I bet no one remembers that this happened. But they shouldn’t be surprised.
I’m not a “Social Justice Warrior.” I’m not the guy that will lampoon popular culture like video games or movies for being systemically sexist as a whole (though some of them, admittedly, are). I find this article by Cracked’s J.F. Sargent from July 2012 about “widespread prejudices” in video games to be patently unfair, untrue, and characteristic of a community that wants to criticize without knowing what they’re talking about. I didn’t look at Peter Jackson’s orcs and see racism on either his part or Tolkien’s. I stalwartly refused to entertain the idea of the Doctor from BBC’s Doctor Who regenerating into a woman, because it was obviously meant to pander to SJWs and Tumblr-fanatics more than it was to actually fit within the established rules of the Doctor Who universe.
I do; however, applaud shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for their tireless years of work to destigmatize rape victims both female and male, gay and straight. I am a card carrying member of the “Hurray, gay people can marry in Arkansas now!” fan club, and I have always maintained the belief that everyone is everyone, and equal is equal. There are no two ways treat people. There is “Not being a dick,” and “Being a reasonable person.”
All of that to say, I don’t write this next article lightly. I’m not frothing at the mouth, ready to lunge for the nearest presumed misogynist’s throat. I’m an academic and writer who sees a very clear picture of constant, continuous failure. Still though, I write this article because, well, I got a Facebook message.
A friend of mine asked me, “You seem pretty knowledgeable about writing and TV and stuff. Can you tell me why there aren’t more strong female characters?”
“Well, there is every character of Joss Whedon’s catalogue. Then there’s “The West Wing,” and George R.R. Martin to a point,” I responded. “We’re not completely devoid.”
Then she said, “But why aren’t there more?”
I simply didn’t know. I sat on that message for a while, and I didn’t get any closer to a answer. I felt bad, because I just got out of a Lit Theory class that spent a good three weeks on Feminist Theory, but as is the case with most literary theory, it’s application to the real world is complicated at best and convoluted at worst.
A large part of the problem was my own writing. I like to think that all of my characters are round and full of life, including the women, and I always saw that as a simple manifestation of basic authorial empathy. My female characters sound like real women because I make them to be real people first and foremost. I simply cannot imagine a writer that needs to write a female, male, straight, gay, trans, or whatever character and thinks “Huh. Well, I’m not black, so I can’t do that.” It doesn’t compute for me.
Then I was flipping through the channels and I caught a scene from Graceland on the USA Network. Admittedly, I’ve never seen a full episode of the show, but I happened to see a female federal agent confronting a fellow agent. That’s when I realized the problem.
Writers are still uniformly treating strong women like either men with breasts or irrationally destructive messes. On the flip side, they treat non-Alpha men like fools, fops, or women with penises. The problem then comes out to be a simple one – we won’t fall for that anymore.
Let’s start with Claire Reisen from Syfy’s Dominion. She is a fundamentally flawed female character. She openly admits her submissiveness to the main character, Alex Lannen. “Wherever you go, I will follow.” She sets herself up as a modern day Juliet, with Lannen being her Romeo. The only problem being that at least Juliet helped with the plot to escape their parents and be together. Lannen makes a plan and goads her into it, with “love” presumably being the reason to submit herself to a terrifyingly stupid plan.
Then, the writers give themselves an out. They give themselves a way to evolve the character and make her a sentient being. The leaders of House Reisen and Whele (ugh) organize an arranged marriage between Ms. Reisen and William Whele. She now has a choice – either stay and try to help Vega from their presumed path toward destruction, or leave with her lover Alex and live freely as man and wife. If this were Whedon writing, Reisen would choose to stay of her own free will. She would say “I love you, but I’m staying for the people. It’s my choice, not yours, and I choose Vega.”
Of course, Whedon isn’t writing. Claire refuses to leave with Lannen, and explains it as her wanting to stay, but no dice. She was convinced to stay by her father because he said she was strong of character. There was no argument, no “But I want to leave with Lannen!” Her father said, in a rather one-sided conversation, “I want you to be here to lead Vega when I die/step down” and she never even raises the issue of marrying Lannen or leaving town altogether. So when she “makes her decision” to stay with Vega and presumably marry Whele Jr., it’s not her decision. It was her father’s. She’s a slave to the political machinations of her father and Anthony Head’s evil David Whele. She’s a victim of misogyny, not a free-thinking person. The fact that she didn’t know of the impending arranged marriage, despite her being essentially a goddamned princess, is a source of even greater dismay. How does someone so necessary to the political process of Vega not know what’s going on? There were absolutely no whispers? Since when? She just wasn’t listening.
Compare that to a woman who was put in a position of even greater inequality. In HBO’s Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen is sold into a marriage with Khal Drogo. She doesn’t understand Dothraki customs, language, or culture. She doesn’t have a choice either. Her brother sold her, and she’s going to do what he wants. This culminates in a scene where she is raped by Khal Drogo on their wedding night.
She is in a position where she theoretically has no way out. She is powerless in her situation. She is nothing more than a pawn for her brother to take back the Iron Throne, and if she submitted to that reality (as we can safely assume Claire Reisen would), then her vile brother Viserys Targaryen would probably still be alive.
However, she did not. She took it upon herself to assert authority in the bedroom (though, really, it was her riding Khal Drogo instead of him raping her from behind). On top of that, she took the other steps she needed to take to make sure that Khal Drogo respected her as a wife and queen, not a piece of property. She took a situation where any other female character from today’s television would fold, and she is now the queen of the Dothraki and three other cities in the East. She is an Empress where three seasons ago she was a token of an alliance. And through all of that, she argued within her character’s limitations. She argued like Daenerys the woman, not Daenerys the needlessly aggressive woman, would. There were times when she had to assert her authority because men did not respect her, but she did so reasonably. You never got the idea that Daenerys was a woman written by a man who only understood male power plays.
Another example of a powerful female character was Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne Conner from Roseanne. They were poor, and they were struggling, but goddamn could Roseanne fight. The most powerful episode of the entire series, in fact, was essentially 30 minutes of Roseanne and her husband Dan (played by John Goodman) arguing. Dan Conner had a heart attack in the woods and barely survived. Afterward, he refused to stick to his heart-healthy diet. Roseanne refused to watch her husband die, and let him know it. The credits to the episode were set to a slow pan of the demolished living room and kitchen, where the two juggernauts threw and destroyed things to help “communicate” their anger. A weaker female character would have made a joke and kept feeding Dan his porkchops. Roseanne, though, threw down the gauntlet. I don’t think it’s a coincedence that Joss Whedon worked on the show from 89-90. That show bred some great stuff.
We’ve had beacons of hope amid this sea of lackluster writing and character progression that is American television. However, they are much too few and far between. The key solution, that I think every writer no matter his or her genre should take heed of, is simple. Women are people too. Write them like they are. Write them like they’re your assertive Grandma Rosa, not your Uncle Bobby in a wig. This is a basic tenant of writing people – avoid stereotypes and cliches. Since when did writing “Aggressive Woman Cop #2” and “Love-torn Woman #9” become okay? When did that become an allowable tool in every writer’s toolkit?
No. Stop. Stop it right now. Not every successful business woman is essentially a man in a pantsuit. Not every older professor/teacher is a angry bitch. And not every female cop is either a rookie in her patrol blues or a hardened cop that binds her breasts to downplay her sexuality and, most importantly, don’t play by your rules. The sooner we realize that, the sooner people return to traditional television. Until then, I’ll watch “Orange is the New Black” and “Doctor Who” and continue to refuse to give any of you failures my time (and ad dollars).