Depends on show’s writing team

The winning answer in this month’s poll was one added by a reader:

What genre shows women in the best light?

* Crime Drama: 20% (10)
* Comedy: 10% (5)
* Action: 6% (3)
* Sci-Fi/Fantasy: 29% (15)
* Reality TV: 2% (1)
* Depends on show’s writing team1: 33% (17)

That’s just it, isn’t it? Any genre can show both men and women as characters instead of stereotypes, or as positive role models instead of people you want to hide from your kids. It comes down to the aims of “The Powers That Be” – a catchall term referring to the conglomerate of not-entirely-visible people who decide what’s going to happen on any given TV show or movie.

The second strongest answer was “Sci-Fi/Fantasy”. Science fiction’s come a long way, baby, but it hasn’t been pure progress. And when you review it, it’s actually sad to think that this probably is the best light women have been shown in.

In the 1960’s, Gene Roddenberry was lucky to get Uhura on the bridge at all, and the closest anyone other than a white, red-blooded, American good ol’ boy (played by Canadian William Shatner, cowboy hat sold separately) could get was second in command. Fast-forward ten years, and we got Princess Leia, who had a nice title, but in the end all her bitchy assertiveness just turned out to be foreplay, and once claimed by an even bitchier man, Han “Yes, It’s Still My Time of the Month” Solo, she had a personality bypass.

Around this same time, we got Ripley, who remains sadly unique to this day: a character who just happened to be a woman.

Throughout the eighties, women remained more likely to be shown as love bunnies and cardboard cutouts of prettiness than anything else – so I went on my first multi-year boycott spree of the cinema, and honestly couldn’t tell you if there was anything good. No one’s recommended anything I missed.

In the 90’s, we got Agent Starling and thought that was pretty cool, even though she had some silghtly disturbing daddy-boss lust issues with Jack Crawford – which was okay characterization for one woman, but maybe if we’d realized it was going to become the standard, misapplied model for 90% of the Kick-Ass Chick characters out there, we’d have protested. We got Scully, who was tough and (for a change) the rational counterpart to Mulder’s little girl hissy fits and irrational obsessions. ‘Course, she was always wrong, proving that even when you switch gender roles, the man still has to be right. But we tried to ignore that. We got Crusher and Janeway and Troi, but I didn’t really watch any of the Star Trek shows from this time, so if anyone wants to elaborate on them, feel free to comment. We got Xena and Buffy, who were pretty cool, but we weren’t sure female superheroes counted in the representation of real women. Then we got Sam Carter, who actually, you know, like, functioned on a military team and stuff. She didn’t have much personality, and she’d inherited Agent Starling’s daddy-boss lust issues, but we could overlook those things.

Then came the 2000’s, and suddenly we had to be punished for overlooking Sam Carter’s lack of personality and daddy-boss lust issues, as the latter took over her character and she deteriotated into someone many fans could not buy as “commanding officer material”. I’m not sure what happened to Scully because I’d stopped watching. Xena did okay, but Buffy died and got resurrected as the Shrew Beast from Hell (I dunno – I saw that one coming and stopped watching, but I’ve not heard anything nice about Buffy in the last two seasons).

On the flipside, Australia sent us the women of Farscape, who were exactly as interesting and complex as the men. It took the US a few more years to get around to anything even remotely comparable, with the new Battlestar Galactica, where women are competent, sleazy, brave and cowardly, foolish and wise – you know, like in real life.

Is there a pattern? If so, what does it correspond to? There’s been a real backlash against feminism in the 2000’s – is this why some of the good women characters of the late 90’s had to be deconstructed into stereotypes? I mean, they could’ve simply replaced Buffy and Sam with pliable bunnies, if those two women were no longer trendy. But then they’d have become martyrs, icons of a bygone era. So instead, they made them into objects of loathing for the very fans who’d cherished their mold-breaking behavior. There’s got to be more going on here than simple changing trends. I can read it as a sort of Orwellian purge of the concepts of competent military women and kick-ass teenage girls, rather than a simple abandonment of once-fashionable icons. Such is the power of deconstructing characters:

But the deconstruction is like a betrayal: it makes you feel like the character never was what she appeared to be. She fooled you, stupid. And that makes you resent her, and then – if you’re not the self-vigilant type – it might just make you suspicious the next time you meet a real life woman who says she doesn’t need a man to make her existence worthwhile. You won’t be fooled twice!


