Female Police Officers: Are They Really Wimpy, Or Do You Just Write Them That Way?

Yesterday, I attended a very interesting Sisters In Crime meeting in North Carolina. The drive over from our house was quite pleasant. Traffic was light and the scenery was outstanding. No one was in a hurry, which is pretty normal for these parts. And that slow pace gave me time to really take in my new surroundings.

It’s fall in our neck of the woods, and the area trees have gone way above and beyond the call of duty to provide us with a spectacular showing of color. Even though it was a sunny day, there was a slight crispness in the air that reminded me of growing up in the south. Sometimes, on cool autumn nights, my mother would load a cookie sheet with freshly-dug peanuts, right off the vines and still in their shells, and roast them in her old gas oven. The smell of those toasty legumes would quickly fill the house, drawing my father, my brother, and me to the kitchen like hogs to slop (I’m trying to fit in my new hood. Is it working?). There’s not another smell (the peanuts, not the hogs) like that on earth. It’s wonderful.

For me, the south is peanuts, tobacco, soy beans, red clay, pork barbecue, sweet tea, sitting in the shade, lightening bugs, catfishing, good friends, magnolias with leaves as large as dinner plates, and kids that still say “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am.”

What the south isn’t, is the stereotypical place that’s filled to the brim with dumb redneck men, and wimpy, faint-at-the-drop-of-a-hat, women. However, there are some people below the old Mason Dixon line who still think the woman’s place in this world is in the kitchen, not writing books, or anywhere else that doesn’t involve cookin’, cleanin’ and birthin’ babies. Which brings me back to the Sisters in Crime meeting and one of the topics we discussed – writing cross gender.

The timing of this meeting with a group of strong, successful women writers, was perfect. I’d just finished reading a book where the author chose to write the female hero as a wimpy, yet over the top character who couldn’t make a move without consulting her male partner. This so-called hero, who, while lacking in basic skills like decision-making and backbone-wearing, could fly helicopters, shoot any weapon known to mankind, and build explosives and other handy-dandy life-saving devices out of household products, such as oatmeal and dental floss. Yet, she dressed in high heels and low-cut tops while saving the underdog from death and destruction (I’m sorry, but it would be nearly impossible to chase down and fight a bad guy while wearing sexy platform slingback heels). She used her femininity to the point of being downright slutty. In other words, the author committed what I believe to be one of the deadliest writing sins ever – thinking female cops are wimps, therefore overcompensating for what the writer obviously thought was the protagonist’s major flaw, being a woman.

Folks, there’s no need to do this. In fact, please don’t do this. To write female cops in this manner and style is a real show-stopper for me. I’ve worked with many female officers in my day, many of whom were quite feminine, and every single one of them were every bit as suited for the job as their male counterparts. Actually, many women score higher than men, academically, in the basic police academy. Some female trainees outperform men in various practical exercises as well, and continue to do so throughout their careers.

On the street, female officers are equal to male officers. Sure, some female officers excel in certain areas, while other duties aren’t their strong points, but the same is true for male officers. Bravery is not an issue for officers of either gender. I’ve been in some pretty tough situations where my backup was a female officer, and in each situation the woman jumped into the fight without hesitation. Again, there’s no difference in the job performance of the two sexes.

Female and male officers receive the same training, wear uniforms manufactured by the same companies, take the same oath, drive the same patrol cars, carry the same weapons, and arrest the same bad guys. Male and female detectives work the same cases. They solve the same murders, question the same witnesses, raid the same crack houses, and testify in the same courts. So why write male and female cops differently? Why do the writers of the Castle TV show write the female M.E. weaker than the male M.E.? Why is she a wimpy character? His character is certainly very strong.

The problem, I think, with people writing opposite genders is that some authors simply try too hard. Being a woman is not something that should require an apology, which could be what all this over the top stuff is all about.

Sgt. Kimberly Munley, the hero at Fort Hood.

What do you guys think? Why do some authors write women heroes differently than they pen their male protagonists? Are there authors who do a good job at writing opposite gender? If so, who are your favorites?

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24 replies
  1. franck
    franck says:

    munley was actually taken down by the shooter.
    It is an other male cop who shooted the terrorist after and saved the day.

    sorry to remind everybody the truth.
    if this secnario happened in a tv show fiction, would you have said it’s male chauvinism?

