Bad Girls Takes on Law and Order
It seems almost too obvious to point out that Bad
Girls, a show about prison, offers a message about the treatment of
criminals and crime in our society. The show makes certain things quite
clear: prison is a very bad place that helps almost no one; the criminal
justice system is often unfair; women in particular suffer both through
their mistreatment in the courts and during their time in prison. This last
point is more complex, especially the issue of how women are treated by the
judicial system. The show offers a unique take on both court cases and
criminal investigations. Bad Girls depicts women at special
disadvantage in a system which is dominated by men, and which is invested in
protecting the power of male-dominated society. It's a system which has
little interest in understanding the complex reasons women resort to
extra-legal solutions, particularly when those reasons reflect women
resisting and threatening male authority and power. The show also suggests
that the dominance of the judicial system is reinforced by traditional
representations of crime and criminals on television shows about these
subjects. It does so by depicting an alternative mode of justice, embodied
both in the stories told on the show, and the manner in which those stories
by Jennifer T.
For a television program about prison, Bad Girls includes very few
court cases among the stories it tells. Matters juridical are often
featured as backstory (new prisoners arrive straight from being convicted in
court, longstanding prisoners go out to their appeals or other trials), but
very few are actually depicted onscreen. In all eight seasons, Bad Girls dramatizes only three cases argued inside the courtroom.
Of the three, justice prevails only once: Nikki's appeal. In the other
two instances, Yvonne testifying against Charlie in his drug trial in season
3 and the Julies being convicted of Grievous Bodily Harm in season 4, a
severe miscarriage of justice occurs. Taken together, all three offer a
statement on gender and power.
In all three cases, women have attacked men in response to a moral or
physical transgression on the part of the man in question. Nikki attacks
Gossard, a bent cop, for attempting to rape her partner, Trish. Yvonne
testifies against her husband, Charlie, because he has betrayed her by
having an affair with Renee (and was therefore the reason she wound up in
prison, having contracted a hit on Renee's husband at Charlie's request).
The Julies attack the pimp who has seduced Julie Johnston's daughter,
Rhiannon, into prostitution. Together, these three cases encompass the three
major variations on sexual crimes against women (rape, adultery/marital
betrayal, forced prostitution).
Why does Nikki's appeal have a different outcome from that of the other two
In Nikki's case the male side (Gossard) has no voice. In fact, the
prosecutor explicitly introduces this idea when he reminds the court "We
cannot ask the man in question, DC Gossard, to defend himself can we?
Because that man is dead." Instead, Nikki is surrounded by women supporting
and reinforcing her:
She has a female barrister. Sally Ann Howe, Gossard's previous rape victim,
provides testimony. Trish, her ex-girlfriend, cheers her on from the
gallery. Claire, her solicitor, rushes over to congratulate her immediately
after the verdict.
And Helen, although off-screen, has sacrificed her career in an attempt to
protect the success of Nikki's appeal.
In contrast, Yvonne and the Julies have little support and have to face the
active and vocal efforts of their male adversaries. When Rhiannon's pimp
testifies against the Julies for pouring boiling water on his lap, the focus
of his testimony is that his manhood has been damaged; he can no longer
perform sexually. The excessive sentence the Julies receive is both a
miscarriage of justice, and a direct punishment for their attempt to
castrate the pimp, to deprive him of the source/foundation/essence of his
power. Similarly, Yvonne falls victim when she attempts to undermine male
power, although unlike the Julies and Nikki, she mistakenly thinks she can
do so within the structure of the courtroom itself. But Charlie has
outmaneuvered Yvonne. He sits in the courtroom and witnesses her betrayal
of him, but has already bribed at least one juror, and has no qualms about
lying his way through his testimony in order to reassert his control and
authority. Yvonne recognizes his seemingly unconquerable power when,
outside the courtroom, she thinks for a moment that he has hired a hit on
her in revenge: when the hit man shouts "Atkins!" Yvonne turns in fright
before Charlie himself is shot. Yvonne comes out ahead in the end only
because, like Nikki, she has the support of a woman, her daughter Lauren,
who ensures that justice (although not the official sort) is served.
These three cases reveal that the courts do not look kindly on women who try
to wrench male power away, even when that power is abusive, illegal or both.
