Another take on Maggie O’Connell

I long time ago, I wrote a post about Maggie O’Connell on Northern Exposure. To sum it up, I felt that when all was said and done, all her neurosis pointed to this reading: “she ends up playing as a warning to feminists: “you just try to take care of yourself for a while, little girl – you’ll be back, begging for a strong man to earn your keep and protect you while you sit around not worryin’ your pretty little head.” Part of my evidence came from an episode arc which enraged me: in it, Maggie and Joel decided to have sex, but before they got a chance to do so she fell asleep (she’d been up for 36 hours). Later, she was angry that he hadn’t gone ahead and had sex with her unconscious body, since “you had permission!”

In response to that, Ragtime made some very good points:

You write, “Her boyfriends all die, presumably because wanting but not needing a man is poisonous to men.” That is the COMPLETE opposite of my reading, and I feel compelled to rush to her defense (respectfully, of course) of Maggie as a pre-cautionary pro-feminist story, rather than your criticism of the “fantasy faux feminist”.

Specifically, it was not her independent “not needing” that was killing the men – it was her ceding of independence that did it!

As I saw it, Maggie’s life-force was pushing back against her “submission”. She’d be off doing her “independence thing,” but she wasn’t really serious about it, at least on a surface level, because she would find a boy, and then follow him off on whatever “his thing” was, and be miserable about it. But think (wrongly) it was what she wanted to do. (She had even gotten to Alaska by following a boyfriend there.)

But her life-force rebelled against the submission (not her independence!), killing off the boys and allowing her to regain her independence. Essentially, the feminist life-force wouldn’t be able to keep a man until she could do it WITHOUT giving up her independence.

I don’t remember which season it was that had “Mike”, the bubble-guy played by Anthony Edwards(after Revenge of the Nerds, but before ER). When they start dating, Maggie falls back into her old pattern: she drops her own interests to help him on his environmental crusade, cooking organic foods and wearing pretty housedresses. Again, the life-force rebels, but in a way specific to this sickly character – it cures him, so that he leaves.

The only character that she sleeps with who she doesn’t kill is Joel, and that was because she never submitted to him. She matches him neurosis for neurosis, of course, and sometimes acts in questionable ways (as, I agree, the non-sex episode shows), but I thought that in many ways it made her a richer character, both as a character and as a female character.

Far from being a “warning to feminists”, it read to me as a warning to men: “Don’t squelch the latent feminist spirit, because it can’t be kept down.” It was not, after all, the feminists who were doing the dying! Mike wasn’t killed because he never bought in to the new “domesticated” Maggie, and left her rather than dragging her away on his crusade. He respected the spirit, so the spirit respected him.

Ragtime’s read makes so much sense I wanted to give it its own post. Even the “you had permission” episode I cited above can be read as Maggie struggling with the contradictory messages heterosexual women get: “if he really wants you, nothing will stop him from having you, and this is very romantic and flattering, except of course when it’s rape, but we don’t talk about that and if we did, it would be your fault for not wearing a mumu.”

Additionally, considering how the rest of the women were presented (see my very positive reviews of Eve and Shelly) and how subtle the show was overall, I have to concede that Ragtime’s take is probably more what the producers had in mind.

My take may be unfair, but the historical context in which it occurred makes it worthy of discussion all the same. I was probably extra critical of Maggie because she was the first TV woman I’d ever seen who seemed stable and indepedent (at first). It was the early 90′s, for cryin’ out loud. I should have seen hundreds of women characters who did men’s work and wore dresses and liked men but didn’t need them. After relating to all those women, I would’ve seen Maggie for what she was – a flawed person and not a social statement. Instead, she was a momentary beacon of hope – “finally, a woman I can relate to!” – dimmed quickly by the usual suspects. It didn’t even occur to me that maybe that was the essence of her story. I just saw one more betrayal of my gender by filmmakers.

(Thanks, Ragtime.)

Comments

  1. Purtek says

    After relating to all those women, I would’ve seen Maggie for what she was – a flawed person and not a social statement. Instead, she was a momentary beacon of hope – “finally, a woman I can relate to!” – dimmed quickly by the usual suspects. It didn’t even occur to me that maybe that was the essence of her story. I just saw one more betrayal of my gender by filmmakers.

    I just want to say that I really like this comment, and I think it’s extremely well-put. In a general sense, one of the things that really frustrates me about the lack of strong women (either fictional or real) in the media is that it means that the ones we do see become these figures we cling to, and we sort of need them to be perfect. In reality, they’re going to have flaws based just on being human, and their strength can often come back to hurt them because of the world we still live in, as in this interpretation of Maggie (I was pretty young when Northern Exposure was actually on, so I can’t really comment specifically).

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Exactly! It’s been said that women are too critical of female characters, and in a way I can see the logic of that. But it’s because such a small variety of women characters that we get emotionally invested when something different comes along. At the first sign of anything “typical”, I know I start to bristle.

    It’s something I’ve gotten better about as I worked on this site. But this is probably a case where my early viewings left such an impact that I just saw it the same way again on my more recent re-watch.

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