  2. Nikki
    Nikki says:


    My name is Nikki I am currently employed as a patrol officer in a small town. I have been in law enforcement for about 8 yrs. I can certainly tell you it is hard being in this career where men percieve women as wimpy. I hate watching shows where the women officers all wear heals and never get a hair out of place it is so un-realistic. I work everyday and feel I do my job just as good as any man in my department, but continue to have to prove myself on a daily basis. I am 32 yrs old with a family and have noticed most men in there late 30’s and older believe women officers are all wimpy and have no place in lawenforcement. It’s funny when you ask them how many women they have worked with in there 25 plus yrs experience and you hear them say well “well one or two because there wasn’t a lot of women officers back when I was on the street”. I just laugh because what there really saying is I have not taken the time to want to work with a woman officer because they can’t handle themselves. My Chief put together an assessment center to test for promotions within the departement who has over 30 yrs experience however the panel he selected to score the assessement were all men. Funny how if your on trial for a crime you get men and women selecting your fate. Makes it hard for me being the only woman sitting in a room filled with men and having to justify why I as a women should be considered for the posistion of Sgt. Needless to say it is hard being a woman officer period. In large departments women are promoted usually because the department is looked at in a different way and usually don’t want lawsuits filed titled “Discrimination”. Not to many people ever look at thier own hometown city police departments and realize there is only one female officer or no mixture of race in the department. If I was writting book about female officers I would definately speak to a few from small towns who usually have to show the men there not affraid of doing their job on a daily bases. I am like the other female officer above when the uniform is on I go into cop mode, when the uniform is off I am a mother, wife, friend and just a commpassionate person.

  3. Lori L. Lake
    Lori L. Lake says:

    Lee – There’s another issue about “wimpy women cops” that I don’t think anyone has raised here yet. Police work is hard, and both physical and psychological strength and stamina are extremely important. Many women have the capacity to be hard-boiled, very tough-minded cops, but that’s not how girls were raised to be until the last couple of decades (if that). I still remember my mother stressing how important various aspects of femininity were, and they didn’t include running after suspects, tackling crooks, arguing with men, shooting guns, or wearing sensible shoes. Any job or daily experiences that included those sorts of behaviors would be considered too “manly” and would immediately raise the specter of lesbianism.

    Some women writers don’t want to do anything that would bring the lesbian issue up for their character, so they overcompensate and make her ultra-femmy in one way or another, otherwise known as writing her “wimpy.” This is especially irritating if some of those typical tokens of femininity (high heels, purse, lots of makeup, fancy hairdo’s, sluttiness, etc.) are stressed to the Nth degree ON THE JOB. It’s like the author AND the character are worried about latent homosexuality, so they go the other direction entirely and end up with a character who’s more often than not a rather cardboard-y wuss.

    While I greatly enjoy THE CLOSER and Chief Johnson has both smarts and nerves of steel, I have never in my life seen a single female police officer, lesbian OR straight, dress on the job the way Brenda Lee Johnson does. Sure, she looks great for the camera, but in an emergency, she’d be useless. Isn’t it odd how in the couple of shows where she ends up having to chase a suspect in a school yard or shoot at an armed terrorist on a shopping center roof, she just HAPPENS to be wearing pants and decent shoes that day?

    Kate Beckett from CASTLE is dressed considerably more effectively, though every time I see those high-heeled black shoes on her, I wince. But have you noticed how suddenly she’s always in women’s oxfords during the rare times the script calls for her to run?

    It’s been reported that Sgt Munley from the Ft Hood incident is one hard-ass, tough, straight-shooting, seriously effective cop, yet she’s probably built much like Kyra Sedgwick: short, wiry, not very big-boned. But Munley is dressed appropriately for an emergency, and she sounds like the same kind of cop Robin Burcell describes herself as: able to go into Cop Mode when the situation calls for it. (Of course, Munley’s not a detective, but still…). Munley also has a husband and kids, so she’s obviously not a lesbian. But she certainly can do the job, according to everyone in her department. It’s interesting how the other officer involved, the male cop who also probably shot Maj. Hasan, has never been described as married with X number of children. The media assumes male cops are straight, and they often clarify if female cops are or are not gay by citing their family situations.

    What I’m getting at is that authors who aren’t comfortable with women in tough roles of Enforcer and Power-Wielder worry that their women characters will be categorized as gay, so they go overboard to feminize them. That’s so totally not necessary. Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder, JA Jance’s Sheriff Joanna Brady, Liza Cody’s Anna Lee, and Karin Slaughter’s Lena Adams, to name a few, are good examples of tough, hard-ass, sometimes jaded women police professionals who are definitely straight. And they don’t have to be prettied up in unnatural ways on the job to reassure anyone of their sexual orientation.