Women's voices are only heard when there is no male voice to be heard.
Ultimately, all these women are being condemned for the same thing: rage
against their male oppressors.
One could argue that there is a fourth court case depicted onscreen in
Bad Girls. In season 7, when Pat Kerrigan arrives on G-Wing, she
initiates an improvised court trial against the nun who abused her when she
was a child. Pat doesn't want to kill Sister Thomas; she wants to condemn
and convict her. To create this "court room" Pat insists that she have an
audience (a jury) to hear the case, objecting immediately when the officers
try to deprive her of this by putting everyone on lockdown in their cells.
She presents her own testimony (which is not generally believed by the
jury—not surprising, given the way all courtrooms, official or not, regard
female testimony with skepticism), and then evidence from her friend's
journal, a piece of physical evidence which has much more credibility with
this "jury" of prisoners and peers. Pat then cross-examines the defendant,
and when she calls for an additional "witness" (a priest who participated in
the abuse), Grayling (the judge) actually insists that this witness be found
and brought to Larkhall to participate in the "trial."
It's significant that Pat wins her case, because unlike in the official
courtrooms, which represent miscarriages of justice, in this improvised
courtroom, her voice is actually heard. Her ability to tell her side (unlike
the Julies, Yvonne, even Nikki—who we never hear testify) means that justice
prevails and the nun and priest who abused her and her friend are punished.
It's also significant that the "trial" takes place in the private realm, the
prison, not in the public realm, the official judicial system. But even in
this private sphere, Pat is forced to use violence and intimidation to make
sure she is heard over her abuser, providing another example of violence
sometimes being the only avenue available to women in this patriarchal
Pat's "trial" puts forth the idea that informal justice is more effective
and potentially more fair than the externally imposed and enforced justice
of the official legal system. There are other storylines in which prisoners take it upon themselves
to essentially act as judge and jury as well as "executioner." The Julies
take on Rhiannon's pimp in season 4, someone who never would have been
punished by the actual court system. And then, of course, they also inflict
a very just punishment against Fenner in season 7. But not on a whim: they
weigh the testimony from Di, from Kris, as well as their own observations,
and they decide Fenner was guilty of murdering Yvonne. They didn't kill him
for any of his other immoral and abusive behavior; they punished him
specifically for this one offense. Similarly, in season 8 Pat observes
Natalie using a child as a drug mule, and based on this evidence, as well as
Natalie's earlier admittance of running a child prostitution ring, Pat
determines that Natalie deserves to be punished. She carries out the
punishment she thinks is just: death.
But this informal justice has its problems as well. It depends on the
judgment of the individuals, and while some have good judgment (Yvonne,
Nikki, Pat, the Julies sometimes), others show poor judgment (Denny, Shaz,
the Julies sometimes). And motivations matter more than anything. Some
people are looking out for the good of the community (Nikki, Yvonne, the
Julies, Pat) while others are looking out for themselves (Shell, Natalie
even more so). When the Julies and others start crank-calling Barbara's
stepchildren in season 3 (the stepchildren are using the courts to try to
get their deceased father's money back from Barbara), we cringe at
prisoner-driven "justice" running amok in a very destructive way, all due to
very poor judgment on the part of the Julies.
No matter the shortcomings of informal justice, it's still more effective
than the official channels open to women. By demonstrating the way justice
is often not served, and by refusing to valorize the judicial system
(both by not highlighting its function, and by only showing its
overwhelmingly negative effects), Bad Girls offers an alternative,
almost reverse narrative, to the stories we usually see on television. Cop
shows and law shows have been popular for decades. The common narrative
strategy on all those shows is that once the criminal is arrested and/or
convicted, the story is over. These programs almost never show scenes in
jail, and if they do, they are related to the character's court case, not
related to the character actually serving time after conviction.
Bad Girls is the opposite. The show almost never depicts anyone being
arrested for their crime (over eight seasons we see Crystal arrested for
harboring Denny and Shell, the Julies being re-arrested right after their
initial release in series 3, and Tina being arrested for her arson stunt).
And although Bad Girls does occasionally show cops investigating a
crime, the cops rarely actually uncover the true story of what happened, and
they never manage to arrest anyone, as epitomized by the numerous murders
committed at the prison over the years, all of which are investigated, none
of which are solved.
