Friday, May 8, 2009

Burning the Midnight Zeppelin: Girl Fantasy

Wow, this post is coming in late. That's going to happen a lot this month.

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On the way to Cleveland, the Abigail and I got into a conversation about women in fantastic television. The results were rather morbid.

Dollhouse has a strong female character, but no female heroes. Adele may be tough, but she's no hero, not even a problematic one. Echo/Caroline's struggle is certainly heroic, but she lacks a persistent self; she can't be a hero because she isn't a person. If the show continues in the direction its headed - if the show continues, period - Echo's emergent metapersonality might eventually become a hero, but right now it's barely there at all. The real heroes of the piece are Ballard and Boyd.

Of course, Dollhouse has an excuse. Dollhouse is, in part, about slavery, and in America right now, most slavery is sexual. If the Dollhouse technology existed, we'd use it to screw, and it would be largely (not entirely, but largely) men who'd use it. It's hard to provide a huge number of female heroes in a show about female sexual slavery. Agent Ballard can't be a woman because he needs to have an attraction/revulsion connection to Caroline (and unfortunately, I don't think most of TV watching America is ready for the lesbian-driven cop story - the assholes), and Boyd needs to be Ballard's other number, his counterpart and his nemesis. In a culture that still primarily identifies people through gender, Boyd and Ballard sharing a chromosome is very important. Dollhouse isn't entirely out of the woods, but I'll cut it some slack.

Furthermore, Dollhouse keeps undermining it's one strong female character. At first, Adele is a tough, no-nonsense, take-charge lady. Then it turns out that Adele isn't really in charge, that there's a mysterious "sir" that she answers to, and then it turns out that her sexual desires undermine her and the only way to regain her strength is to forswear them. Way to be uncomfortable with female sexuality, Joss.

In Lost, on the other hand, we have many female leads. Some of them are even powerful. However, a closer examination reveals a frightening pattern. Consider attachment to plot. Who drives the story in Lost? Who makes plans and carries them out? Who is attached to the story? Right now Locke, Jack, Sawyer and Weaselface.... I mean, Ben are the movers and shakers. Kate and Juliet are attachments, always seeking powerful characters to follow and be protected by.

I will grant that Sun is the exception, though I feel she proves the rule. Sun is self-driven, and the fact that it is in pursuit of her husband doesn't really bother me. Love is a great motivator.

There is a lot of television I don't watch. I can't talk about what's going on in Fringe, for example. My friend Jon wants me to start watching True Blood, but that's another show I haven't seen yet (except for the incredibly evocative opening credits), though Jon, sitting across from me at the Abigail's uncle's table, informs me that it's no better. I see a pattern, and it bothers me. I see that female characters can only be strong for so long before the writers begin undermining them. I see that the characters that drive the plot tend to be male and women are relegated to secondary attachment. I see that sex weakens women and strengthens men (except in the rare cases that it demonizes them - see anything by Joss Whedon). All of this isn't true of any one show, but a lot of it seems to be true of many shows, across the board.

What the hell is up with that?

Turning to literature, I see that the situation is a little better. We have luminaries like Tamora Pierce and Diane Duane who write women who can be strong without men having to be weak. I get similar vibes from Jennifer Roberson and Garth Nix - see the former for a series that turns sword and sorcery on its head, inverting some of the core assumptions without losing the essential feel, and the latter for some really exciting female heroes. There are others - Neil Gaiman, for example - but there's also a lot of crap.

The long and the short of it is that I'm finally seeing the need for some powerful female heroes, and I'm bemoaning what seems like a lack of it outside of the rather limited subgenre of young adult, girl-oriented novels. I want to see stronger female characters on television. I want to see stronger female characters in young adult novels not directed primarily at girls. I want to see stronger female characters in novels marketed to adults.

Apart from giving myself the usual answer - write it yourself, shithead - what's up with this disparity?

I think what I'm seeing is the dregs of a sexist culture, pernicious shreds of sexism clinging to a people who have done a lot of work, but still have a long way to go. The tropes are against us, and it's difficult to escape them. Female heroes still need to do battle with a vast and terrible host of damsels in distress, scheming women and their dangerous sexy, bleeding hearts who go all mushy whenever a baby enters the picture, and a gaggle of equally silly stereotypes. All it takes is one lazy moment and the tropes rise up and devour you. Television is more susceptible to this phenomenon than books because TV shows are written by comittee and stupidity arises in groupthink, and also because, as the Abigail assures me, Hollywood is still an incredibly sexist place (she's studied this thing - take it up with her if you disagree). A book, on the other hand, really only takes one person, and writers live all over.

I'm glad we have what we have in literature, but I'm also looking forward to when fantastic television realizes that it's time to grow up.


Abby said...

You forgot the "Heroes" part of our discussion, the most egregious example of this by far. I mean, there's a whole LJ community (which I'm too tired to find right now) called "Bob The Haitian" devoted to racism and sexism in "Heroes" and trust me, they find ample material every week.

Citizen X said...

Do you remember in Shrek 3 where the princess's are all locked up in a tower and the first thing they do is "assume the positions" then talk about how they are professional damsels in distress? That is what society tells woman they should be. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was unique because it was one of the few times where a female character was both strong and effeminate. Its sad to say but girls are socialized to think that being strong makes them manly. In High School are the athletic girls more likely to to join a team or cheer on the men?

Anonymous said...

@ Abby:

That's true. I did forget.

@ Citizen X:

Awesome username, by the way.

Also, I agree absolutely. B:tVS had it's flaws, but it was ultimately revolutionary in its depiction of a powerful female character who was both physically strong and essentially feminine (which I think is the word you're looking for - effeminate usually refers to female-seeming men).

I haven't seen Shrek 3, unfortunately, but the scene you describe sounds clever.