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“Criminal Minds” attempts PCOS and victim blaming, sort of

I am a long-term fan of “Criminal Minds” and I think I’ve watched most episodes, if not all.  If you’re unfamiliar with the show, the basic premise of it is this: a team of FBI profilers form the Behavioural Analysis Unit and are tasked with tracking down serial killers, typically by analysing the victims before proceeding to profile the killer and proceed to catch him/her. Wikipedia has more.

We’re now up to season eleven, though, and I’m not quite enjoying it the way I once was. Part of the problem is surely inherent in the words season eleven. If you’re being funded to make that many seasons of a TV show, you’ve clearly got a successful formula and you want to keep using it, yet you have to somehow manage to keep things interesting. This appears to be becoming something of a challenge. Another issue is that we have yet another new female character intended to try and replicate the popularity of a former one.Dr. Tara Lewis is played by Aisha Tyler and she’s the latest in a long line of attempts to, it seems, introduce a new female character to the mix that the fans will actually like. I think this is now the fourth attempt. While I didn’t have any objections to most of them, I’m starting to get a little weary of this parade too, and that’s because they’re all so similar. It’s a Female Agent with some experience in some related field that gives them an Invaluable Skill. Female Agent, however, brings Issues. There will be a Professional Issue, and there may also be a Personal Issue, often related to The Demands Of The Job. Female Agent has been introduced to us early in the season, and the forthcoming weeks involve gradually revealing her Issues. One of the Issues will more than likely tie in with the big season story arc.

In short, repetition has become an issue and that’s a huge reason behind what made episode three, “Til Death Do Us Part”, actually really quite weird. They found some new issues… and they tried to jam them into a single 40 minute episode.

To try and summarise a rather convoluted plot, somebody is killing brides-to-be on their hen’s nights, women whose typical behaviour would normally make them difficult targets but whose behaviour on the nights in question makes them much easier to kill. After a great deal of searching, brainstorming and, of course, behavioural analysis, the team eventually determines that the killer is actually a large woman, Dana. Dana works as a florist with her sister, Nicole, which is what brings her into contact with her victims, but her victims being shortly to marry is not her key motivator. Instead, she believes that she is in a secret romantic relationship with the photographer, Ryan, with whom she also works, and suffers from illusions featuring him. The illusion-version orders her to kill these women because they have been flirting with him and are thus threats to their love. The drama gets further upped as it becomes increasingly obvious that Ryan is actually romantically involved with the slimmer, happier Nicole and the whole thing comes to a head after he proposes.

Luckily, the BAU team eventually determines who Dana is in time as well as figuring out that she is most likely suffering from depression that has spiralled into psychosis after she stopped taking her medication. A search of her home leads them to conclude that she also has polycystic ovarian syndrome, PCOS, and this, rather than a bunch of other sad facts about her background, is likely the reason she suffered from depression in the first place. They also determine that the sisters have a greenhouse for their flowers and arrive there in time to stop Dana from slaying her sister.


Well… kind of?

I want to be fair and acknowledge that the production team for this episode did include two major women’s issues in their program. It’s a mainstream crime drama and these issues are definitely not its main focus, and thus their inclusion at all is notable. In the case of PCOS, it isn’t being treated as a strange, difficult topic best relegated to a carefully produced documentary but instead as something that just happens.

For me, however, the casualness with which the terms were tossed in is also a bit of a problem, though. The issue of victim-blaming was always going to be a bit awkward in being addressed in “Criminal Minds”. The entire premise of the show, after all, rests on an initial analysis of the victims and how they could have “attracted”, for want of a better term, their killers. Our sympathies are always directed towards the victims with at least one anecdote involved and even when the killer is revealed and humanised to some extent, it’s still not something treated as being the victim’s fault. That core idea, though, that the victim has done something that brings about their untimely demise, even inadvertently, is something that definitely ties in with the concept of victim-blaming and that could surely be worthy of being the main focus of an episode, at least.

Thus, when the new Dr. Lewis suddenly declared, mid-flight on the way to the scene of the crime, that “I’m not victim-blaming”, it was jarring. It stood out, if only because  It looked like it might actually go somewhere. To discover that it was basically a red herring felt like a missed opportunity. To then see the team carry on as usual, briefing the local population of women on staying vigilent and not doing anything risky, felt like the whole point had been utterly missed, an interesting and admittedly fraught issue relegated to what some see as a quotable line of dialogue.

Then there is the matter of PCOS, polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS clearly affects enough women and registers widely enough on public consciousness that it can be included, but it is still unknown enough that it required a very brief, rapid-fire explanation from Dr. Reid, genius and long-term favourite of fans (including me). He offered us this list of symptoms:

  • Obesity
  • Excess hair growth
  • Acne
  • Depression

For me, the problem here is not dissimilar to the “victim-blaming” line. In this case, a collection of tidbits of information were tossed in very quickly that provided little plot value. In terms of awareness raising, it was too rushed to be of much use and it definitely couldn’t do justice to the complexities of the matter… or provide much information at all, actually. While Reid listed some of the symptoms of PCOS, yes, and Dr. Lewis kindly included how common it was, they managed to do this while not referring to the main function of ovaries at all, thus overlooking even more major signs of the condition. In short, PCOS leads to a lack of ovulation, which in turn means fertility issues and can result in irregular periods and/or particularly heavy or light ones. It was a bizarre omission and I can’t help but suspect some squeamishness about menstruation etc. being behind the lack of mention of it. Instead of really being well-informed by this, the rather troubling perception one could take away from that 60 second scene is that PCOS -> depression -> psychosis.

As I said above, there is an argument to be made that referencing the condition on a primetime TV drama is something of an an achievement. On social media, a lot of women who said they suffered from PCOS commented on how great it was to see it mentioned at all and noted that the manner in which it was included in the plot was a lot better than if, say, there had been a bunch of victims killed because of their infertility instead. This is true but, to me, if you are going to include something like this, whether it’s an attempt to raise awareness, make a plot more interesting, or just appear aware of contemporary issues, then it’s worth doing it a little better than it was done, especially if you seem to have plenty of episodes that need writing that could use some new ideas.

And, finally, on something of a side note – that room was so not that cluttered, Reid. It just looked like the chick had plenty of stuff and someone had made an effort to make the room seem a bit more lived in than your average film set. If a room like that is a sign of depression, then a lot of us are in very big trouble.