The Bechdel Test Cross that Miami Vice has to bear going into the future. — Deep seated hyper-masculinity versus hyper-objectified femininity.
For all the things that could be said about Miami Vice, one of the criticisms that it will have to carry forward in time are some of the obvious depictions of women in police work, the negative stereotyping of Hispanics and Blacks, and the over simplification of larger political and social-global issues that the show failed to deliver on honestly as it struggled forward during its five year, 112 episode arc.
I’ve written these essays because shows like Miami Vice will forever be a part of Americana and the history of television. While we may not find much worthwhile about it right now, far into the future, close consideration of this material will be of value. As we live in an abundance of content, there may be a period where we do not.
Most people would agree that Miami Vice was an introspective look at male culture in the 1980s, amplified masculinity, and global politics from a boiled down, hour long episodic viewpoint where the good guys usually win. This was the dark underbelly of America that I’ve written about in two other articles, and which worried most of America, but glamorized it just enough to make it attractive.
In today’s world, some academics and journalists might state that it was a brand of toxic masculinity that America could afford to shed itself of. I would state that not all masculinity, even hyper-stylized masculinity is toxic masculinity. I’d likely be putting myself in harm’s way, too, even discussing the subject as an aging White Male. But, meh. Some subjects need to be covered.
Thus, just because there’s an actualized, clearly defined alpha role model being the staple of a brand doesn’t qualify it as toxic. While many shows deal directly with the idea of Anti-Heroes, as does Miami Vice, its main heroes never veered into that lane, even when they became anti-heroes later in the series. If anything, Miami Vice made clear efforts to delineate its main characters as the brand of men who push back against the toxic breed of men that infected police departments, could be found as abusive drug pushers, rapists, domestic abusers, and all typically meeting the bad end of either a gunfight or justice.
Miami Vice’s main storyline of choice was the obvious one. Every week, our two gun-totin’ heroes of the Miami Beach cartel scene go toe to toe with Organized Crime. Sonny ‘James’ Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs were forever undercover as their alias Burnett & Cooper. The invaders were always repelled, or pushed back just enough for the heroes to sleep at night, only to get up, sober up, and face the same ills with every morning sun as if there is no ending to the hell building up on the borders of the southern shores of sleepy America. This was the darkness that compartmentalized the show for better or worse and held it prisoner, while at the same time imbuing it with notes of redemption and freedom. Miami Vice couldn’t tell a realistic narrative without covering it’s troubled relationship with it’s Central and South American neighbors. Again, Crockett’s Alamo is held strong even if Hannibal and his troops are at the gate.
White America’s fear of the de-Americanization of the country had manifested itself in the arts as an agitated, troubled anti-hero, which Crockett lovingly plays almost like an old poetry-reading, well dressed, gun-toting Wild West cowboy, smiling and trucking along to a Jimmy Buffet soundtrack.
I’ve written a lot about the idealism of America in previous articles about Miami Vice, and while these issues had intellectual merit and reflected a version comfortable to white America, viewers from other audiences likely didn’t take it the same way. No introspective series of writing would be worthwhile if unable to step out of its own shoes and walk a bit with a different consideration and careful examination through different eyes.
A lot of readers who are versed with understanding the show would rightly say that the storytelling and the depictions are as true as they can be for the context of the day, but that’s only true in the framework of television entertainment which the viewers were ready to accept back in the mid ’80s. Isn’t it?
What does that mean in plain English for everyone in the cheap seats?
One, it means that it was evident that some episodes that had weighty and troubling storylines which didn’t fit in with the America that was for sale back then, either didn’t get written, or didn’t find their way into syndication.
Two, there was a story that America wanted Miami Vice to tell, and the studios created that story. The shows writing staff worked hard to deliver on the promise of realism, but that realism would only go so far, or be only as introspective as the studio would allow.
The show was created out of the troubled relationship that series creator Anthony Yerkovich had with his previous show Hill Street Blues. There was difficulty getting some themes greenlighted for production, or worse yet, airing because of moral standards and censors of the day. He had to find a solution to telling deeply engrossing, but often violent moral tales for television while appeasing the studios and network execs. Dressing it up in this hyper-glamorized, picturesquely beautiful setting and with racially motivated tension was the formula that created success for Yerkovich and Michael Mann.
As an example, the storyline of the fan favourite episode titled “Evan” from season one, is the most obvious. Viewers of the show often discuss the absence of this episode from all streaming services on Reddit and other forums across the internet. It goes back and forth between either a music rights issue with Peter Gabriel, which is highly unlikely, or the repetitive use of the word “F*ggot” by the show’s complex hero Sonny Crockett.
