Back to basics

We talk about a lot of sophsticated topics on this site, like marketing, target audiences, and skewed demographics. But now and then, I feel an urge to remind myself just why I started this site. Let’s look at some of the shows and movies I’ve posted about, and ask the question I asked my screenwriting professors and film pros, right up to the moment I decided there was no hope of changing the industry from within.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent: why couldn’t Detective Goren have been a woman with a brilliant investigative mind and quirky personality? Do you really think the producers even considered it?

House: why couldn’t Dr. House be a brilliant, misanthropic, flexibly-principled woman who needs a cane to walk?

Wings: why couldn’t it have been the Hackett Sisters and their tiny airline, and the guy who runs the airport lunch counter?

Northern Exposure: why couldn’t it have been about Dr. Jo Fleischman, a Jewish doctor from New York transplanted by force to the near-wilderness of Alaska?

Stargate, the movie: okay, Jack O’Neill couldn’t have been a woman, because women still aren’t allowed to be Special Forces officers, but why couldn’t Daniel Jackson have been a brilliant female linguist and archeologist?

You can play this game with almost any show or movie.

Comments

  1. Mecha says

    It’s a good thing to think about. I prefer to think of it as why they didn’t, to me, even if the questions are the same but for their approach (can’t assumes that there is no way in hell the character could have been cast that way. To me. Yay pedantry.) Was it writing? Was it casting? Or did they ‘feel’ that the attributes they wanted to play with were more affixed to a certain gender? Or did they not even consider making a non-female lead?

    For my personal experience, I often explicitly think about character gender, but often it depends which gender pronoun I attach first. Which is a very subtle thing, sometimes. Why attach a gender pronoun to this specific character type, hmm? Prejudices displayed? I can never really know. I just try to go both ways on choices of sex.

    As to CI? The Closer, not that I’ve watched it, seems to do the same sort of thing. Quirky skilled female lead that is the lynchpin in a criminal case setup. Designing Woman is the one show I thought of that reversed on Wings… but the show’s title sorta says why it’s not a real reversal: womens’ job. The others escape me which is, of course, the point to a degree. How do you draw a comparison between different types of shows, though? I mean, that sort of ensemble comedy thing has been done with female and male leads (Northern Exposure). What aspects make it particularly challenging for a woman to be put in that role, from a patriarchial/character purpose point of view? Another interesting question.

    I dunno the Stargate one, honestly, because a lot of female characters have been used in that place. Most of the time they just get used in that place very stereotypically. Which is the a more general facet of the problem. ^^;

    -Mecha

  2. Mecha says

    And I never watched Designing Women, so if I compeltely screwed up on what the actual show’s content was, sorry. I was a little young for it then. ;)

    -Mecha

  3. scarlett says

    And what about reversing some well-known ‘female’ roles? Why can’t there be a male character as shallow and vapid as Rachel from friends? Why can’t we have male Mary-Sues as self-absorbed and hypocritical as Susan from Desperate Housewives, or Marissa from The OC?

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Good point. Maybe because the powers that be are in denial that men can be like those characters?

    So much easier to see it in the opposite sex.

  5. Mecha says

    I dunno so much about that. Self absorbed and hypocritical appears quite a bit in _non_ main male characters (often somewhat antagonists, and all over in dramas) and some main characters (Nip/Tuck?). They’re not particularly likeable… well, ever.

    Shallow and vapid has a harder time for me to come up with, for certain, but I also didn’t watch Friends (and don’t much watch random comedies.) Tim Taylor from Home Improvement, among others, have had intelligence jokes from personal statements (not unlike Cordelia’s misunderstandings in Angel/Buffy, stereotypical blonde stuff) used on him. The tone of the shallowness/stupidity can be very different, though, and maybe that’s an important difference. In both cases. I can’t really put my finger on the differences, though.

    I get confused that Scarlett called these clearly negative-to-any-viewer portrayals Mary Sues, though… Mary Sues, although insulting, are more like the woman from Stargate. Sam. Right, Sam. Perfection and likeability on the surface, but not being quite so real to anyone who wants to look. And that appears on both sides of the fence, although most men aren’t _offended_ by a Gary Stu, the attractive skilled (intelligent) everyman, in media. Possibly because Gary Stu-class characters are either the main character who the male watcher identifies with (McGuyver) or a bit character who’s about as vapid as the stereotypical blonde (Fabio.) Mmm. A thought.

    -Mecha

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    The tone of the shallowness/stupidity can be very different, though, and maybe that’s an important difference. In both cases. I can’t really put my finger on the differences, though.

    It may come down to how we’re all conditioned to treat men and women differently. Example: assertive women are all too frequently labeled “bitches” while men are “ballsy” or “go-getters”. Rachel on Friends was vain and selfish because of her daddy being rich. Joey was vain because he was an actor. Rachel’s vanity is a personality flaw; Joey’s is a career asset.

    I get confused that Scarlett called these clearly negative-to-any-viewer portrayals Mary Sues, though… Mary Sues, although insulting, are more like the woman from Stargate. Sam. Right, Sam. Perfection and likeability on the surface, but not being quite so real to anyone who wants to look. And that appears on both sides of the fence, although most men aren’t _offended_ by a Gary Stu, the attractive skilled (intelligent) everyman, in media. Possibly because Gary Stu-class characters are either the main character who the male watcher identifies with (McGuyver) or a bit character who’s about as vapid as the stereotypical blonde (Fabio.) Mmm. A thought.

    I think actually you nailed the problem. Sam Carter’s bad characterization looked the worse because she was in a show with some rather well-developed male characters. That suggests the writers just didn’t find Sam interesting enough to bother developing.

  7. Nialla says

    I sometimes think part of the problem with Mary Sues is that the majority of writers are male, and they’re afraid of offending their female viewers with anything negative. Even if there is a female writer on the staff, she’s still in the majority. The catch is that women don’t like unrealistic characters who never make mistakes and get pats on the head from the male characters when they screw up.

    It also seems like women are much harsher critics of the portrayal of women on TV than men are of male characters. Male characters just “are” while the female ones are usually primarily defined by their gender. Even when there is a strong female character as the lead, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the main point of the character is it’s a female doing something not expected of a female.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    I sometimes think part of the problem with Mary Sues is that the majority of writers are male, and they’re afraid of offending their female viewers with anything negative.

    I agree.

    It also seems like women are much harsher critics of the portrayal of women on TV than men are of male characters.

    I agree here, too. I think there’s a tendency for marginalized groups to scrutinize their representatives carefully, because they know the majority group’s going to use any dirt they can scrape together to discredit them, and they want to head that crap off at the pass. Martha Stewart as opposed to Ken Lay, anyone?

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