I’ve been watching The Closer again, which brightened up the summer television season considerably. This year, Brenda Leigh Johnson (the inestimable Kyra Segwick) got some press for sharpening her wardrobe. True, she no longer looks like she shops for clothes at Walmart, but I enjoy that her clothes are still loud and flashy, way off the mark for a professional Deputy Chief (I would suppose). That is, while the men suit up in neutral ties and dress shirts and pants—and even Daniels, the only other woman on the squad, tends to wear dark, somber colors—Brenda Leigh flounces into the office in bold black and white stripes or flowery prints, often wearing the sombrero-style white straw hat that’s become a nearly permanent part of her ensemble. Yet for all her outré fashion choices, Brenda’s not terribly concerned with how she looks, and her outfits don’t get in the way of the professional respect she easily commands in her job.
Brenda’s also been eating a little less candy this season, although when her doctor recently suggested she’d feel better if she gave up sugar, Brenda’s face was a study in panic and defiance. Early onset menopause is her current idiosyncrasy, a condition that could have provided grist for plenty of low comedy, but instead has prompted Brenda’s humanization and a new performance of intimacy and respect between her and the crew.
Sergeant Daniels was conveniently out of the office, training for Homeland Security detail, when Brenda’s hot flashes began, leaving her male co-workers to scratch their heads over Brenda’s instantaneous mood swings, her irritability, and her prodigious sweating. Even Brenda has been flummoxed and outraged by her frequent spells of apparent heat stroke.
Accepting this story-line requires just a little leap of faith—who wouldn’t assume that a woman in her 40s (even her early 40s) might be feeling hormonal changes, especially given Brenda’s symptoms? But holding off on her doctor’s diagnosis allowed the writers to play out the huge effect her body has on her comportment (and her company), if never her on-the-job performance. She might snap at her squad and complain when information doesn’t come at her fast enough, but she solves her cases as efficiently and effectively as ever.
Brenda’s physical suffering illustrates how attuned the men are to her moods and maneuvers. Although they’re respectful of her power and bewildered by her swirling emotional currents, it’s clear they care about her. In a recent episode, Brenda and Lieutenant (I think that’s his rank) Gabriel drive a news crew through a deserted neighborhood and find themselves shot at by unseen, unsuspected snipers. As bullets riddle the car, the frenetic camera cuts again and again to Gabriel, throwing himself over the floundering Brenda to protect her. At the station, when Brenda finally confronts the sniping suspect, alone with him in a stopped elevator, she bawls him out, furious that he almost killed not just her, but her friend, Gabriel.
Gabriel hears her protestations through the technology that allows the show’s characters to snoop frequently on one another and the people they interrogate. In the sniper case, a video hook up to the squad’s audio/visual room shows Brenda and the perp on the elevator’s camera. Her crew gathers round the monitor to watch Brenda chew him out, exchanging murmurs and glances of admiration at the confession she extracts. When Gabriel hears Brenda call him her “friend,” he’s embarrassed but also proud. Declaring her affection for a co-worker doesn’t diminish the command she continues to maintain over her position and her staff.
In fact, the male detectives (and Daniels) often listen in and watch as Sedgwick grills a suspect, either sitting beside her at the table or from the technological remove of the a/v room where “Buzz” works the monitors, capturing images and speech. The constant watching establishes the men as Brenda’s spectators, as well as her colleagues; that they so often watch her on television monitors makes palpable the direction and intensity of what once might have been called their “male gaze.”
But in The Closer, these male spectators gaze, always impressed, always a little jealously, always with great generosity and even pride, at Brenda’s agency, at her ability to articulate her accusations and deftly manipulate a suspect’s emotions to pry out the confession they all expect is forthcoming. Brenda makes people talk not by employing empathetic feminine wiles but by challenging her suspects, shrewdly invading their psychology, and composing sharp, unassailable narratives of their own guilt. How could the men not be in awe? No objectification going on here.
My only hesitation with The Closer this season is Brenda and Fritz’s inevitable march toward marriage. Seeing them cautiously commit to their relationship has been a pleasure, as their choices provide a domestic counterpart to Brenda’s life in the police department that emphasizes her refusal to distinguish the personal from the professional (in fact, Fritz, her fiancé, is an FBI agent who works closely with the squad).
Where other women television characters relax into what too often seem to be “given” roles as mothers or wives, Brenda’s scattershot approach to home-making leaves Fritz to pick up the slack. She’s always relieved when her cell phone rings to fetch her to a crime scene, always eager to put her work above everything else, despite her obvious feelings for Fritz. The yoke of marriage, then, comes as a bit of a surprise and a bit out of character. Likewise, mourning her female fertility, when she thinks she’s suffering early-onset menopause, treads a bit too closely to stereotype.
On the other hand, when’s the last time a popular, critically acclaimed television series followed a story arc about a menopausal woman? And even though her wedding will most certainly end the season (as weddings always do, in television, theatre, and film), Brenda still seems pragmatic, rather than romantic, about the whole thing. When her visiting mother slips and shares Brenda and Fritz’s wedding news with the squad, Provenza gives Brenda a big, back-slapping hug. But instead of happily showing off her ring, Brenda grits her teeth, eager to get back to the problem at hand.
That’s my kind of woman.
Happily hot flashing,
The Feminist Spectator