But they do it to the guys, too

I’ve been thinking lately about an argument that often gets raised when I mention a woman character behaving like a stereotype: that there are men on the show doing the same things, therefore it’s not a statement against women, it’s just how some people are. It’s a valid consideration, one I always make before declaring characterization to be stereotyping. For me, the deciding factor is whether you explained to me why the character is the way she is, as I’ve mentioned in posts about Brisco County and Eve’s Bayou.

But is the mere fact that men behave badly on the same show evidence that the woman’s characterization is equally well or poorly written? Not quite. House provides a good example. Cameron acts like the worst stereotype of a fourteen year old girl. Her emotions sometimes prevent her from doing her job. She has no sense of humor. She can’t handle hard decisions, and she can be a total hypocrite. Most of these arguments could be made of Chase. Sometimes, they could be made of House. But here’s the difference: when men act like little girls, it’s characterization. It’s quirky, or stupid, or amusing. When Cameron does it, it’s “just like a chick” and evidence “she has no business being there.”

If invisible male privilege is making it hard to wrap your mind around that contradiction, imagine a show on which a male African-American co-star is written as Mr. Ghetto Pimp Drug Pusher with no explanation or context. Does the fact that one of the white guys on the show occasionally goes around saying, “Yo, dawg, wuzzup?” somehow redeem the stereotyping of the other man? Absolutely not – more likely, it conveys the writers making fun of Mr. Ghetto Pimp, which hardly helps matters. What might redeem such a stereotypical characterization is a damn good explanation for why that character acts that way.

But the sad fact is, there’s only a handful of writers out there who can put stereotypes across that well. I consider the writers of House to be quite good, and yet they’ve fallen well short with Cameron, and probably don’t even realize it. This struck me in a big way when it occurred to me recently: what if Cameron’s “damage” (alluded to but never detailed) is that her entire family is dead? Maybe the reason she can’t tell patients they’re dying because she’s been on the wrong end of that scenario once too often. Maybe the reason she lacks boundaries in her work relationships is that they’re all she’s got. See how it could begin to fall into place with one simple little explanation like that? But as long as we’re forced to speculate, a lot of people will default to the standard cultural explanation: “that’s just how chicks are”.

Comments

  1. Mecha says

    I think it’s a good point that just because a guy and a girl both do something doesn’t necessarily mean that the messages behind the actions are the same. Perhaps a better example would have been ‘What is the difference between showing a white man versus a black man sitting at a table eating watermelon and chicken at different times?’ If you establish enough distance between the actions, no longer are they equivalent. A guy sleeping around != a girl sleeping around. Etc, etc.

    I also think general justification is a good part of determining whether ANYONE is well written, especially if you have a reasonable belief someone could be poorly written. The idea has come up for me specifically in the context of roleplay, but it’s reasonable for any text, I think.

    Unfortunately, the subtle cues that are required to establish and _maintain_ such a justification’s existance, even to the casual viewer, are very difficult (maybe impossible) to do without making a large issue of it. And I don’t mean just having one. I mean having one that makes it clear to anyone that there’s something underneath the character, without making it big and drama-ful. And if that isn’t the case, or it doesn’t come out fast enough, the show often opens itself up to harsh criticisms. I am reminded of Pretender, where Miss Parker’s basic damage is laid out in the _second episode_. The details? Stretched out over the series (in an obvious manner.) But they’d better nail down the basics quick, or else everyone might think that she’s a bad character.

    Along those lines, one issue, and I’m still mentally exploring it, so if it comes out rough, meh, but… there is a concept of societal justification, and it comes very close to being stereotypical. Someone who does not think murder/stealing is wrong is societally normal. Someone who thinks stealing is okay? Justification is usually used. And that frames the issue as that the writers _don’t think the woman’s actions are societally abnormal_.

    -Mecha

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Someone who does not think murder/stealing is wrong is societally normal. Someone who thinks stealing is okay? Justification is usually used. And that frames the issue as that the writers _don’t think the woman’s actions are societally abnormal_.

    That’s a very good observation. Going back to House, the script is always explaining (or at least guessing) why House behaves in a socially unacceptable way. Chase’s selfishness has been explained – his laziness and daddy issues got their own episode. Foreman was once a car thief, but the very fact that he overcame all that so thoroughly tells us all we really need to know to respect him. So the fact that the writers seem to feel no need to explain Cameron’s bad behavior, even though she’s featured so heavily, implies they don’t think she’s behaving abnormally.

    We’re so programmed. Really, we are. I’m amazed how far I have to dig sometimes to come up with a verbal explanation of something I recognize instinctively as disrespect. Your observation here nailed something I hadn’t quite gotten to yet. Thanks. :)

  3. Mecha says

    Sure. I seem to have a habit of being good on the exploration side of ideas. ^^; Of course, it’d help if I could avoid using a double negative (good job, me!) that completely screwed up the paragraph, but that’s what you get for coming to an idea while you’re writing instead of beforehand!