  4. P.K. Dawning
    P.K. Dawning says:

    Outstanding post, Lee. Being female shouldn’t be a character flaw, and writing a female protagonist as fragile or subservient demonstrates a lack of imagination as well as an underlying issue with chauvinism.

  5. Donna M
    Donna M says:

    I’m not a writer, but as a consumer of books, television, and movies with my two girls (ages 8 and 6), I always ask them what they think about the characters and why they act the way they do. They’re both independent, confident, and smart enough to know better (most of the time), but it pains me when I see women and girls portrayed as weaker (or just plain dumb). With current media, I hate that I have to even address it. With older books & movies, I end up explaining it this way: “In the old days, people thought that women weren’t as strong or as smart as men. What do you think about that?” I use that for racism, sexism, and other “isms” that have no place in our society.

    On the other hand, I go out of my way looking for strong role models for my kids in media, male or female, but the pendulum still swings more towards women being weak than being strong…when we find a strong character we like, we stick with it for awhile.

  6. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    No oops to it, SZ. “Mr.” is just fine. I’ve been called a lot worse.

    I don’t see anything wrong with a wimpy female character, as long as she’s a wimp because she’s a wimp, not because she’s a woman, if that makes sense.

    As Robin’s post might suggest, most characters should be a mixture of weak and strong, just like we all are.

  7. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    “Why do some authors write women heroes differently than they pen their male protagonists?”

    Laziness. Most of stems from bad research a single night of a ride-along could fix.

  8. Pat Marinelli
    Pat Marinelli says:

    Yes SZ, Nora Robert’s female characters are always strong. Eve Dallas is a NYC homicide detective in the future and the other book I love of Nora’s is “High Noon” which features a hostage negotiator who is also a Mom giving readers the balance that Robin talked about above.

    Me, I never write wimpy women. I hate it when the hero has to do the rescue thing, I like my characters to work together to conquer evil.

    Really great topic, Lee. I won’t go into the Castle topic until tomorrow’s review? Critique? What ever? I just know I learn more each week from you to write my fiction LEOs better and better.



  9. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Robin – I don’t think what you’ve described makes you a wimp. Instead, it shows that you’re human, which is exactly the point I’d like to get across to writers. Write female officers as humans, with real emotions and capabilities, and your characters will be so much more believable than, say, Lucy of Patricia Cornwell’s more recent books. Most writers write men in that way, so why the difficulty with writing women?

    Scotti – I heard about that. In fact, I briefly mentioned the officer in last Friday’s Heroes post.

    Dave – I remember when our sheriff refused to allow female officers to carry firearms. He said they couldn’t handle them.

    Joyce – Your characters are not wimpy. They take after you.

  10. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Very interesting discussion!

    One reason that I chose to write a female protagonist who was a former police officer was because of what Lee said–too many of the protagonists in books were wimpy. I got so tired of reading books where the female cop had to be saved by her boyfriend/husband/partner/anyone else. And my character doesn’t wear high heels, either.

  11. sz
    sz says:

    Here here Mr Swords. I like what you say about the personality.

    I like the J D Robb series that has a NY female cop.

  12. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Lee, allow me to throw in my two cents of experience.

    When I started in 1973, there was one female officer hired on a Federal grant, who dressed in the female dress of the era, i.e. skirt, short high heels, gun in the purse, etc. Once the grant ran out, she was let go.

    Then about 5 years later, our department began to hire females and give them the same pay, same uniform and same training. They were equal all the way – on paper.

    Most, if not all male officers at the time, myself included, just did not believe women had any place on the street. After all, there comes a time when what is needed is just plain physical strength, right?

    What I found over the years is that female officers, like every other one of their male counterparts, have different approaches to handling situations. Some are good, effective officers, and others are not. Just as with the males.

    My suggestion is to write to the individual, not the sex. If you don’t know who your character is, and have to rely on their sex to tell you that, perhaps their personality needs more work.

    Bottom line – trust someone who watched female officers develop over a 30 year period, sex has little to do with it.

  13. Scotti Andrews
    Scotti Andrews says:

    On Halloween night, a Seattle police officer was shot and killed while sitting in his squad car. His female partner, although also wounded by gunfire, was able to get out of the car and return fire, and then accurately and quickly call in their location and need for help. No wimpiness there!

  14. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    There may very well be women who are tough on and off duty. I’m not one of them. Outside of work I am as wimpy as they get. I cry at movies, I cry at veteran parades, I cry when I read about sad things in the newspaper. But when I’m at work, dealing with work issues, I go into what my friends call “cop mode.” It’s why at home I get queasy if my kids get a bloody nose, but why at work, without blinking an eye, I can hold a guy’s nearly severed foot hanging by a tendon at an accident until the paramedics get to him.