  1. aizjanika says

    Did you miss first Jill and then Connie on NYPD Blue? 😉 Jill started out as a great character. She was tough, but not hard. She was compassionate–even motherly at times–without being sappy or whiny or mushy. She was a good friend. She made mistakes, but she was wise. She was a single mom who took care of her kids, but she was dedicated to her career.

    Then suddenly she was saddled with a semi-abusive and criminal ex-husband. And, okay, maybe she learned from that experience, but I was left wondering how the hell *this* character ever hooked up with that guy. Then she threw away her career and endangered her kids in order to *help* the idiot. She disappears and is never heard from again.

    Enter Connie. She’s tough. She’s smart. She’s compassionate, but not a fool. She has some hangups and issues, but these don’t rule her life any more than they do anyone else’s. She’s one of the few female characters that had chemistry with Sipowicz. They sparked off each other. It was fun to watch. She could handle herself in the field as well as any man. She was sometimes asked to do certain things because she was female and she hated some aspects of that, but it was part of her job, so she did it. She stood up for herself.

    The next thing we know, she’s making doe-eyes at Andy Sipowicz and then they’re dating, then married. In the midst of all this, Connie’s life becomes all about her adopted child and then her pregnancy and her new baby. She’s calling Sipowizc and asking him to buy laundry soap and bitching him out because he forgets.

    Okay, that’s reality. It is. I know it is. But Connie was so much more than that and they stopped showing her as the *more*. :-(

    Other characters on NYPD Blue, Adrianne (sp?) and Rita, both had abusive exes who ended up dead. Diane…well, I think that people have very mixed feelings about her. I liked her. She was full of issues and definitely ruled by them in many ways. She was an alcoholic. She went through a similar journey as what they put Sipowicz through. She did have Daddy issues, but in her case it felt realistic–I’ve seen her scenario play out in a family close to mine, and I mostly liked the way it was written.

    Sylvia on NYPD Blue was perfect. She was strong, yet feminine. She was a professional woman who never let her personal feelings interfere (visibly) with her job. She wasn’t afraid to say what she thought or to bring up issues that others might let go. She was patient and kind and loving, but a force to be reckoned with. Getting married and having a baby did not weaken her character in the slightest, IMHO.

    But the deconstruction is like a betrayal: it makes you feel like the character never was what she appeared to be. She fooled you, stupid. And that makes you resent her

    This part is certainly true of the character of Sam, but my resentment of her runs much deeper than that. I felt like she displaced my beloved character (Daniel) so I began resenting her for that long before I actually disliked the character.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    I never watched NYPD Blue, so that’s pretty fascinating to read. I really do think deconstruction goes further than just “Oh, that’s not how we’re writing women these days”. I really think it’s to teach us a lesson or something.

    I should’ve mentioned Michelle Dessler on “24” as a character who’s quite good and free of stereotypes (at least for the first three seasons, which are all I saw).

    As for Sam, I don’t think it’s a coincidence they pitted Sam against Daniel – she represented capable women, and Daniel’s fans are capable women. What a coup, turning feminists against the only significant representative of a woman in the military since “Hot Lips” Hoolihan.

    I need to write, like, 6 dozen articles about Sam. I know not everyone watches that show, but it’s such a perfect example of how far we SO haven’t come.

  3. aizjanika says

    I never felt like they deliberately pitted Sam against Daniel or Daniel against Sam. I never saw a rivalry between them–not even from Sam’s part. I never noticed those things if they existed.

    I mostly felt that the writers just lost interest in Daniel and Sam became their new toy. They wanted her to be the “star” of the show. I don’t think they meant to turn anyone against her, because they really saw her (both Sam and AT) as this wonderful actress and fantastic character and they felt she was the main star of the show–even above RDA, although he was still treated as the star. How many times did they cut away to Sam when it made no sense to do so? This show was not Dawson’s Creek.

    In any case, I resented Sam just because she was there. I think I would have felt the same way if they’d started making Teal’c more prominent. I dislike Major Davis for the same reason and he’s a man.

    I disliked the ship, but I didn’t hate Sam for it or even dislike her for it. I didn’t like Sam being written as so great and wonderful when Daniel was ignored or neglected. It wasn’t until Threads that I really greatly disliked her–and that again was mainly because I didn’t like how everyone was ignoring Daniel’s situation. In Reckoning, too.

    This all sounds so petty and it’s only a TV show, but that’s how I felt when watching it.

