Posted by Sanchi Mehra
“I respect women. I’m a feminist. I believe women should be on all the money. I wanna pay for a sandwich with a 10 dollar Ellen DeGeneres.”
~Sergeant Terrence Jeffords (Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 4, Episode 14: ‘Serve & Protect’)
There is a very fine line of difference between preferred and oppositional readings in popular culture today. While overt preferred readings re-inforce taken-for-granted status quo beliefs and behaviours as normal and desirable in a blatant manner, occluded preferred readings might appear to be challenging the norm at the surface, but promote it in the subtext. Oppositional readings, on the other hand, defy hegemonic practices in entirety.
An inflected oppositional reading does this through a bending of the power structure to suit the needs of the piece. A subverted oppositional reading (which in my opinion is the most powerful form of media output) outrightly rejects hegemony and replaces it with an alternative worldview that tries to portray intersectionality while negotiating established roles. This subverted oppositional piece employs as much diversity as possible to ensure that the ‘alternative worldview’ it paints shall become the reality in the near future.
In today’s world where businesses are quick to jump on any ‘woke bandwagon’ that promises them profits, it becomes essential to differentiate between allyship and appropriation. Media houses may also produce occluded preferred content under the pretense of representation and diversity, only to forward their own interests. It is, therefore, essential to examine the products of popular culture in order to understand whether they stand for tokenism or inclusion.
Theorists have been analysing the said products as sites of struggle through various perspectives. Feminist scholars have aimed to understand and expose popular culture—both print and digital, in its relation to the founding concepts of feminist theory—patriarchy, masculine hegemony, and heteronormativity. In the scope of this article, I shall be examining a widely viewed product of popular culture—the American cop show Brooklyn Nine-Nine through a feminist lens. Even though the sitcom can be read through a feminist glass in its entirety, I will be analysing the depiction of two male characters—Detective Jacob Peralta (hereby referred to as Jake), and Sergeant Terrence Jeffords (hereby referred to as Terry) to suit this space.
Nine-Nine Challenging Hegemonic Masculinity!
Brooklyn Nine-Nine follows the adventures of a team of detectives from the fictional 99th precinct of the New York Police Department. It may be categorised as a ‘comedy cop show’ if there is a need for a label, but it tackles some of the most solemn social issues of contemporary times, such as homophobia, racism, weapon control, sexual harassment, corruption, healthy parenting etc., with utmost flair.
At the center of the story is Detective Jake Peralta, who has solved all mysteries but that of growing up. At first sight, the show appears to be just another expression of detective work. However, in my opinion, it is one of the very few examples of a subverted oppositional text where characters are well-rounded and represented, intersections of identity are balanced, and open challenges to the oppressive regime of patriarchy are aired.
The concept of hegemony is derived from Antonio Gramsci’s analysis of class relations and refers to the cultural dynamic by which a group claims and sustains a leading position in social life. At any given time, one form of masculinity rather than the others is culturally exalted. As R.W. Connell explains, hegemonic masculinity can thus be defined as the configuration of gender practice that embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.
Even though ‘masculinity in crisis’ has been a phrase we have been hearing for some decades now, we would probably define the ‘accepted’ masculine hegemony of today to be the one that teaches males to be ‘rough’, ‘stoic’, ‘unemotional’, and practice heterosexual love while being the saviour.
It is these very stereotypes that the show tries to break through a fluid depiction of different forms of masculinities, presenting none of them as superior or subordinate. Two primary male characters—Jake, and Terry lead very different lifestyles and in their own ways, defy the toxicity of hegemonic masculinity.
It is also important to point out here that while an occluded preferred show or even an inflected oppositional one, for that matter, would probably not show the men as outright oppressors but as complicit players in the larger structure of the patriarchy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine becomes a subverted oppositional text as its male characters are far from complying to the regime and fully understand their role in the dismantling of the power structures and are sure to exercise their privilege for the better.
They are at an arm’s length from benefitting from the patriarchal dividend, which in my opinion makes them feminist allies. It will be appropriate to add here that scholars of the cultural feminist thought emphasise that the trivialised activities and characteristics that are socially ‘gendered’ as feminine are, in many cases, activities and characteristics all human beings should value, embrace, and enact. This is something that is constantly depicted in the show where it is as normal for a man to be overtly emotional (cue: Charles Boyle) as for a woman to be practically emotionless (see: Rosa Diaz).
Throughout the show, Jake can be seen calling out casual sexism that might have been delivered through a man or a woman. He is not afraid to accept that a woman, who also happens to be his girlfriend, will soon become his boss. The hegemonic power dynamic of the workplace is completely toppled here, where the ‘weaker sex’ is all set to become the superior commanding officer (Season 4, Episode 18: Chasing Amy). This also turns the power play in the personal relationship of the couple, but this is never deemed to be a problem. It is also remarkable to see how well the character handles a case of sexual harassment—stepping in when needed, but never overshadowing the voice of the subaltern (Season 6, Episode 8: He Said, She Said).
