Despite knowing the many troubles present in the criminal legal system, many of us love procedural dramas about law enforcement catching criminals. Criminal Minds is one show that dominated television for 15 seasons, exposing viewers to some of the most gruesome violent crimes that could be thought up. But how does Criminal Minds depict perpetrators (or “unsub” as they are called in the show) of different genders? A majority of episodes feature male perpetrators – out of 324 episodes, the show only had 62 female killers. I decided to look at two episodes, one with a male unsub and one with a female unsub, in order to compare and contrast how the unsubs are depicted. If you are behind the curve and somehow haven’t seen Criminal Minds, beware of the spoilers ahead.
Season 6, Episode 14: “Compromising Positions” – Male Killers are Extremely Dangerous
In this episode, the team of agents from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) are investigating a serial killer who is targeting married couples. The killer’s M.O. is forcing the married couple to have sex, shooting the husband to wound him, and then forcing him to watch as the killer rapes the wife before stabbing her to death and killing the husband. Immediately, the BAU presumes the killer to be an impotent male. He is characterized to be an “alpha male” with control issues stemming from emasculation, who craves being viewed as dominant because he no longer is in his social and sexual life. The BAU agents were right in their profile, as the killer was impotent, and was triggered by his wife becoming pregnant despite this. From the start, the killer is treated as extremely dangerous. This point is emphasized multiple times throughout the episode and leads to the unsub being fatally shot when the team intends to arrest him because he becomes threatening during an exchange with a female agent.
Season 13, Episode 18: “The Dance of Love” – Female Killers are Unexpected
In this episode, the BAU is searching for someone who has killed multiple women by differing methods; these women are all connected by their seeming dissatisfaction with their love lives and love of music from the 1930s-1950s, as well as the killer leaving a rose in their mouths. As with the episode I previously described, the BAU immediately presumes the unsub to be male. In fact, they spent 30 minutes out of the 40-minute episode believing that they are searching for a male killer. The suspect they describe in their profile actually fits the unsub’s husband, who had been having affairs with all of the women murdered in advance of the couple renewing their wedding vows. The BAU’s profile describes the killer as a male in his 40s-50s, who is brazen, confident, and charming; he has what the BAU calls a “Casanova complex” characterized by frequent flings that he discards without care. The BAU only realize that the unsub is female when their male suspect is dead. Even one of the agents seem surprised at the violence perpetrated, stating “[the victim] was tortured badly. That’s awful vicious for a female.”
Differing from the previous episode I described, the female perpetrator is arrested peacefully, despite pointing a gun at the agents and then herself (threatening suicide). She is talked down by a male agent and is depicted as ultimately delusional rather than knowingly sadistic. Another thing I noted that was different about this episode was that it was split between the main storyline about the murders and the personal life of one of the BAU agents that was not a part of the investigation.
Based on these two episodes, it seems that Criminal Minds treat male serial killers as extremely dangerous and their arrest as incredibly time sensitive for the safety of many, whereas, female serial killers are presented as an anomaly and less dangerous comparatively. In both episodes, the agents immediately think that the killer must be male, and do not even contemplate that the serial killer could be female until the tail end of their investigation in the second episode. The split between storylines in the second episode indicate that, despite being unexpected, female perpetrators are not intriguing enough to hold their own for an entire episode. Ultimately, I felt that a lot more time could have been spent exploring the mentality of the female serial killer, and the show missed out of that opportunity big time.