  4. says

    Worth noting that the original star trek had a pilot without Shatner, in which Spock was the science officer and the second in charge was actually a female. Apparently, Roddenbery was told that he had to change it – also there were many complaints from viewers and over 50% were females who were upset with the female’s high position.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    over 50% were females who were upset with the female’s high position.

    Now, that’s interesting! I’ve seen the pilot, and I was aware the studio insisted he change it. I didn’t realize how many complaints there were from viewers, though. And sadly, I’m not surprised that over 50% of them were from women. Some of the worst misogynists I’ve known are women who are jealous of women who have the nerve to strike out and accomplish something.

  6. sbg says

    I never felt like they deliberately pitted Sam against Daniel or Daniel against Sam. I never saw a rivalry between them – not even from Sam’s part. I never noticed those things if they existed.

    I know this is, like, super old, but I agree. I think people perceived it that way, partially because their favorite character’s role was being lessened at the same time as ship was becoming more and more blatant. It’s difficult to separate those issues, and it’s difficult not to resent Character B when it appears she’s benefiting from Character A’s sidelining. Everything Character B did was subject to (sometimes uncomfortably harsh, imho) criticism.

    Not saying Sam’s perfect, I’m just saying people took it quite personally. Myself included. 😉

  7. sbg says

    And I just saw a blurb on the local news about how 8 out of 10 Americans would vote for a female candidate for PotUS, citing that a woman in office would better focus on domestic issues…

    Get the right woman in candidacy, and you betcha I’d vote for her.

  8. Alysa says

    We got Crusher and Janeway and Troi, but I didn’t really watch any of the Star Trek shows from this time, so if anyone wants to elaborate on them, feel free to comment.

    I watched Star Trek: TNG as a little girl, and Doctor Crusher was always my favorite. I responded to the fact that she was a mature, handsome woman who was very smart, strong, and important in the scheme of things. Looking back on it now, it really impresses me how true all of that was.

    Crusher was a brilliant doctor with a great reputation, and was highly respected. She was also an officer — a commander, at that, which effectively ranked her higher than the rest of the main cast aside from the Captain and XO. At one time, if I remember correctly, the actress was pregnant, and while she was gone they made her head of Starfleet Medical to explain her absence. She acted as ‘first officer’ a couple times.

    She was the Captain’s confidant. Every Captain has to have an old buddy from way back, and Picard was no different, with the exception that his old buddy was a woman: Crusher. The two shared a long history that dated back to their academy years, and were good friends throughout the series and movies. It was nice to see that traditionally male role being filled by a woman.

    What also stood out was that she was never turned into The Girl or the romantic interest who existed just to be a romantic interest. And yet she and Picard did dabble in romance — it was established that he’d loved her since they were young, but had never said anything on account of her falling for one of his friends. In the course of the show, it came up a few times and they acknowledged their feelings and even tried at having a romantic relationship, but they both ultimately decided that it was more important that they stay friends and not threaten their important working relationship. There was no starcrossed lovers crap — they regretted it, but accepted it, and continued to enjoy the close friendship.

    Then came the movies. I don’t know if it was because it was years after the series and things had changed, or if it was because it was a feature film and the directors felt like they had to shake things up, but Crusher was shunted into the background. She was lucky to get more than a handful of lines. Their friendship was barely acknowledged and never their other feelings.

    I don’t know if the movies had the same group of writers as the series, but there does seem to be a shift in priorities that the character suffered from. She wasn’t changed the way Sam was, but she was sidelined drastically. So if the writers are different, it would seem to fit your idea that it depends on the writing team. One team can produce this wonderfully rounded, strong character while another has no use for her.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Then came the movies. I don’t know if it was because it was years after the series and things had changed, or if it was because it was a feature film and the directors felt like they had to shake things up, but Crusher was shunted into the background. She was lucky to get more than a handful of lines. Their friendship was barely acknowledged and never their other feelings.

    From IMDB, it looks like the writing teams shifted a bit, but it stayed within the writers and producers from the show, at least for the most part. I’m going to ask the other authors on this site if any of them are more familiar with that series and the movies it spawned than I am…. they might remember some interviews or talk from the time period that would shed some light on all this.

    Thanks for bringing it up – this is a really interesting topic.

  10. Ray says

    (I suppose I’m coming late to this discussion, but I’ve just found the site and have been reading all the old stuff.)

    Jennifer, you discuss Leia, which makes me curious what you think about Mara Jade’s eventual relationship? I know you have elsewhere mentioned liking her as written by Zahn in the Thrawn Trilogy, but being fed up by other authors’ portrayals of her (and I totally, totally agree with you on that point.)

