Why I Love the Lady-Lady, Mrs. J.B. Fletcher

Curator's Note

I’ll admit. I’m biased. Our TV time was limited to one hour/day, and I spent my middle and high school years with J.B. Fletcher. I was odd – all the other girls were watching Beverly Hills, 90210. But here was a woman to behold! Rational, calm, a true skeptic, smart and persistent, Fletcher embodied the kind of person I wanted to be. In Angela Lansbury’s own words, Jessica Fletcher “is a rare and very individual kind of person.”

While there’s occasional reference to Fletcher’s late hubby, it’s no more than a side note. Is it widowhood that allows Fletcher incredible freedom our female protagonists even thirty years later don’t seem to have? Fletcher has the freedom to work hard, to travel far and wide, and not to have her marriage or her emotional and sexual desires limit her. Let’s face it, our current leading women – even lesbians – can’t help but crash and burn over a man. Fletcher, our 1980s auntie cougar, is routinely the object of affection. She’s a “little more coffee for the lady” lady. But that doesn’t deter her from her tasks: to write her bestseller, take a jog, and solve a mystery, in that order. She’s fierce – a “hey, lady, just shut up” lady.

What’s more, the formative, early episodes construct a world that doesn’t just conform to social norms and stereotypes, but challenges them. In the pilot, a black man follows Jessica off the bus. She gets mugged, but not by him. He turns from a stereotypical threat into a savior… and fan: “I recognized you as soon as I saw you back on the bus. I read your book. It’s terrific.” The secretaries are mostly women, but in “Lovers and Other Killers,” David, a student looking to work as Fletcher’s assistant, argues: “Surely, Mrs. Fletcher, you’re not going to hold my gender against me.” In the first half dozen episodes, the detectives, while all male, are racially diverse. And in “Birds of a Feather,” Fletcher’s niece finds out her fiancé works in drag. Does Jessica (or her niece) think it’s detestable or even peculiar? Not a bit.

It seems clear to me that the folks of Murder, She Wrote made a conscious effort from the start to diversify the set, play with our assumptions, and push against social norms. And in the center is the astute, worldly, self-determined and determined lady-lady, J.B. Fletcher.

Comments

R. Gabriel Dor's picture

Lady Detectives

Thinking about fictional detectives like Jane Marple and J.B. Fletcher, I am struck by how they combine the feminine masquerade of the gossipy auntie, who gains information by feigning casual interest, with the rational deduction skills of a Sherlock Holmes. In contrast to the hard boiled macho detectives that have populated the genre of crime fiction, both Marple and Fletcher rely on a feminine softness and maiden aunt persona to handle dangerous and deadly situations. This kind of feminine masquerade is itself arguably queer, since the women know much more about the public sphere than they may pretend as private citizens and well-bred women. Indeed there is a certain class and race privilege which allows them to use gender and age to their advantage rather than disadvantage in gaining information and apprehending criminals.

Elizabeth Wuerffel's picture

Gossipy Auntie

Yes! I appreciate your comment, especially the idea that their approach is a queer one. I’ve been thinking a lot about Miss Fischer’s Murder Mysteries. She has the benefit of the Fletcher/Marple femininity and rationality, but she gets a healthy dose of sexual appetite, too.

Molly McCourt's picture

J.B. Fletcher's "successors"

Your post makes me want to marathon all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote, Liz! It’s interesting to think of recent male characters on TV that are quite similar to J.B. Fletcher for their mystery writing skills (Nathan Castle of Castle) and heightened observational skills (Shawn Spencer of Psych). While these programs play out predictable heteronormative subplots, it’s worth noting that the objects of the male lead’s affection are both female police detectives. Further, these male sleuths are not hard-boiled Sam Spade-type characters, but softer, more fun-loving guys. They’re like Jessica, but not nearly as charming or clever. While there will never be another J.B. Fletcher, it’s fun to see how she blazed a trail for a new kind of detective in popular media, regardless of gender.

Bridget Kies's picture

But did you ever see the Magnum PI crossover?

Murder, She Wrote is one of my all-time favorite series, and for me it is so much less about whodunnit and more about appreciating Jessica’s charming combination of grace, kindness, and intelligence. Building off Gabriel’s comment, I wonder if you’ve ever seen the Murder, She Wrote / Magnum PI crossover? Although Magnum is not a “hard-boiled” detective (Tom Selleck actively worked against any writing of Magnum this way), the crossover does demonstrate the gender differences in detective styles. Magnum ends up being convinced he’s right because he’s Magnum - younger, sexier, male - although in the end it is Jessica who solves the case, using her usual charm and even bringing Magnum around. This crossover is one of my favorite 1980s TV moments because it reveals just how unique Murder. She Wrote really was. So glad you wrote this!

P.S. Your clip is hilarious! Did you make it yourself? I’d be interested in seeing a speed-the-episode version of the entire series that looks like this.

Elizabeth Wuerffel's picture

Crossover

Hi Bridget, thanks for your comments. I have not re-watched the crossover, but now that you mention it, I definitely need to. Magnum is always so sure of himself. And, of course, Fletcher is too, but she’s *sometimes* demure (“oh, I’m not a detective, but…”). I did cut together the clip - glad you liked it…. it made me want to create a 12-season “lady” mashup!

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