Crockett doesn’t use the word as a slur himself, but has to recount an incident to his partner, Tubbs about Evan and another undercover Detective who took his life apparently due to shame and mental illness. The show’s writers framed the problem of the cops homosexuality as an illness or a mental health issue, and that — likely was another aspect which didn’t sit well with some viewing audiences who were sympathetic to those causes. Either way, for people wrapped up in parsing that episodes morality, and in charge of making those decisions, they have decidedly kept it off the airwaves for decades, thus it’s not a new victim to censoring, but one of the longest running.
Several of the final episodes in the last season were billed as ‘The Lost Episodes’ but the reality is that a few of them cover topics that were also likely too gritty for the censors of the day as well, even after five years of showing the underside of beautiful Miami. One episode shows an underage girl being raped by a black drug pusher, where she later goes to exact vigilante justice with the help of another officer, and that, again, was probably too much for the censors back then. My description is an oversimplification of how it plays out, but fast-forward in time and we see much more troubling and graphic depictions of sexual abuse and violence on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It’s worth pointing out that Law & Order show is produced by the same writer Dick Wolf, but clearly twenty to thirty years on.
Some of the most obvious issues with Miami Vice though is in how they continually and thoroughly depict women. This has been a historic criticism of the show since its inception.
When we put Miami Vice against the Bechdel-Wallace test, which was an idea from cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, and found itself as an embedded benchmark in considering women in fiction ever after, we have problems. The irony that the Bechdel test and Miami Vice both originated in 1985 is interesting, as strong foundational concepts like these usually occur because there’s a breaking point within the culture and a thirst that is desert dry and must be slaked.
Most of the women in the show are shown in some sort of sexualized, demeaned or corrupted manner, and if they can’t be, then they’re pushed quickly to the background without thought. Detectives Gina Calabrese and Trudy Joplin who ‘also work’ in the Organized Crime Bureau along with the other detectives are repeatedly demeaned when having to dress up as prostitutes, and frequently shown on that kind of duty as if it was a daily occurrence for their job, and little else for them to do. When not being shown as undercover prostitutes, they were relegated to doing menial tasks and paperwork. Both Crockett and Tubbs repetitively lean on Gina and Trudy to file paperwork for them ‘Downtown’ or dig up personnel records for them when they get time. The scenarios play out in a similar manner as the male detective uses charm to get what they want, and the viewer, on the other side of the fourth wall, knows that there won’t be the reciprocation of a relationship. But it’s interesting that they often push back stating “they’re overloaded with work and have to be on the street in two hours,” but yet always acquiesce. Not once did they reject doing the menial job of secretary, even with the rank of Detective.
This is a sticking point that only other real-life female officers can speak to with honesty and color in. It likely was the norm that a lot of good female officers were faced with these workplace issues and given lesser jobs compared to their male counterparts. So then the question is:
Was the show covering a real life issue through dramatization? Or was the show just being lazy and not developing those characters appropriately beyond these menial background players?
This is the material of arguments for a lot of disgruntled or entrenched men with misogynistic upbringings who fail to see their place in those scenarios and usually offer an alternative reality to “how it was.” Those responses are reason enough as to why these considerations need to be continually looked at and openly discussed. If you’re bothered by that, I offer you no apology.
Some interesting roles played out for women on the show like the episode “Definitely Miami’ where french pop-singer Arielle Dombasle plays a serial killer who seduces men, one after another, to the tune of $60,000 and has her menacing boyfriend, creepy Ted Nugent, dispatch them at a cement quarry — obviously by bullet. Arielle Dombasle plays a strong role, but a morally corrupted one. Sheena Easton plays Crockett’s love interest turned wife. Pam Grier, as a guest star actually becomes the shows strongest female character often returning as Ricardo Tubb’s love interest Valerie in four different, non-connected episodes. She has her own interesting arc and likely Miami Vice’s most developed female role next to Detective Gina Calabrese.
Anyone familiar with the Bechdel test however, knows that Miami Vice would likely fail that test in almost every episode — and sadly, it does.
The requirement is a simple one where the material is examined for any situation where two women, who have identifiable names, must speak directly to each other and DO NOT discuss a man.
As I recently went back over the show during quarantine and watched the series from beginning to end, I paid particular attention to the episodes that centered around either Trudy or Gina, or Pam Grier and Sheena Easton. While the stories got close a few times to passing the test, they never did. Even the episodes with Sheena Easton were lackluster and failed to show a strong independent woman, which could’ve been easy to do, but quickly painted her character into a corner of being an unbusy housewife who eventually succumbs to having to go back out on the road and tour, abandoning the relationship. As someone not necessarily primed to look for these things, these realities stood out and were unfortunate and undeniable.
And while that’s really damning, it’s a telling product of the masculine driven storylines of the show and the era in which it was birthed. This show wasn’t Cagney & Lacey, and was straight-forward about it. Viewers often remarked that Miami Vice was often called The Don Johnson Show and it focused more on Crockett than any other character.