Cultural feminists will be happy to note that Jake does not shy away from asking for flowers from his wife, which might be seen as a ‘feminine’ wish to have, and a ‘masculine’ one to be delivered (Season 6, Episode 14:Ticking Clocks). Radical feminists who highlight the dichotomy between men being subjects and women being objects in the unfair system can see how Jake recognises at various instances that he cannot be the subject of another woman’s life and make her decisions for her. Even if he is in a consensual romantic/sexual relationship with a woman and is going to make a proposal for marriage, it doesn’t give him the right to treat her as the object in her own universe or consider her his ‘property’ (Season 5, Episode 4: HalloVeen).
However, I believe that what makes Jake a feminist ally is that he consciously makes an effort to educate himself about the inequities and discrimination that women face in different spheres of public and private life. Even though his character is portrayed as childish, it never implies that he has to be spoon-fed in either his work or personal life about these inequalities. No woman ever performs extra emotional labour to keep up with him as he makes a deliberate effort to recognise his privilege, keep it on the stool, and try and understand any issues at hand.
As stated in the beginning, Terry Jeffords is an out-and-proud feminist. He has the physique that one might attribute to a conventional ‘macho man’. However, that is where the standard of ‘conventionality’ ends. Terry’s character is not afraid to accept that ‘Terry loves love’ and holds no inhibitions in showing vulnerability and emotion. He loves creative hobbies such as art and craft, and writing, and these have never made him feel any ‘less of a man’.
It is important to recognise here, that race relations also become an integral part of the dynamic between masculinities. ‘Black masculinity’ is often a subordinated masculinity and is mostly prejudiced as either the sporting star fetishised for strength or the fantasy figure of the Black rapist. Terry Crews, as a person of colour, displays extreme physical strength and yet, is also equally valued for the loving father that he is. It is hegemonic standards of masculinity that has made us believe that a man cannot be both of these at the same time, and it is this prejudice that Terry beautifully defies.
Terry is shown as an extremely devoted and caring father to his three daughters. He is equally responsible for their upbringing as is his wife and makes sure that he maintains a balance between his work and personal life. I believe it is also significant to point out that Terry didn’t transform into a feminist after having three daughters but was always, as shown in flashbacks, someone who had deep respect for women and was perpetually involved in healthy relationships. He does want to make changes in the systems because he is a father to three young girls, but it is vital to recognise that this isn’t his only motivation (Season 4, Episode 13: Serve & Protect).
It is because of these qualities of Terry as a father—nurturing, caring and loving, that Jake also looks up to him as a father figure. As is also clear, Jake wants to embody these qualities and emotions when he becomes a father himself, qualities that toxic masculinity has always looked down upon.
Apart from Jake and Terry, Detective Charles Boyle and Captain Raymond Holt are also far from orthodox male representations. Boyle thinks that there is no shame in dressing up as ‘sexy cat’ as there is ‘nothing gendered’ about it (Season 4, Episode 14: The Audit). He loves to cook, is deeply emotional in his relationships and friendships, and is, just like Terry, a very caring father. Captain Holt, on the other hand, is the first gay black captain of the NYPD. With a history of fighting discrimination owing to his sexual orientation and race at the personal level, he is now determined to take on battles that dismantle the very base of the regime that’s subjugated him throughout his life and career.
Thus, as is clear, Brooklyn Nine-Nine can aptly be described as a subverted oppositional reading that is worthy of recognition. Even though I have looked only at the male characters of the show in this article, the female stories in themselves, and their interactions with each other and their counterparts only add to the aforementioned statement.
In conclusion, I would like to state that I believe that ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ fits very well into what has been recognized as the ‘fourth wave of feminism’ as it highlights, examines, and challenges not only issues affecting women, but also those affecting other subaltern groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, Latin Americans and people of colour. Even though there are a lot of other angles to analyse the sitcom from, with more recent critiques of it glorifying cops given that America has witnessed many instances of racially motivated police brutality, I do believe that it is one of the most well-represented shows in terms of diversity and that it tackles serious issues with the perfect amount of humour.
- Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony
- Representation, Sage Publications.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine [Video]
- Seeing like a feminist
- The rhetorical power of popular culture, Sage Publications.
Sanchi Mehra is a Sociology student who takes a keen interest in the themes of gender and sexuality and their manifestations in popular culture. When not over-analyzing a TV show, she can be found decoding social and cultural theories or acting on stage (or Zoom). Other interests include dramatic dancing, and calligraphy and lettering. An intersectional feminist, Sanchi hopes to work towards making educational and corporate spaces more inclusive and safer for all genders and sexualities. You can find her on Instagram.