    -Mecha

  4. Glaivester says

    What we do know about Cameron is that she married a man who was dying of a terminal illness (in fact, I think he was terminal when she met him). However, you are right that the source of her damage is not explained, because on the episode where this was mentioned it was pointed out that to go into a relationship with a dying man suggests that one is damaged already.

    I have a feeling that the writers are holding back Cameron’s past as a long-term story arc. We get glimpses, and presumably someday the whole story will come popping out for all to see.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    I have a feeling that the writers are holding back Cameron’s past as a long-term story arc. We get glimpses, and presumably someday the whole story will come popping out for all to see.

    No, it’s a very hallowed rule in TV that you develop an arc in the same season you seed it, because that may be the only season you have.

  6. scarlett says

    That’s true… watching Firefly always leaves me with the feeling the characters had deep and rich backstories that explained who they were, even though the show never had the oppurtunity to go into it (I suppose it helped that the yhad a flashback ep which introduced all the characters). All the shows I can think of which had decent characterisation fleshed out the character within a few months, although they often tease out the details over several seasons, which may be what Glaivester is thinking of.

  7. scarlett says

    Something I thought of… is there something about FEMALE roles that the (predominantly male) writers can’t grasp? Are women just, like SO OUT there that they must be perfect goddesses? Or whores? Or something equally extremist?

    Does Scarlett sound bitter? Her favorite show is going throw the wringer, and all the shouting in the world from the fans isn’t doing much…

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Somewhere around here, Revena wrote a really good explanation. It boiled down to:

    Every group has an incentive to understand where the group on top is coming from (in our case, white straight men). But the group on top has no incentive to understand where the lower groups are coming from. Therefore, many of them don’t bother.

    To be blunt, they don’t even realize they should. Suggesting they should understand their wives is like suggesting they should understand the dog. Lower groups = lower beings.

    Of course, some white straight men develop an interest in other groups. And some members of the lower groups scorn their “own” and focus only on pleasing the top group. That’s something you’ve written about more than once – women who conspire to keep other women down (because they think that pleases the top group, upon whom they’ve been taught to rely for resource dispensation).

  9. scarlett says

    That’s kinda what I was getting at… that men are so wrapped up in their cocoon of entitlement that they don’t realise what else is out there – that creating Woman as Goddess is more an insult then compliment. (Yeah, I’d rather be the flawed Ellen Ripely, fighting out there with the boys, rather then Perfect Sam Carter, being adored by the boys…) Occasionally you get a guy who is genuinely interested in the classes ‘beneath’ him (I’ve met a couple!) but for the most part, people look above, not beneath…

  10. SunlessNick says

    The flawed Ellen Ripley also has to overcome obstacles – while the “Woman as Goddess” model insulates the character from challenge, so we don’t have to see her fight, struggle, and earn her survival – but those things are why we root for characters to begin with. Maybe that’s an issue with Carter as well: we no longer see her having to work scientific problems out; she makes a leap (female intuition?) and gets there.

    Which is drifting some from the main topic. But I think it also applies to personality – if there’s a reason why Cameron is the way she is, she can work with it, maybe change it, or at least be understood. As it is, she’s static.

    And stasis is another thing that’s different for males and females: a static male gets to be a measure; even a negative measure, to show how much cooler another character is, is still a measure. A static woman is “just how women are.” Men are a yardstick, women a notch on a yardstick.

    Thinking about Alias, yet again, I feel more strength from Syd when she’s on point, supplementing her own skills with tech provided by Marshall and trusting Dixon to back her, than those times she goes off on her own and breezes through all opposition single-handed).

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    I totally agree with your comments on Carter, Cameron and Sydney. And the contrast with Ripley.

    The statis as measurement point is interesting, too. I think the problem is that our cultural default is a White Straight Man. Anything that “deviates” from that “norm” is immediately identified first by its deviation, and secondly by any ways it manages to distinguish itself. So Cameron is a “woman doctor”, and anything annoying about her will represent women rather than doctors. Conversely, House’s (and Chase’s) flaws are seen to represent doctors, not white men in general.

    The show seems to have recognized the risk of Foreman being tagged as an “African American doctor”, and his flaws being attributed to race rather than profession. They’ve dealt with that by giving him a backstory, and showing how much he’s grown from his teenage years to now.

    Cameron doesn’t get this treatment. We don’t know where she’s coming from, exactly, so we don’t know if she’s heroically well-adjusted, considering, or a complete failure. And yet she’s in our face intensely every week, so it’s hard to withhold judgment, and that leaves us judging on what we see now, which seems pretty childish.

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