Evidence and Objectivity in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

By Anna Reser

A specter hangs over those of us who write about contemporary popular culture and science: that of the ratings behemoth and 15 season network darling, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Because of the immense influence of CSI on crime drama, especially where it makes certain claims about the utility and truthfulness of scientific method and its conspicuous cast of women investigators, the show is ripe for analysis. As the granddaddy of science on television in the US, CSI has left its mark on not only its numerous spin-offs, but also the entire genre of crime drama. The CSI universe is one where objective truths are available to investigators who employ scientific methods to collect physical evidence, which is always valued over personal testimony.The evidence, we are constantly reminded, cannot lie. Predictably, women investigators do a lot less of this science than the men, and women victims suffer both horrifying violence and misrepresentation by the moralizing tone of the show. We should take seriously the possibility that the show’s universe is one that viewers believe to be analogous to the real world, and we can look at how women are treated in this universe as an index of widely-held beliefs about women in science and how science is applied to cases involving violence against women.  

The pilot episode of any show should be watched with a charitable eye. The writers are still figuring out the show and its characters. But the pilot of CSI sets up some troubling tropes about women and science that shouldn’t be overlooked, and, indeed, are reprised in later episodes and in the shows that were inspired by, or spun off from, CSI. First, there is the laughably one-dimensional and thankfully short-lived Holly Gribbs. Gribbs, just joining the graveyard shift at the Las Vegas Nevada crime lab, is our introduction to the strange and apparently subversive world of late-night forensic investigation. Gribbs’ character is killed off immediately, and it’s easy to see why. She’s uncomfortable with the preserved specimens decorating Grissom’s office, she’s apparently never seen an autopsy before (what do they teach these people at “the academy”), and she’s afraid of dead bodies. Her only real utility is not as a scientist, but as a narrative device to establish Gil Grissom, the graveyard shift supervisor, as a fatherly mentor through what is definitely some workplace-inappropriate hugging and face touching. 

The show constructs relationships between characters according to patriarchal ideas of appropriate roles for men and women, and the performance of masculinity and femininity. Gil Grissom is fatherly and kind to Gribbs, but a few scenes later, a nameless woman lab technician initiates a truly cringeworthy flirtation with him while lab equipment hums in the background, saying that Grissom should “pin her up against a wall.” The night shift apparently has loose rules on what is appropriate smalltalk at work. In a later episode, a forensic artist is called in to make a reconstruction of a victim’s face, and apparently sweeps Grissom off his feet by holding his pet tarantula and teaching him about the sexy process of molding the concrete in which a body was buried, a task that involves much more physical contact between the two than I’m prepared to believe is necessary. Neither of these women is allowed to simply be good at her job or have appropriate interactions with men while she is working. Women in the lab are only interesting, it seems, if they are also overtly sexualized and openly interested in their male colleagues.

The women investigators are equally defined by their gender, and the work they do is heavily influenced by their often stereotypical characterizations. Catherine Willows, arriving late to a meeting because she was with her daughter, is defined first and foremost as a mother. As a result, she usually handles cases of child abuse and exploitation. In the pilot, while investigating a shooting, Catherine literally whips around at the sound of a baby crying, in case we forgot in the last 10 minutes that children are the only things running through this woman’s mind. Later, we find out that Catherine used to be an exotic dancer, about which she is refreshingly open and unabashed, but the revelation of her past consistently bamboozles the men she works with. Like her status as a mother, it is also a source of special feminine insight, which she uses far more often than the forensic science that other investigators use. The audience is reminded again that though the scientific method is supposedly neutral and objective, it is clearly better suited for the men on the team than for Catherine. 

The characterizations of the women investigators are lazy and puerile, but they are not surprising. Television and film tell us over and over that science is the way to the truth and that science is for men. Thus, the truth is for men, and feelings are for women. The show’s handling of women victims, however, is inexcusable and downright dangerous. The fetishization of the female corpse that is the hallmark of modern crime dramas, the dramatization of violence against women, and the misrepresentation of sex workers are symptoms of a larger conceptual problem that the CSI universe contains, namely the existence of objective truth based on material evidence. 

In the episode “Who Are You,” Catherine investigates a rape case. She shouldn’t have been involved at all, since she used to be married to the alleged rapist, but the show insists that Catherine’s feelings trump her sense of professionalism and ethics. It is the way she “solves” the case, however, that I find most troubling. The victim is a dancer working in the same club where Catherine once danced, and this allows the investigator some privileged access to the dressing rooms. In the victim’s locker, she discovers a box of contraceptive films. The instructions say that the film must be inserted a couple of hours before intercourse. This physical evidence, which to Catherine proves that the victim intended to have consensual sex and therefore couldn’t have been raped, is used to exonerate the alleged rapist after Catherine confronts the dancer, who then confesses that she tried to trap the man for a settlement payout. The dancer’s confession is used to wrap up the storyline about Catherine’s ex-husband, not to corroborate the evidence; the case is solved as soon as Catherine finds the films in the locker. This paints a very dark picture of what constitutes consent, makes false claims about how consent can be proven, and privileges evidence over victim testimony. 

There is a much-contested notion called “The CSI Effect.” It is the idea that, thanks to shows like CSI, juries and the public have certain expectations about both the kind of evidence that should be brought to court, and the truth value of that evidence. Though this phenomenon has never been conclusively shown to exist, it points to the influence that crime shows have on views about science, truth, and objectivity in law enforcement and legal practice. This influence extends to the show’s treatment of women characters, both investigators and victims. In CSI, scientific methods are generally reserved for men, while intuition and special knowledge are for women. The claims of victims and perpetrators are meaningless without corroborating physical evidence. In cases of rape, especially, this is deeply problematic as there is often no physical evidence of consent. Given the far-reaching influence of CSI, both on television crime drama and our perceptions of science and truth, these misrepresentations of women are worth thinking deeply about. Though CSI wrapped up in 2015 after 15 years on the air, its impact on the television landscape and public perception is still reverberating. As perhaps the most popular and widely viewed representation of science on television, we should be critical of the claims CSI makes about science and evidence and the way it places women in this matrix. 

Further Reading

Julia Rudolph, “Gender and the Development of Forensic Science: A Case Study,” The English Historical Review vol. 123 no. 503 (2008): pp. 924-946.