Writing about “Blue Bloods,” the old-school, very-male CBS series starring Tom Selleck as New York City Police Commissioner Frank Reagan, might seem like a strange choice in this media week filled with inspirational images of proud, victorious, supremely accomplished young women who just won a World Cup for our nation.
But trust me, the continued success of this series that just completed its ninth season on CBS as one of network TV’s highest-rated dramas has something significant to tell us not only about women’s soccer but also the mind-boggling leniency that sex offender Jeffrey Epstein enjoyed until this week and the fact that our 2020 presidential front runners are two men in their 70s who both have a history of complaints from women against them.
“Blue Bloods” is one of those pop culture artifacts that can serve as a barometer on many Americans think and feel about an issue of the day. And one of the things its enduring popularity is telling us about ourselves is that as much as millions are encouraged and energized by seeing Sen. Kamala Harris take down former Vice President Joe Biden in a TV debate, or soccer star Megan Rapinoe repudiate President Donald Trump on social media, millions of others are also still deeply invested in patriarchy.
As much as I have been writing about the death of patriarchy in the wake of revelations about the sins of Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby, it is still very much alive in the culture. Worse, patriarchy threatens to shape our choice of political leadership for at least another presidential term through 2024 even as the righteous shouts of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” from the stadium in Lyon ring in our ears.
I am not here to trash “Blue Bloods.” In fact, in terms of production, I believe it is one the more skillfully crafted and engaging dramas on network TV. The acting is uniformly top of the line, even if Selleck spends too much time waggling his mustache to show he is either thinking, frustrated or annoyed. (He uses the move for all three.)
But what matters far more to me is that it finished eighth among all shows on network TV for the 2018-’19 season in terms of overall audience — and three of the shows that topped it were live sports telecasts from the National Football League. “Blue Bloods” was seen by about 12.5 million viewers every Friday night across a span of some 20 weeks. And this continues after nine years.
“Pop Culture 101” says throw out your socially constructed notions of good and bad or quality and trash. If something is being consumed by that large an audience, it matters, it’s worth paying attention to and seriously studying if you want to understand the culture. Pro wrestling is mainly artifice and sham, but it reveals American culture in a way few productions do.
Looking at the pilot when it debuted, like most critics, I dismissed it as just another cop drama retread, another version of the same old formula. Nothing new here. Critics are usually far more interested in new, innovative, genre-busting productions like “Prime Suspect” with Helen Mirren on PBS or “The Shield” on FX.
But looking at reruns and on-demand episodes of “Blue Bloods” systematically through a cultural lens this summer, I am stunned by how utterly patriarchal it is in terms of men having dominance and almost all the power, with storylines that make it seem as if this is the natural and rightful order of things. Patriarchy is baked into the DNA of “Blue Bloods” to a degree that I cannot remember seeing since the prime-time soap operas of the 1980s, like “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” where powerful men ruled business empires and families. And those series ended their runs some 30 years ago in 1991 and ’89, respectively — just after Ronald Reagan left office.
“Blue Bloods” is patriarchy squared with Selleck’s character sharing the family home with his father, Henry Reagan (Len Cariou), a former New York City police commissioner. The force’s star detective is Frank Reagan’s son, Danny (Donnie Wahlberg). Also on the force as a young uniformed officer is another son, Jamie (Will Estes). He eschewed a career in law after earning a degree from Harvard to work for the NYPD.
There is one strong, professional woman in the family, Erin Reagan, Frank’s daughter. She also works in law enforcement as an assistant district attorney. But in every one of the many episodes I have seen, she ultimately defers to her father’s decisions if not his opinion. She reminds me of Joyce Davenport in “Hill Street Blues,” a groundbreaking cop drama of the 1980s, but Davenport was a public defender instead of a prosecutor, and she was far more liberated sexually and intellectually, and that was three decades ago.
Overall, women are so unimportant in the “Blue Bloods” universe that three of the lead characters do not even have women in their lives: Frank, Henry and Danny. Danny’s wife, an ER nurse, was awkwardly written out at the start of Season 8 with the explanation that she died in an off-screen helicopter crash.
When the family gathers at the home of Frank and Henry, as it often does at the end of an episode, the men outnumber the women two to one or more. Frank sits at one end of he table, Henry at the other. One or the other has the last word, usually Frank, and judgment on any disagreement or debate.
In fairness, from the establishing shot of the front of the Reagans’ colonial home to the chatter and platters of food at the table, these scenes are very reassuring in the way they announce that order in this universe has been restored. But that’s also one of the ways an oppressive ideology can be made to look palatable, even desirable.
Nor is the patriarchy of this series an anomaly. The highest-rated drama on network TV the last season was “NCIS,” which stars Mark Harmon as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. It just finished Season 16 with an audience of about 15.5 million viewers a week. This is a workplace drama, as opposed to the family genre, but make no mistake, this is patriarchy. Wisdom and power reside with the male elder.
I would not be banging on about patriarchy in prime time if it wasn’t still so pervasive and, in my view, dangerous in our political and civic lives today.
Social media is filled this week with discussion about Epstein, the 66-year-old financier, who is charged with engaging in sex acts with girls as young as 14. He pleaded guilty in a Florida court in 2008 to similar charges and received an incredibility light sentence that allowed him to avoid federal charges by spending 13 months in a Palm Beach jail, which he was allowed to leave six days a week to work at his office.
How did that happen? Patriarchy. Male friends, like Bill Clinton and Trump, in high places.
“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years,” Trump told New York magazine in 2002. “Terrific guy. … He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Trump has been trying to distance himself from Epstein this week.
Will we ever live down the shame of this man living in the White House?
I started my summertime scrutiny of “Blue Bloods” as part of a larger look at patriarchy in popular culture because of the way the presidential race was shaping up with Trump and Biden out front.
Enough with these baby boomer men, I thought, despite being part of that tribe. George W. Bush, Clinton and now Trump; we really need to have a serious national conversation about whether we can endure another four years with a man as lacking in judgment and/or character as they. And I am not hearing or seeing that discussion.
(Born in 1942, Biden is actually pre-baby-boom by four years, and he made it very clear in the NBC debate that he is not about to pass the torch of leadership.)
Older persons are supposed to have learned some wisdom through experience, but Biden, like the 73-year-old Trump, has shown no willingness to learn from his mistakes on matters of race and gender. Instead, he’s been mostly defiant about his past in the Senate (a recent too-little-too-late apology in front of black voters in South Carolina for his praise of segregationists notwithstanding), and now he claims it is somehow unfair to attack him for mistakes made 20 or 30 years ago, as Harris did in the NBC debate.
Sorry, Uncle Joe, the past matters — mightily.
And, yet, maybe he is the only Democrat who can beat Trump. That’s what the polls are still showing anyway.
For now, let’s enjoy the images of female empowerment flowing through the media this week. Yes, this incredible women’s team did temporarily steal the media spotlight and our attention away from Trump, and they used to to push issues of gender — whether it’s equal pay or double standards for female behavior — into the public consciousness. God bless them for that.
But let’s not for a minute forget about the wall of patriarchy that still exists in our politics and culture, and who is still holding too much of the real power in the White House, Senate and Supreme Court.