    I think this “switch” is common to many veteran officers. (Not that they turn wimpy off duty like me. But that you wouldn’t necessarily recognize them as cops.) Rookies often don’t acquire this skill until a few years have passed. They are often more easily recognizable as cops in their early years when off duty for this very reason.

  15. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    By the way, is everyone aware that another officer was involved in the shootout with the Ft. Hood shooter. It seems that there may be a bit of confusion as to who’s bullets actually brought down Hasan. Sgt. Mark Todd, another civilian police officer, also engaged in the firefight. Todd says after Sgt. Munley had been wounded he fired his Beretta at Hasan who then slumped to the floor. Todd also said that it was he who disarmed Hasan by kicking the gun out of the wounded killer’s hand.

  16. Melanie Atkins
    Melanie Atkins says:

    I’m writing a female lead character right now, and she’s definitely not wimpy. That’s one of my pet peeves, too, as are female officers wearing high heels. All the ones I know wear sensible shoes in case they have to chase someone. They dress for the job, and they’re very smart cookies. I’m modeling my detective after several of these fine women I’ve met during the recent SO’s Citizen’s Academy. I want my characters to seem real to readers, not caricatures.

  17. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Laurie – Yep, I remember the pre-Taser and pepper spray days.

    You also brought up another good point. Sometimes, a really hostile male suspect will allow himself to be “talked down” by a female officer much more quickly than by a male officer. So, I learned to shut up and let the female officers work their magic. It was much safer and easier than fighting. I had nothing to prove and no ego. And I didn’t like bleeding.

  18. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Terry – Yes, she definitely comes across as wimpy.

    Pat – You’ve summed it up nicely. Write real women doing real jobs. Now that’s believable.

    Vicki – Yep. Sgt. Munley is a real cop who did what any other cop would’ve done. She ran toward the danger and terminated the threat. Yet, she didn’t do any over the top wacky stuff to take care of business. She was also wearing the appropriate dress for her job.

  19. Laurie Wood
    Laurie Wood says:

    I think writers tend to over-do female cops to make them “appear” more 3-D, and also have likely never interviewed one to give some reality to their story. I was a female cop – in another lifetime! – when you had to do the same job as every guy on the force, and without the use of a Tazer. You used your brain, your wits, common sense, and usually had good skills in “talking down” a suspect before using any physical force. Thank you Lee, for pointing out that women can do the job just as well as a man. To my mind, writing characters of either sex with inner and external conflicts that are realistic and fit with your story is the important thing. There’s plenty of human baggage around to make a 3-D character without sticking high heels and TSTL on your female characters.
    As for the female ME on Castle, I feel sorry for that actress who’s got to look dumb for Beckett to look smart. She’s got a lousy role but it’s not her fault. As someone else said, it’s the writers fault for making her a pale comparison of the female ME on The Womens Murder Club a season or two ago.

  20. Vicki Lane
    Vicki Lane says:

    I think Sgt. Kimberly Munley at Fort Hood, who confronted and took down the alleged shooter, answers the question about whether female police officer are wimpy. Maybe some are — but not Sgt. Munley. It’s this sort of woman I’d far rather read about.

  21. Pat Brown
    Pat Brown says:

    I see this major flaw too in both TV and novels. Sadly, I think it may be one of the reasons I don’t go out of my way to read novels with female protagonists. They irritate me too much, either being TSTL or doing the super MacGiver stuff and being beyond the realm of reality.

    But why this is so? I wish I knew. I don’t understand why, in this day and age, so many writers can’t seem to wrap their heads around strong but believable female heroines.

    I don’t write a lot of female leads, but when there are women in my books they are not weak, or fashion queens (maybe because I never have been — I rarely use makeup and don’t own a single pair of high heels) but, I like to think, are fair representations of real women doing real jobs. Writers that do otherwise do a disservice to both men and women readers.

  22. Terry Odell
    Terry Odell says:

    Is Castle’s female ME wimpy? I thought she was just ‘stupid’ (blame goes to the writers, however, not the actors).

    I’ve only written one female leo, and she appears on the page first as someone who quit the force because she didn’t think she had the emotional skills needed after she was involved in a case where her partner died. However, as is required in the sub-genre I write, she found all that inner strength when it was needed.

    I’m dealing with the opposite approach. I write male protas as well, and I sure hope I don’t get them wrong — either too alpha or too wimpy, since I haven’t had any experience being a male.

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