Perry Mason Learns That Women Can Kill
Trench Coat Detectives
I have to admit that I am a sucker for old detective shows. I’m talking Columbo, The Avengers, Danger Man and of course Murder She Wrote (RIP Angela Lansbury). I live for the suspenseful music, grainy action scenes and classic trench coats. Unfortunately, these pre-80s shows are not the most diverse. Women typically take a secondary role as informants or are typecast as “widow of the murdered millionaire number one.” So I was pleasantly surprised when a Perry Mason re-run featured a female perpetrator. Stay tuned for my thoughts.
Perry Mason (1960) season 4 episode 5 “The Case of the Lavender Lipstick”
Chemist Karen Lewis works in the product development lab for a cosmetic company. One night, Lewis is accused of corporate espionage, by a company executive, who agrees not to go to the police in exchange for sexual favors. Lewis declines and is immediately fired. When the company president hears about Lewis being discharged he is incensed and re-hires her. Shortly thereafter, the president is found dead and Lewis is the main suspect. During the trial, the general consensus is that Lewis could not have possibly committed the murder; She is too level headed, committed to the company and docile. Plus the incriminating evidence is sloppy and according to a witness, Lewis is “a good little housekeeper. Keeps her desk neat and clean.” The actual perpetrator, a male janitor, used Lewis as a scapegoat when he was caught embezzling company secret formulas. The janitor is described as cunning, precise and relentless, willing to do anything to keep his secret safe.
Perry Mason (1958) season 1 episode 30 “The Case of the Screaming Woman ”
Secretary Edith Douglass has a good relationship with her boss, a psychologist, until her little brother Mark comes to town with a dilemma. If Mark can’t find $4,000 dollars to pay his debts he’s as good as dead. Mark convinces his sister to aid him in stealing an incriminating tape, recording of a therapy session from her boss’s office. Mark blackmails the doctor, but gets greedy and uses a copy of the tape to also blackmail the patient, who is recorded on the tape admitting to an affair. Mark is found dead the next morning. The doctor has the strongest motive and is arrested. Mason has to prove his innocence. Mason collaborates with the secretary to set a trap for the real murder, the wife of the patient who had confessed to the affair. Throughout the episode, she is portrayed as quick-tempered, intelligent and jealous. She nearly got away with the murder, because nobody suspected she was capable of such a heinous act.
There are several episodes of Perry Mason during which a female is accused of a crime, but ultimately not convicted. The aforementioned “Lipstick Case,” is a great example of this tactic and seems to relay that women aren’t capable of committing such violent crimes. Of course this stereotype perpetuates our lack of understanding for female perpetrators and their motives. That's why I was surprised with "The Case of the Screaming Woman," which dispels this trope.
In Perry Mason, men seem to have personal reasons for murder, while women murder to protect someone they love. Representation is limited in these narratives and the descriptions of the accused women are right in line with 1960’s views of womanhood. The female perp in season one is described as are described as “jealous and beautiful,” while the male perp in season four is described as "intelligent and calculated." It is hard to say if these differences have actually changed as television evolved.