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October 30, 2010

Wimmin Leaders in TVland

Ego-googling, I came across this post by Courtney Stoker on Geek Feminism, about why so-called feminist geeks hate women characters on tv.

This tendency to dislike female character reminds me of another ”being one of the guys” strategy: I often meet women who tell me proudly, “I just don’t get along with women.* All of my best friends have been guys.” These women also often think that this fact actually makes them progressive (because nothing’s more radical than failing to create female-centric relationships!). And most of the women I’ve known who say this are geeks. It’s actually one of the reasons it took so long for me to become friends with geeks, because “I don’t get along with women” is dealbreaker for me.

Liz Henry pointed to my post on Voyager in comments and "Burn" responded that:

I watch a lot of crime/procedural shows and there’s frequently a similar dynamic going on with the women bosses. ... A brilliant but non-conformist and risk-taking team leader, some team members, and then the big boss, who represents the government/police/military/whatever hierarchy. Team Leader takes risks, team members are also frequently risk-takers, and the Big Boss warns them not to push the boundaries, but of course the Team Leader goes against orders, and is pretty much always correct in the end. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of women cast as the Big Boss/representative of the Bureaucracy.  Since the narrative sets up the maverick Team Leader as a hero, and the Team Leader is almost always male, it sets up the dynamic of the audience sympathizing with the team rather than the bureaucracy, which places more women (usually middle-aged) into this almost-guaranteed-to-be-unlikeable role of the fun-killer.

I've actually responded viscerally to this without noticing it consciously before, so I'm glad Burn pointed it out. This may be part of the reason I don't enjoy most police procedurals. But I have been watching some recent woman-centered procedurals and they, more than sf shows, have been pioneering strong, interesting, middle-aged women leads.

I'm thinking about Saving Grace (which just ended its run recently,) The Closer, and In Plain Sight. All three of these shows posit strong, troubled, often obnoxious women cops (in In Plain Sight she's a U.S. Marshal) who are advanced enough in their field to work independently or be team leaders, without being the "big boss." All of them are unconventional risk-takers, all have alienated the establishment in their field and gotten themselves into trouble, and all have found a place where they can be accepted by finding male allies -- both superiors and equals -- partly through their sexual appeal, and partly by finding men who are as unconventional and troubled as themselves.

All three are also very strongly emotional, and are impelled by their empathy with the victims they work with. However, they all distort their emotional responses, subsuming their emotions in their work, acting out in small tics and rituals (in The Closer it's her compulsive sweets-eating,) taking their troubles out on their (unrealistically) understanding lovers, and only showing their vulnerability at special moments, often only to crime victims. All of them are dealing with serious histories with male authority figures: father abandonment, priest sexual abuse, a series of bad relationships.

I love all of these characters, and even compared Grace in Saving Grace to Starbuck in the new Battlestar Galactica, and called it a new archetype, the "Starbuck". I think Mary from In Plain Sight might be a "Starbuck" too, but there are arguments against it. For one, she and her younger sister and her mother, all three share the damage, so elements of the Starbuck archetype are divided among the three of them. Mary doesn't really have Starbuck's (or Grace Hanadarko's) charm, but her mother and sister do have it, without having the strength or kickassness. I don't think Brenda Leigh Johnson is a Starbuck at all, either. She might be more interesting, since she uses "feminine weakness" to compromise others.

I'm a character addict, in television and written fiction. I can enjoy a fiction with a good story and flat characters, but it doesn't stick with me. What makes something strong and abiding for me in fiction is strong characters. And I think what's really important about the way that women are portrayed in these shows isn't that the women are leads, or that they're strong and capable and kickass. It's rather that they're very particular characters, very individual and flawed and interesting.

Creating a new archetype isn't the same as  creating a new stereotype. Archetypes are more about place-holding in our imagination. They tell us that the individual we're seeing isn't anomaly, but rather is one individual among many in a similar situation, who has similar responses to that situation. Drawing a character from an archetype, or creating a new archetype, doesn't mean that your characters will become flat. Only if you flatten the character yourself will it become a stereotype. And what's happening with this new type of approaching-middle-age or middle-aged independent woman is that the shows are using them as maquettes to build very individual characters upon. Let's hope it lasts.


One more quick note: I think it's important to note that all three are blonde (as was Starbuck) and all bottle-blondes (including Starbuck.) There's something basic here about American beauty standards: I think presenting a non-blonde female lead in itself is fighting a small fight, and offering a sole female lead in a woman-centered fiction is probably enough fight for one show. I think the female leads have to be blonde. Look at the other female leads in woman-centered shows: Meredith Grey, Nurse Jackie, Hellcats, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, United States of Tara, the new one The Big C, etc. I think there are a few with brunettes, like Weeds, but not many. The ones that aren't (Cougartown, 30 Rock) are mainly comedies.

It's particularly interesting, about the bottle-blonde, because at least one of these isn't entirely white: Grace Hanadarko of Saving Grace is part ... you guessed it ... American Indian, although it's Choctaw (or Caddo?) in her case, not Cherokee. I haven't quite decided what to make of that yet; I'm trying to hold back sour commentary on the white American desire for mystical Indian ancestors to justify their existence here and wipe them clean of the racial sin of racism. But I ain't gonna go there.


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