Miami Vice is a contrast in so many ways to The Golden Girls which consciously show women engaging in meaningful, and even throw away conversations which passes the Bechdel-Wallace test with ease. There were many shows at the time that gave better service to both women and minorities with less budget, less fanfare, limelight and opportunity. Miami Vice as a business had every opportunity to deliver on this, but it often failed. That doesn’t mean however, that it failed completely as there are fantastic episodes that cover ground for both Gina and Trudy.
It’s also important to mention that Martin Ferraro as Izzy Moreno worked his collective *ss off on that show in the true traditions of ‘character acting’ which Johnny Depp would later become famous for, but was boxed in by stereotypes which were deeply-seated within the show, and held prisoner as stated before.
To be fair here, I should remind the reader of a few things. Miami Vice was a show that hadn’t ever hit the airwaves in any version previous. There was nothing like it. The show set the standard for what would dominate the airwaves with cop shows and police procedurals for the next thirty years and has been credited as such. The show fetishized men’s fashion beyond the gold watch and business suit that was the apparent epitome on display in men’s magazines, and that was an absolute first. The setting also set up a problematic situation as a beach-centric show where scantily clad women played a role as not just real-life characters, but throw away, disposable commodities, much like the street level pushers, prostitutes and forgotten wives of detectives deep under cover for far too long. Women as party accessories, for however real that might have been for any man at the time, wasn’t real for the women who were also in attendance, either in real life or on the show itself.
Some of the other considerations I have to give about the show was that it underused Philip Michael Thomas who shines in every episode he’s given the chance to. Thomas was historically panned as an actor in his craft during the entire run of the series, and you can still read a lot of that disappointment in newer articles across the internet. As a viewer, I always found Ricardo Tubbs intriguing and had Philip Michael Thomas been given a chance, he would’ve been a great character actor of the 1990’s or 2000’s, but that never materialized. The criticism against him, fair or not, never went away. He was never seen for the good work he did, and his acting career after Miami Vice didn’t materialize or end up being anything greater than a few guest spots on other shows.
It’s difficult to understand how that could pan out that way as he was repetitively seen as a nice guy, a wonderful person to spend time with, and a very giving and unpretentious actor. When it comes down to race, finding vehicles that pay the bills in film and television were hard to come by and when they did open up were they highly criticized by audiences. This was the reality that non-white actors faced everyday. Some were able to shine like Eddie Murphy, Pam Grier, Sam Jackson and a handful of others, but the list of strong talent that was overlooked and went unused is much longer.
The only thing that is relevant to say about the characters of Switek and Zito is that they appear to be throw-away characters more appropriate for a different show. Crockett’s continual emasculation of them by referring to them as ‘girls’ throughout the series, and his firm dismissiveness of them underlines a possible attitude the writers had of other shows at the time.
It’s also interesting to note, that as a lifelong fan of Blade Runner, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I was intrigued by Edward James Olmos’s acting throughout the series. Olmos stated in an interview a few years ago, that he went 12 episodes into the show before looking at either of the co-stars during filming, as he was trying to show a very different side of Leadership that wasn’t the typical angry, yelling, cigar-chomping Lieutenants that were a staple on all the other cop shows. Olmos’s presence and storyline of the show as a Black Ops / DEA Agent out of Cambodia ratcheted up the tension on the show ten fold and was unlike anything that audience was accustomed to. It’s equally shocking to find out that scores of viewers wrote in weekly trying to “get that arrogant sonofab*tch off the show.” Thankfully Michael Mann told him directly that was never gonna happen and he stayed on until the very last scene. Olmos is the last person we see before Crockett and Tubbs shake hands and ride away in the stolen Testarossa.
Miami Vice is a show that everyone should make time for. There’s a lot of material to consider from the study of being alone versus loneliness, hyper-masculinity, sexism and violence, drugs and cartel activity, the weight of the system on blue collar workers, and even the visual evidence of a lost era in almost every single frame. Miami Vice is a Historian’s wet dream on multiple levels and continues to be so the farther time moves forward. The show holds up far better than many of the shows of the same time frame. The irony of both the timeliness and strength of Miami Vice and The Golden Girls being set in the same city is also another small aside, and not to be taken lightly.
This is the final article in a series of three articles I’ve written about Miami Vice during COVID-19 Lockdown. Having viewed this material roughly 35 years on, the strength of the show is in how well it depicts human relationships, the suffering that happened behind the variety of social ills that were routinely covered week to week, and the absolute style and production value that it brought to television which was unlike any show before it. This third article focuses on the honesty it showed on America as a whole, rather than just a part.
Side note: I have had to censor certain words with an asterix, but have done so not by choice, but due to … you guessed it — censors.