the second season, she doesn’t want to put on her cop uniform for her own award ceremony because it makes her look like a man. However, her normal detective uniform is a mix-and-match pantsuit, different mostly in color and fit than a regular cop uniform but not necessarily different in kind. Along with this tomboy identity, her family and friendship connections also keep her in the past. Her family, effectively headed by her mother Angela (Lorraine Bracco), is a constant and aggravating presence for her, especially since her mother tries to control her life and personal relationships, again like a child. Rizzoli maintains a competitive and teasing relationship with her younger brother Frankie Jr. (Jordan Bridges), who is also a police officer and tags after her with adulation like a kid. Her friendships are another part of this connection to the past, as old acquaintances keep popping up and interfering with both her personal and professional lives. One example from the first season is Joey Grant (Donnie Wahlberg), a fellow detective who moves from the narcotics division to become Rizzoli’s commanding officer in homicide and also happens to be a childhood nemesis from both church and school. Furthermore, cases from her past keep cropping up to haunt her. In the premiere episode, she’s tormented by a previous case, when the work of the Surgeon, an incarcerated Hannibal Lecter-type, reappears through an accomplice and then continues through his escape. Cases from the past also seem to reappear continually in the series, as the second episode also covers a copycat (or maybe a continuation?) of the Boston Strangler cases from the sixties, and the start of the second season also revisits the continuing impact of the final case of the previous season on Rizzoli and her ability to do her job.

Isles also has an interesting relationship with the past in her role as the coroner. Working with dead bodies, she is constantly in the company of those who have “passed”, even preferring them to those currently present. As she explains in the second episode of the first season, she had to go through an immersion therapy experience to get over her fear of the living. The body of knowledge that she brings to her work is also based on a mastery of the work that came before her. She lives in the present through what she learns from those who have “passed” and can therefore add to that previous “body of knowledge”. In contrast to Rizzoli though, Isles has a “present tense” relationship to her femininity, where her gender expression seems to properly match her age and stage of personal development. Specifically, in terms of clothes, she wears what would be expected as a norm for women in their thirties with her level of education, professional achievement, and income, specifically high-end fashionable items like Birkin bags, plus tasteful jewelry and heels that seem like they could be from major label designers. However, she also looks so polished and perfect as to be a “girly-girl”, a youthful excessively feminine style that seems to contrast with the masculine mastery and messiness of her chosen career. As Rizzoli asks her in the premiere episode, “Why do you always look like you’re going to a photoshoot?” Along with this parallel relationship between fashion and gender development, Isles’ lack of familial or friendship connections also seems to keep her in a constant present. Unlike Rizzoli (so far: I’ve only seen three episodes), she seems to have no present–in time or in place–family relationships, and she claims to have had no real friends from her past. This lack of connection to the past aside from the dead gives her a sense of the uncanny. This relationship to the dead also connects Isles to the future, as death is always lurking out there for everyone.

While death may be a part of everyone’s future–and certainly has its relationship to the regeneration of life–the futurity of both Rizzoli and Isles is constantly in question due to their troubled relationships with men. Neither seems to be able to maintain a consistent heteronormative connection, something that Rizzoli’s mother Angela certainly never lets her forget. However, the inability to maintain these straight relationships are also part of what keep leading them back to each other as their primary, equally matched and complentary relationships with another person, a source of the popular queer readings of their characters. As Dorothy Snarker explains in AFTER ELLEN,

“News Flash: Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are not gay. They’re outstanding heterosexuals who just happen to flirt, sleep in the same bed, touch each other gratuitously, look deeply into each other’s eyes and have crazy, crazy chemistry while not maintaining any long-standing or significant romances with members of the opposite sex….”

I just noticed that Rizzoli and Isles is also taken from a book series, so maybe this is a show that will allow the class to also talk about adaptation as well. I’m also curious to see how place plays out. Boston doesn’t seem as present as it should so far, aside from a few light touches in the score and inserts. I look forward to continuing to see how the show develops over the two seasons, whether it fulfills any of my aforementioned points or not.


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