Wikipedia sez: Genderfuck is a gender performance which "fucks with" or plays with traditional gender identities, gender roles, and gender presentation.
It's a particular interest of mine, and something I game with a lot in my own work. [No, you say. Really.] In this specific case, the gender-play and reversals are more subtle than you might see, and in the post-Buffy era of television might even go unnoticed by most. But I think they're fascinating, and worth a look.
There's been some media criticism leveled at the show for its use of a woman-in-distress engine as a tensioner to drive the plot. (Television shows, having limited space in which to build tension, often use a couple of shorthand metaphors for tension to engage the audience. One is Person In Jeopardy. Another is The Ticking Clock. For its A plots, CM uses both, with varying degrees of success.) Despite my well-documented shrill feminist tendencies, I'm not overly concerned by this, for a couple of reasons.
(1) the gender balance on the cast is excellent. Four men, three women. And the women have distinct personalities and lives outside of/away from the men, and friendships among themselves. Go team!
(2) I suspect there is a higher percentage of male victims on the show than in real life.
[we pause here to note that the cat has stolen my keys and is batting them around the living room.]
(3) The women [victims, bystanders, and regular cast] are granted a phenomenal level of autonomy and agency by the narrative context. Victims survive because they fight. Community members intervene in investigations and provide needed help. Sometimes, the local community deals with the problem on their own.
(4) The show consistently casts its main male characters in "feminizing" roles, and the female ones in "masculinizing" ones.
Please note, I am talking here about narrative feminizing and masculinizing, not drag or female characters who are obviously men in skirts.
Also, it tackles Daddy Issues and Mommy Issues with equal aplomb, and--occasionally--venom.
It's an interesting artefact of the episodic A narrative and contiguous B and C narratives that they become capable of addressing issues from any number of angles simultaneously, or in sequence, and illustrating various ways that things can play out. It takes any potential edge of didacticism or judgment and blunts it [the show does have a moral center, which boils down to, oh, for christ's sake, try to act like a decent and compassionate human being, would you, even when it's hard or not very fun? (I kind of blame Mandy Patinkin for this, though having seen a very few episodes of Third Watch*, I think there's a lot of Ed Bernero in that, too)] and begins illustrating a structure for a kind of compassionate ruthlessness.
In some ways, a very Buddhist philosophy.
(Also, never seen a cop show where they work this hard *not* to shoot people. Go team.)
When I say A plot, I mean the week by week Serial Killer Of The Day plot. The B plot would be the surface character development arc, and the C plot would be the understory--the concealed character development [because they deal in contradictory narratives) and the thematic development.
Okay, anyway. Back to the genderplay.
I talked about Buffy The Vampire Slayer, above. And of course one of the notable things about BtVS is that it centered on a profound gender reversal. The primary three characters were two females and a male (which is a reversal in itself: usually it's two [or more] males and a token girl.) and the girls were the smart one and the tough one, leaving the traditionally feminizing role of Boy Hostage to Xander.
Criminal Minds has its feminized male character too. Dr. Spencer Reid is a bit effete (long hair and fingernails, propensity for lavender scarves, carries a manpurse) and intellectual. He's giddy and breathless and socially awkward and carries his coffee cup with his wrist flexed. All his hand gestures are tightly constrained, close into his body. He usually does not go out with the hard boys to bring in the bad guy at the end. He's young and big-eyed and the other characters are protective of him.
And he's Often In Peril.
The interesting thing about Reid, however, is that if he's a character who is narratively coded "female," he is one tough goddamned broad. He usually gets himself back *out* of his own peril, often by talking, sometimes by physical action. He's tied for the second-highest body count* of any of the regular cast (number one is a woman, incidentally). And he may be skinny and floppy-haired, but he's historically quite willing to hurl himself into danger, having demonstrated almost foolish levels of personal courage. (This may be changing, due to Plot Events, but nevermind that now.)
In other words, unlike Xander, Reid can take care of himself. And he has brother-sister and brother-brother and son-father relationships with other members of the team. [Also, interestingly, the narrative's gone out of its way to establish his heterosexuality, despite the purple scarf. He's not a faux-woman, in other words. He's a young man carrying a role in the narrative that would normally be carried by a young woman.]
