Character Studies 6: Cherchez La Femme

To quote Dumas, if there’s any predictable instigator for all manner of explosive plot twists, it’s the presence of a sexually available woman. From the pilot onward, these women are seen as sort of psychic splinters: a minor irritant capable of becoming a giant, unmanageable pain.

The thesis seems to be that romantic love (or lust) is dangerous and debilitating to male power and autonomy. The love Starsky and Hutch have for each other is heroic, stabilizing, and indivisible, and it’s obvious without it the center would collapse. But love directed outward is a recipe for disaster. Even so, in what may be the network’s (largely unconscious) wish to forestall any hint of homosexuality, as well as decorate the tough-guy landscape, the series is replete with concupiscence. There have been happy no-strings-attached affairs (the long list includes various stewardesses, cute-girl pick-ups, anonymous one night stands), and these cause no problem. Starsky and Hutch are single and in their prime, which means they are free to have as many casual affairs as they want. This does not besmirch their characters, as they treat their dates with respect. But if a woman is similarly intent on seeking unconditional sex, they are often portrayed as either troubling, imperiled, or just plain embarrassing, such as barracuda Catlin in “Class in Crime”, ill-fated Madeline in “Deck Watch”, Monique in “Avenger”, hungry Judith in “Discomania”, Nicole Monk in “Photo Finish”.

But enter the seriously desirable woman and very bad things begin to happen. Either the guys lose their focus and act like idiots (Kira in “Starsky vs. Hutch” and Chris Phelps in “Heroes”) or love itself is a catalyst for tragedy (Gillian and Terry primarily, but let’s not forget homicidal Diana, ex-wife Vanessa, old classmate Sharman, and Bad News Jeanie Walton, even silly Lisa Kendricks in “Foxy Lady”). Even women who don’t deliberately mess things up for the guys have a way of unintentionally precipitating major problems. From innocent Abby, childhood friends Nancy (“Terror on the Docks”) and Allison (“Targets Without a Badge”), to just-trying-to-help nuisances like Helen Carnahan in “Murder at Sea” and lovestruck teen Joey Carston (twice), life would just be so much simpler without them around.

There have only been three women whose presence has made life easier and not harder in the entire run of the series: Dr Kaufman in “The Plague”, Detective Meredith in “Black and Blue”, and the chemist Cheryl in “A Coffin for Starsky” (we can add, but only just, reporter Jane Hutton in “Murder Ward”). Coincidentally, or maybe not, these women are preoccupied with work and have little time to futz around with the boys. They help because they have to, it’s part of their job. It’s not that they don’t find the boys attractive, they do (Joan Meredith has a brief fling with Starsky), it’s just that they have more important things on their mind. Only Cheryl is what I would term unequivocally equal, that is, existing outside the realm of objectification, in that she is seemingly too plain, and too intelligent (plus, to be fair, the circumstances are hardly conducive to romance).

An interesting complement to all this is the recurrence of the fragile-but-resilient victim, the various prostitutes and addicts who display remarkable dignity, morality and insight: Sweet Alice is the mainstay here, but also look at scrappy Mickey in “Bust Amboy”, Angel in “Texas Longhorn”, Carla in “Survival”, Roxy in “Heroes”, Belinda in “Losing Streak”. Kate Larabee in “Cover Girl” is deeply confused yet manages to transcend her situation. Even poor “Avenger” Monique, in her lucid moments, shows courage and tenderness – she honestly doesn’t mean to be a schizophrenic mass-murderer.       

In their attitude toward women, both Starsky and Hutch are easy and confident when it comes to sex, happiest in the absence of demands or expectations, preferring pluck to wiles, capable of both great loyalty and of-its-time sexism (I’m thinking here of the prevailing attitude toward Sally Hagen in “The Specialist”, which not only applies to the guys but to the entire department as well). In both men, extraordinary good looks is both a curse and a charm; both men flirt as a sort of default position when in the presence of all women, young, old, beautiful and not-so. They flirt to distract, to get what they want, to cover up social embarrassment, to exercise power. Both men sigh in martyrdom when women come on aggressively, yet feel insulted when ignored. Starsky pays extra attention to older, maternal-type women, Hutch pays extra attention to damaged goods. Both can show great sensitivity on one hand and shocking callousness on the other. Yet, in “Starsky vs. Hutch”, when Hutch tells Kira, “We’re tired of being treated like objects, having our lives determined for us by women” and Starsky responds, “loved for our bodies and not for our minds,” is this a joke, or do they really mean it? Are they better off with each other? Both the fates and the fans certainly think so. Starsky and Hutch may think so too, as they leave that scene with their arms around each other.

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5 Responses to “Character Studies 6: Cherchez La Femme”

  1. Mike T. Says:

    “They flirt to distract, to get what they want, to cover up social embarrassment, to exercise power.” How accurately that describes the behavior, socially inculcated for decades as an ongoing repression, of many women! As you’ve so eloquently explored, “Starsky and Hutch” is a remarkable moment in American pop culture containing seemingly limitless levels of subversion. I only discovered your online treasure trove today, and I’ve been submerged for the past five highly enjoyable hours. Bravo!

    • merltheearl Says:

      Of course you are absolutely right, these observations can equally apply to women. Welcome, Mike, and thank you so much for reading. You may have set an endurance record!

      • Mike T. Says:

        Gotta quibble with you there, Merl; the quality of analysis, and the grace and humor of expression found in your writing is definitely NOT something one must “endure.”

        I was struck by how obliquely well that particular description by you of the boys as flirts (which describes a certain type of behavior much more commonly associated with women) expresses your recurring themes of unity/duality, empathy, and the fluidity of identity. Your grasp of this is recognized beautifully by the astute comments of your legion of female readers (one of whom even writes of the female “Hutch” to her “Starsky”), and S&H’s legion of female fans, who, movingly, identify with these two men, and obviously love them for so much more than “their bodies.” You’ve posted sumptuous writing here about the many examples of the two characters’ empathy with the women they encounter, often especially with the disadvantaged, the damaged, and the defiant.

        As it is impossible to separate the entities of “Starsky” and “Hutch”, it is impossible to separate “Starsky & Hutch” from the particular exigencies of their “calling”, work that alternates between aloof but acutely observant peregrination and intense involvement. Sounds like I could be describing a couple of brilliant actors, doesn’t it?

      • merltheearl Says:

        You certainly could be describing a couple of very brilliant actors, Mike, and thank you for this thoughtful and generous comment. You’re right when you use the word fluidity to express how fascinating the subtext here is. The mutable nature of identity – sexually, culturally, politically and even in terms of heroism and worthiness – is something that comes up again and again in a close reading of this series.

      • Anna Says:

        Mike, this is one of the best couple of comments I’ve ever seen on this blog. So insightful! I’ll be thinking of them the next time I watch an episode. I love it when somebody points out an idea that lets me see a whole added layer in whatever I’m watching. “Limitless levels of subversion” hmmmmm….oddly appropriate that so many of those more subtle levels follow so inevitably and naturally from their most obvious levels of of subversion — their rejection of the supposed authority of rank and class, and their rejection of rigid rules about how men are allowed to show affection. So many additional levels of subversion need to be logically contained within those broader ideas in order for them to resonate sincerely.

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