One of my favorite shows on television is Castle, which airs at 10 pm (9 central) on ABC. I like it because it is relatively well-written (occasionally predicable plot lines that sometimes surprise beautifully, great dialogue and believable, likeable characters) and it features one of my favorite actors, Nathan Fillion, as mystery writer Rick Castle. The premise of the show is that Rick (who usually goes by “Castle”) is shadowing NYPD Detective Kate Beckett (played by Stana Katic) to gain inspiration for a new series of novels he is writing.
Over time, I have grown fond of the character of Kate—she’s got heart and moxie. Her backstory is that she became a cop because her mother was murdered, and that crime is still unsolved. Like Castle, I want Kate to find resolution for her pain. And I like it that she doesn’t allow her vulnerabilities to get in her way—she is formidable when interviewing a suspect, and she’s got a mean judo chop. Overall, I think the writers do a good job of showcasing Kate’s determination, perseverance, and general badassery.
Despite my love for this show, I have found myself questioning my blind allegiance to the way it handles Kate’s position as a cop. She has power over others—her two “underlings” are men who follow her orders without question—but she isn’t the captain. (That honor goes to Roy Montgomery, played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson). In addition to being a cop with authority but not THE authority, Kate is not necessarily the one who solves the crimes she’s investigating. As a friend of mine pointed out, it is often Castle who identifies the murderer on the show—the male writer, not the female cop, solves the Whodunit. My friend also pointed out that the show plays up Kate’s beauty over her brains—for example, the woman is always chasing down bad guys three times her size while wearing ridiculous heels. I conceded my friend’s points begrudgingly because I like the show so much. And Kate is far from useless—she has solved her fair share of mysteries, pushed Castle out of the way more than once, saved his ass at least as often as he’s saved hers.
However, Castle’s literal ass never seems to come into play, whereas Kate’s—well, we might not see her derriere, but we certainly see her body, showcased to fabulous advantage. She has used it on more than one occasion to catch a bad guy.
For example, in the episode that aired on May 2 (“To Love and Die in L.A.”), Kate learns that the criminal she is tracking, who has killed her mentor, is doing business poolside. Just before a commercial break, Castle suggests they contact the local police for backup (Castle and Beckett are in L.A., far from their New York precinct), but Kate says she has a better idea. During the commercial, my husband, who studies gender issues as part of his work, said, “The only question now is, how skimpy will Kate’s outfit be when the show returns?”
At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant—I hadn’t been thinking ahead about the show. When he explained that he knew Kate’s “idea” would be to show up poolside in a skimpy bathing suit, I thought, well of course. She has had this idea before, going to a bar in a miniskirt to flirt with a drug dealer, for example. We are supposed to understand that in these situations Kate is playing the players—using their weakness for beautiful women to her advantage. If she is aware of what she’s doing, the subtext goes, then the fact that her body is just one of many playthings surrounding this powerful man is of no consequence—Kate is only pretending. This justification works on one level, but completely fails on another.
I decided to joke with my husband a bit. “I’m not sure whether to be impressed with you for figuring this out, or laugh about you thinking ahead to Kate in a skimpy bathing suit.”
He laughed and said, “If it were Nathan Fillion showing up in a bathing suit, you’d be thinking about it.”
True that, my friends. True that. I conceded the point, then said, “Right—because that’s always happening in TV shows. This powerful, rich, fully dressed woman is sitting poolside surrounded by tons of hot men in Speedos.”
My husband just smiled, as that was his original point.
When the commercial ended, sure enough, there was Kate. First, we only see the top of her head, poking above the water. Then slowly, slowly she rises until we see her full body—not in a bikini, like the women surrounding her, but in a one piece with a ragged midriff, a bathing suit’s version of a tease. She comes out of the pool directly in front of the criminal (Ganz), whose entire attention is focused on her. The camera cuts to Castle, who is sitting at the outdoor bar in an oxford shirt and a jacket (an outfit similar to Ganz’s). Castle does a double take (or three) as Ganz follows Kate to her seat. His line? “I appreciate a woman who knows how to make an entrance.”
The reason that Kate showing up in a bathing suit can’t be rationalized away is that the rationalization isn’t the point. As viewers, the men are being seduced by the promise of yet another hot body in a bathing suit, and the women are wishing they could be that hot body in a bathing suit. Or that Nathan Fillion would show up in one—maybe, just this once? We’ve seen him in bed without his shirt, so there is hope—but no, ladies, don’t hold your breath. It is highly unlikely that Castle is going to go undercover as a stripper, or show up poolside in a Speedo to seduce a powerful female criminal who will set down her iPhone just to ogle him, and then tell him she appreciates a man who knows how to make an entrance.
After the stunning revelation of Kate’s body, it is back to business as usual. Kate and Castle miss their chance to arrest Ganz at the pool, but catch up with him later at a pier. When Kate captures—and decides not to kill—Ganz, she is wearing the same tight white tee-shirt she wore before donning a bathing suit. As she stands over Ganz, gun in hand, her would-be victim says (in response to his own victim’s prediction that “hell would rain down” upon him), “I never imagined hell looked like you.” Despite the dramatic presentation of Ganz’s near-death lechery, the line isn’t particularly remarkable. Kate is told many times during her visit to L.A. (the hotbed of all hotbeds for hot bodies), that she is beautiful. Kate lets these comments roll off her back, as she always does. If I were writing her dialogue, I’d have her look at one of these men—a director, a fellow cop, a criminal at her mercy—and say, “Thank you so much—this is the first time I’ve ever heard that, and it really means a lot to me.” or “I’m sorry I can’t say the same about you.” or, “Yeah, it’s usually the boobs that bring down the perps.” or anything, anything to show that the man is being inappropriate and disrespectful, and that Kate is here because she is a good cop, not because she has a good body. But I’m not writing Kate’s lines—so that’s just California dreamin, y’all. Just Califorina dreamin.
Despite my issues with how the show treats Kate, I’ll continue to watch Castle because I truly do have a fondness for its characters. And, California dreamin or not, I’ll keep hoping Kate makes some different choices as she pursues her suspects. Because I don’t only care about Kate—I care about how her portrayal affects all of us. When we see her wear skimpy outfits and watch her allow the men she works with to objectify her, we unconsciously absorb the idea that this kind of behavior is acceptable, even desirable. And, as much as I’ve joked about objectifying her male counterpart, I don’t think the show should make things equal by objectifying its male star—the solution to a problem is never to create the problem in a new way. Instead, I’d like to see the show focus on Kate’s substance over her style—as someone who likes her, I want her to up her game. Kate’s a good cop, but she has the potential to be a phenomenal one. All she has to do is choose backup over a bathing suit.
The problem is that Kate’s choices are not determined by her character’s impact on our collective psyches. They are determined by that most glorious of sounds, the one that every book publisher and TV producer strains to hear between the lines of dialogue, propping up the plot: “Cha-ching!” And that’s perfectly understandable—without money, we don’t get to tell stories, on TV or anywhere else. What we need is a little faith on the part of our TV shows, a willingness to take a risk that there are viewers who will reward solid, fully dressed female characters with their viewership, which will translate into sales for the advertisers who buy air time on the show (advertisers, might I suggest, who are selling products in a way that empowers women rather than objectifying them). If Castle would be willing to take the risk that there are just as many people out here who are rooting to see Kate deliver a brilliant line or finally bring down her mother’s killer as there are people with their tongues lolling, awaiting the next sexy scene, Kate just might have a chance to be her best self. And Kate at her best would encourage every one of us that being our best self, in spite of and because of our relationship to our bodies and to sexual desire, is not only possible, it’s the way things ought to be.