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”.