In fact, the entire concept of forensic evidence, or physical evidence in
general, as the key to unlocking the truth, is continuously undermined.
Bad Girls conforms very little to the traditional story-telling
techniques of law and crime shows, where the police investigate evidence and
figure out the answer, and where the actions of the courtroom provide a
dramatic climax. Bad Girls argues a consistent case: in its
alternative narrative it demonstrates the inability or refusal of "law and
order"-oriented television shows to reflect or be answerable to reality: to
what has led to the trial in the first place, or to what happens after the
trial is over.
In the world Bad Girls dramatizes, evidence is often misleading, or
not sufficient to discern the truth. Renee Williams's murder is mistaken for
an accidental allergic reaction to peanuts. The key Kris dropped outside
the cell where Yvonne was left to die, wound up distracting, rather than helping,
investigators in their search. Evidence is also too easily lost or
destroyed. Karen manages to build up a dossier against Fenner, only to have
him break into her apartment and destroy everything of substance in the file
(much of which was manufactured or staged, since authentic evidence was
impossible to find). And in the most satisfying unsolved (or, rather, mis-solved)
crime, Fenner's murder, the ephemeral nature of the weapon (an icicle)
belies its potency. The police were left with nothing other than a puddle
As a viewer, watching this investigative ineffectiveness, I found myself
repeatedly impatient with the show for ignoring forensic evidence in order
to (it seemed to me) serve the needs of the plot. How could the police not
realize Fenner had killed Yvonne, for instance? My annoyance arose from a
conflict between the show's seemingly lazy treatment of evidence, and my expectations around the traditional crime and law
storytelling formula—which until this show I had accepted without even
thinking: investigation and evidence drive the plot and its conclusion.
(It's a conventional modern, Western model: science = truth.) I had
unconsciously assumed that a show which tells a different kind of story,
which doesn't privilege hard evidential facts, is in some way badly (or
illogically) written. But in fact, Bad Girls questions the very
primacy of this type of evidential logic.
This concept is quite radical, this rejection of the idea that hard science
and rational investigation are the key to understanding crimes, and that
they should drive the storytelling inspired by crime. Instead, by putting
investigations, forensics, and court trials in a secondary role in the
storytelling, Bad Girls privileges relationships and emotional
connections as the key to understanding crime in our society. The show
offers viewers information about the sad childhoods of many of the
characters as one of the factors that led them to end up in prison,
suggesting that the answer to who committed a crime and why is often a long
and complex one. The only time when forensic evidence proves the truth is
when Shell escapes and her diary placing the blame on Helen is shown to be a
fake. Significantly, the only reason the diary is even forensically
analyzed is because of Helen's knowledge of Shell, her awareness that "Shell Dockley
keeps grudges, not diaries.
Similarly, it's not possible for investigators to find out that Yvonne
murdered Renee Williams if they're unaware Renee had an affair with Yvonne's
husband. And who would suspect the Julies were the orchestrators of
Fenner's demise, unless they were aware of the Julies' loyalty and love for
Yvonne? Certain crimes only make sense when viewed from this emotional
level, when the web of history and relationships and personalities are
comprehended, rather than when the crime is viewed from the analytic,
evidence-gathering, puzzle-solving perspective. But the emotional point of
view is only possible for those within the community, not to outsiders like
the cops and investigators. The Julies and Colin know that Fenner killed
Yvonne, even if the police can't figure it out.
Bad Girls therefore suggests that investigations and justice are both
executed most effectively when they're conducted by those who are
emotionally involved, not when they're conducted by the traditional ideal of
the objective outsider. Bad Girls rejects the authority or dominance
of the courtroom and the police, just as it rejects the dominance of the
courtroom or crime-based storytelling techniques of so many other television
programs. The show exposes courtrooms and criminal investigations as
fallacies, not an effective means to arrive at the truth, particularly when
it comes to crimes committed by women or against women. Women must create an
alternative mode of understanding, an emotional, relationship-based
framework, and when necessary, serve their own justice.
A big thank you to E. Kline for her suggestions and tireless editing of this piece. It would have been far less rich and clear without her.