    But, Vision of the Future? This post made me think of it because some friends and I were just discussing the other day how she was such a powerful example of a strong, complex woman in sci-fi, and we had varying opinions on the continuation of her story after those first 3 books.

    Despite hating a lot of what happened in other people’s stuff in between Last Command and Specter of the Past, I liked the developments in VotF, because it felt like they came from someplace true to her character, and were negotiated on both sides — she didn’t undergo a sudden and 180 degree flip because she suddenly had the hots for him — it was something that developed over time, and involved a lot of them both pointing out what they needed from each other, and where they were and were not willing to compromise. She seems to retain her strength and her skills throughout the romance. (Do not, however, get me started on the whole “let’s slap our most powerful woman with a horrific disease ” thing that showed up in the next book!)

    On the other hand, one of my friends hates this relationship, and reads it as yet another example of a powerful woman being neutralized by a plot that forces her into a relationship as a way to impose more traditional ‘femininity’ on her. While Zahn seems, in my opinion, to be portraying her career change as a place for her own personal growth, I can also see where my friend is troubled by Mara’s abandonment of her hard-earned title of Master Trader.

    I’d be really interested to hear what you think.

    • says

      It’s been a while since I read those books, Ray, but the relationship always struck me as between equals when Zahn was writing it. Whether they were tentative friends, tentative enemies, or considering getting married, it remained equal. That, I liked, since it’s sadly rare in my fictional experience.

      But I too can see where your friend’s coming from. First of all, what he describes is exactly what Lucas did to Leia in the movies. In ESB, she’s telling soldiers what to do. Then her romantic/sexual tension with Han gets resolved, and suddenly HE’S a general and she’s his good little soldier. Oh, yes, that puts things back the way they’re supposed to be, doesn’t it? /sarcasm

      But at the end of VotF, I felt like Zahn had set it up so Mara’s story could be as you say: a human being dumping one path (Master Trader) for another (Jedi) for her own satisfaction and fulfillment, with marriage being a separate issue. Zahn always seemed to see her as a character who happened to be female rather than a character who was only female because one of the male characters needed a love interest. But subsequent writers – at least the few I read before giving up entirely on the series – were not Zahn. They seemed to take the traditional approach, as Lucas did: the real storymakers are the male characters, but occasionally we need women to marry somebody or give birth to somebody, so you bring them in and you make them tough in some way so the female readers won’t start up their “strong female character” diatribe, but basically once the character’s vagina has made its contribution to the story, it’s kind of hard to justify keeping the woman around.

      Are you aware of what happens to her in later novels? Don’t want to spoil it for you, but you didn’t mention it, so I’m being extra careful in asking before I say anything else.

  11. Ray says

    Good points. I’ve never read any of Zahn’s non-SW works, but now I’m curious whether he writes strong women as well in them. I agree that throughout Zahn’s books, Mara and Luke are consistently portrayed as equals, and that it is depressingly rare in all sorts of media… a main reason that these books stayed on my shelf long after much else had moved along. (For that matter, I remember preferring Zahn’s portrayal of Leia, and of her relationship with Han, better than that in most of the other books, and, in fact, most of RotJ.)

    I am aware. I stopped reading a long ways back, but keep hearing the spoilers from one source or another. Consider me both aware and annoyed.

  12. Mana G says

    Yes, I know, this is waaaay old, but I just noticed Jennifer Kessler’s comment on “Hot Lips” Hoolihan, and it got me thinking about how I’ve always seen Margaret as the opposite of this particular trope. In other words, as the show went on, she developed more respect for herself, and we, the viewers, developed more respect for her character.

  13. says

    Mana, after writing this post, I re-watched MASH and I totally agree with you. I meant to write an article on Margaret months ago, but my personal life got really insane this year, as it sometimes goes. :)

    Yes, Margaret did reverse the trope. As a kid, watching MASH for the first time, I just saw the things she did that I didn’t like. Having an affair with a married man who really didn’t deserve her, for example. And yet, I formed a vague impression that she could be a pretty stand-up person at times.

    Re-watching it as an adult made things much more clear. Margaret in the movie is a fairly useless hypocrite. In the series, despite her personal flaws, she is always professional and actually MORE capable of putting aside personal feelings to take care of patients than the male doctors. Then as time goes by, she she develops more respect for herself, like you said. The changes are deep – she doesn’t just resolve to stop seeing Frank, she actually becomes someone who wouldn’t want to.

    I really should write that article. 😀

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