Copycat (1995) has always been one of my favorite thrillers and though I’ve watched it many times for sheer entertainment value, I finally d...

Female Empowerment in Copycat

Copycat (1995) has always been one of my favorite thrillers and though I’ve watched it many times for sheer entertainment value, I finally decided to put my thinking cap on and uncover what the appeal of this film is for me.

Sigourney Weaver plays Dr. Helen Hudson, an agoraphobic psychologist who specializes in serial killers. Helen becomes housebound after being attacked by Daryl Lee Cullum, a serial murderer who holds a grudge after Hudson testified at his trial. When a rash of recent murders is discovered to be the work of a copycat killer, San Francisco homicide detective M.J. Monahan (Holly Hunter) appeals to Hudson for help in catching him. As the tag line explains “together, [the] two women must stop him from killing again, or they’re next.”

The central message of Copycat is female empowerment. Helen and MJ are the true final girls of the film and Weaver skillfully pulls off the persona of the “pill popping, juice head” doctor on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while Hunter plays the tough as nails female cop with something to prove. Combined, the two women are the only ones who have enough brains and brawn to get the job done and subsequently outshine any of the men in the movie.

The film lacks any kind of authoritative male figure as the cops fail time and again to protect the film’s women and catch the Copycat Killer. One of the two cops who are supposed to be protecting Dr. Hudson when she is attacked by Daryll Lee, neglects his duty to take a bathroom break. The other is just as ineffective and Daryll Lee easily dispatches him with his hunting knife and the cop’s own gun. Both are overweight and slow, much like the cop on duty at Hudson’s door, who leaves his post to check on a car alarm triggered by the Copycat Killer as a distraction before he breaks into Hudson’s apartment.

But the most impotent cop of all is the chief of police, Lt. Thomas Quinn, who claims to be the only one in the department who has worked a serial case, the Zodiac. MJ sarcastically questions her boss’s boast by asking “Did anyone ever catch the Zodiac, sir? Or did he die of old age?”

But despite being more powerful than the men in the film, Helen and M.J. are involved in parallel relationships with the men in their lives designed to keep them safe from their shared fears of male sexuality. Helen’s only companion is a gay manservant named Andy, who administers her medication and runs errands. After a visit from M.J. and her attractive partner Reuben, Helen confesses to Andy “I miss men...I miss sex.” Her relationship with Andy satisfies her need for companionship without the pressures of sexual intimacy that she fears might turn violent (represented in her encounter with Daryll Lee that can be read as a sexual assault).

Likewise, M.J. has a platonic relationship with her partner Reuben that doesn’t pose a threat to her sexually, with his love of sushi over hamburgers and the constant challenges to his masculinity by fellow cop Nicoletti. Nicoletti is the real threat, as the persistent ex boyfriend looking for a way to get back with M.J.

By pairing Helen and M.J. the film seems to say that in order to achieve female empowerment a balance must be struck between rationality and emotion. M.J. thinks that Helen’s fear makes her weak, with her constant drinking and agoraphobia, while Helen accuses M.J. of not being able to feel fear. M.J. is all brain as she teaches Reuben to take down a suspect by shooting the brachial nerve to avoid a wrongful death suit and bad karma.

But when she makes a rational decision in an emotional situation (Reuben is being held at gunpoint by a thug) her efforts to “control the situation” result in the death of her partner. In the end M.J. has to go with her gut and when faced with the Copycat Killer she mows him down in a hail of gunfire.

Conversely, Helen has to face her fear by using her intellect. Her expertise in serial killers is a valuable talent, but when she’s hesitant about helping the cops, Andy tells her she might as well curl up and die if she’s not going to use her mind. She’s the only one who can decipher the clues left by the killer, and with each one she solves she’s on the road to becoming the confident doctor she once was.

Overall, it’s refreshing to see a movie with two such powerful female characters who work together to banish the bad guy with their combined intelligence and intuition.


  1. MS: I agree completely about strong female leads in this film. There is something about Weaver that is so real and solidly competent, as though she is always in control, even when she's terrified. I can't think of an instance when she's given a bad performance.

    I also thought Harry Connick, Jr. showed real promise here, but in the end he decided to go all leading man. -- Mykal

  2. Weaver just blows me away with her ability to do pretty much anything, horror, comedy, you name it.

    And I share your sentiments about HC Jr.