I mentioned that the character with the highest body count--the most traditionally butch and aggressive character, frankly--is a woman. Interestingly, a woman named Elle. Who is the only team member regularly referred to by her first name. [There are two team members referred to by nicknames--Hotch and J.J.--both of which are based off either a surname or a set of initials including a surname. The other women (Garcia, Prentiss) and the men (Morgan, Reid, Gideon) are on an informal last-name basis, though they occasionally use first names in direct address to one another.]
Elle, in an ironicization of her name, is tough and impulsive and in-your-face, and takes on traditionally masculine narrative roles with ease. She's not male--she's definitely a woman, and on occasion gets rather irritated with her male colleagues' blindness to things that seem very obvious to her (such as why a rape victim might not want a room full of men looming over her)--but she takes a masculine narrative role.
And her eventual fall from grace is an active fall, an aggressive fall, not a failure due to inaction. In her failure of courage, she becomes more aggressive--as a male character might be expected to.
Her replacement in the team is also filling a masculine narrative role: the awkward apprentice. (She's even named Prentiss, dog help me. They like their puns.) She's portrayed as intellectual, distanced, socially awkward, a self-described nerd. We haven't had much chance to see her in a fight, yet, but interestingly, Gideon [who is the team's father-figure, and more on that later] seems willing in some ways to let her build a relationship with him that's not dissimilar to his relationship with Reid, which is to say a mentor/student or father/son relationship.
One of the ongoing thematic threads of the show is that everybody has some sort of trauma, and that that trauma is what makes them akin to the people they hunt. We've got child abuse and torture survivors, no end of Mommy and Daddy Abandonment and Approval and Control Issues (which feeds into the way everyone else on the team related to Gideon), and at least one survivor of extended sexual exploitation and rape.
The rape survivor is a man.
The obvious thing to do, of course, would have been to make that character Elle (who was the team's sexual assault expert, after all.) But then, maybe a little too predictable. *g*
And not what they're after. Because part of the fun here is taking apart stereotypes. That pretty petite woman with the long dark hair is an FBI agent who can kick your ass. The two girly blondes who giggle about cute boys are both hypercompetent women, each with a vicious intellect and well-grounded confidence. The buttoned-down guy in the suit is a loving dad and the glue that binds his team together and keeps them functioning.
[Garcia, the computer tech, was originally intended to be a male character, or so I hear. Instead, they cast a brilliant, buxom blond actress with a deadly wit, lucite earrings, and lacquered lips for the part. She is now officially my favorite character on television.)
Which brings me to another bit of genderplay. Mom and Dad. Because if the team is a family (and they are, complete with sibling spats and looking out for little brother) then Mom and Dad are the two senior supervisory agents in charge of the zoo. And again, they are totally cast against type. Because Hotch [Thomas Gibson] is a three-piece-suit and wingtips, marksman-qualified, stern, unsmiling, ambitious piece of work. And Gideon [Mandy Patinkin] is soft-spoken, manipulative, casually dressed in soft colors, with a cluttered office full of pictures of the children he's helped save.
Gideon is Dad and Hotch is Mom.
Gideon is distant, self-absorbed, biting. He's the one who withholds or dispenses praise, who drives his team to superhuman efforts, who demands everything.
Hotch is the guy whose job it is to offer moral support to everyone (including Gideon), to see that they're assigned the jobs that best suit their skills, and to run damage control. He's the emotional center of the team, and if he effaces himself so that Gideon can seem all the more brilliant, so be it. His ego is not on the line.
[From a feminist perspective, it's also interesting that the character I initially dismissed as the token cute blond, JJ, turns out to be just as tough and competent as any of the rest of the team--which, I must admit, made me reconsider my own sexism and looksism.]
*Body Count (only counting fatal shootings):
Elle: 2.5 (Extreme Aggressor, Charm & Harm (split with Morgan), Aftermath)
Reid: 2 (LDSK, Revelation)
Hotch: 2 (The Tribe, A Real Rain)
Morgan: 1.5 (Charm & Harm (split with Elle); Lessons Learned)
various Swat Snipers or armed bystanders: too high to count casually, but less than you might think
*I badly wanted to become a Third Watch fan, but when it began airing I was living with somebody who hated cop shows, and it wasn't worth the arguments to get to watch it. I about adored the three or five episodes I saw, though.