Function versus feeling

I realized something recently, and I’m still working through it.

There’s a trope in television that always really bothered me: female characters all the time monitoring everyone’s feelings and remarking on them. “I can tell you’re sad.” “Talk to me – I know it bothered you.” “Aha, you love her! Have you told her yet?” I’m not wild about Emotions Exposition in general, because character motivation should be shown, not told. When Emotions Exposition is strictly the function of your female characters, however, you’re adding gender stereotyping to bad writing. I find this just as frustrating as when I detect that the only reason one of your characters is a woman instead of a man was that your plot needed her vagina for baby-makin’ or boinkin’.

This – yes, this – was the main reason I loved Sam Carter when I first started watching Stargate SG-1. Here was a woman who could watch someone walk into her lab in full waterworks pointing a loaded pistol at his own skull and not be quite one hundred percent sure he was unhappy. After all, there could be any number of physics experiments that involved that sort of behavior, right? Or maybe he’s rehearsing for a play at the community theater. (Meanwhile, any of Sam’s three male teammates were far more likely than she to notice someone moping or falling in love or whatnot.)

I loved how oblivious Sam was, because women are not inherently good at interpreting other people’s feelings. Nor are men inherently bad at it. We just live in a society that holds women responsible for knowing what people are feeling via psychic ability and discourages men from even admitting they know emotions exist. “Didn’t you know he was crazy?” women are asked every time they’re harmed by some man who went to church with 800 people who thought he was so together and wonderful, who worked with 3,000 people over the years who never noticed everything amiss, etc.

In real life, there’s a lot of lip service to the idea that men function and women feel, but it doesn’t hold up to even the most cursory analysis. Even the most traditional housewife and mom represses her feelings in order to keep authority over hyper kids and keep the peace with an irritable husband. It takes incredible organizational and management skills to run a household. Meanwhile, the traditional male role involves denying you have any feelings until you just can’t take anymore, at which point you whip out the bazooka and show that jackass in shipping that Cleveland really is the better team. The whole idea that women experience life in terms of relationships and men experience it in terms of functions is absurd. Everyone learns to read social cues from those “above” them on the social ladder as best they can, because it’s the only way to avoid getting dumped on by privileged people who don’t even bother to know you’re there. But even in the most traditional 1950s fantasy, men struggled to “read” their male bosses the same as wives struggled to read their husbands.

The dichotomy is breaking down now that women are, well, much closer to being men’s equals in the workforce. In reality, it’s not that unusual for a man to notice someone’s moping and a woman to walk right past. And yet it’s still new and exciting every time I find an oblivious female character. Bonus points if a man tells her she’s being insensitive. You know? It’s crazy to be relieved to see something that ought to be so mundane, because it happens.

I’m wondering if this is one reason why Criminal Minds strikes some people as being rather pro-women and others as okay but nothing special on the gender front. On that show, all the main characters, who are mostly male, need to be able to read people’s emotions and motives to do their jobs. The Emotional Exposition makes sense here, as discussions about feelings and motivations are a big part of criminal profiling, and the male characters are no less likely to pick up on someone’s emotions (even someone on the team who’s going through something) than the female ones are. (The one exception being Pregnant J.J., who suddenly developed a mild case of Emotional Exposition Fever.)

Thoughts?

Comments

  1. says

    I think you have summarized why the song “She Never Cried In Front of Me” by Toby Keith makes me want to rage and hit him in the face with a sledgehammer.

    (I realize that kinda came out of left field. Sorry. But seriously, listen to the song and then talk to me while you struggle to put down the sledgehammer.)

  2. says

    I liked “Bones” for the same reason. It’s nothing special in terms of writing, and some of the racial/gender stereotyping in other parts of the show could be pretty gag-inducing, but I liked the fact that the central character was a woman who was not only insensitive to, but unapologetically uninterested in people and their emotions.

    It gave me someone to identify with at last! =)

  3. says

    but I liked the fact that the central character was a woman who was not only insensitive to, but unapologetically uninterested in people and their emotions.

    I originally liked that about Bones as well.

    A (female) friend of mine and I were watching Big Bang Theory, and there was a point where Sheldon mentions that he has trouble “getting” facial cues, so Penny yells “I’M UNCOMFORTABLE, SHELDON!”; my friend sitting beside me murmurs sadly, “I wish more people did that.” And she meant it. It’s not just a male nerd thing.

    But really, the thing that makes women women, and not men is that they always talk about the same two things: shoes and feelings! I’m surprised you were unaware of that.

  4. Pocket Nerd says

    Ah, Doctor Sam Carter… a character with so much promise, so often squandered. I loved Doctor Carter early on, and I still like the idea of her, as Science!-oriented women are awesome. Still, it seems like screenwriters generally can’t understand that women have distinct personalities, rather than being generalized collections of stereotypes. Particularly in later seasons it seemed Doc Carter could be reliably assumed to embrace whatever stereotypically female characteristics the writers need for a script; she wasn’t even consistent from episode to episode. That’s not just misogynist writing, that’s shabby writing.

    And I too like Bones. Doctor Brennan is deliciously clueless about other peoples’ feelings— she’s all rational, all the time, and can’t for the life of her understand why everybody else isn’t. Meanwhile, her male partner is conspicuously the “emotional” one, prone to commenting on or reacting to what others are feeling. Agent Booth is also comfortable working with a woman much smarter than he is (and who also draws a considerably higher salary)— that’s a rare and precious thing in real life, and I’m pleased to see it depicted positively on television.

    The show also wins major points (in my book anyway) for being unabashedly female-sex-positive. It has at least two sexually aggressive females who aren’t in the least apologetic for their adventurous lifestyles; Bones depicts it as normal and healthy, rather than the usual attitude of “Oh, sure, she’s having fun now, but soon she’ll be punished for her libertine lifestyle. And you, the audience, will get to watch her punishment with prudish satisfaction!” I know not all THL regulars are as YAY SEX! as I am, but it’s certainly nice to see media that doesn’t simultaneously depict male promiscuity as normative, or even praiseworthy, while demanding castigation and shame for any but the mildest expressions of female sexuality.

    From a feminist perspective, there’s probably a lot to like about the show. It does have its moments of Plot-Induced Terminal Stupidity Syndrome (like when the cheerfully childfree main character suddenly decides her life isn’t complete without a baby) but overall the writers seem to bash Temperance Brennan with the Idiot Stick less often than, say, Sam Carter.

  5. says

    What I thought was a little shocking (and I *mean* shocking) was when Brennan would agree with another character who called her “beautiful” or “smart”, “rich” or anything like that: false modesty she does NOT have. In fact, what I like is that she is admittedly one of 7 or 8 ? forensic anthropologists in the country, and she makes no bones about it being a special position to have. She’s refreshingly arrogant, but she knows she’s earned it-and because she’s the lead AND the character whom the show has been named for, it’s not considered an “evil” flaw. The show may have other problems (SciFi forensics amongst them), but the main character is not. Except when she went all baby-hungry. That was plain strange.

  6. Robin says

    I think where Bones has an advantage over SG-1 is in Dr. Kathy Reichs, the real life forensic anthropologist / novelist who created Brennan and her world. She’s also a technical adviser on the series. If the TV writers go too far astray with her creation, she’ll reel them in.

    The entire Stargate franchise has been sorely lacking in female writers since about season 3 of SG-1, and it has shown through at times. I do admire Amanda Tapping for asking the writers early on to simply write Carter as they would a male military scientist and assuring them that the character would be feminine enough due to being played by a woman. They started straying from that round about the time they started developing Carter’s irritating cliched crush on O’Neill, but I’ve been pleased by their attempts to return to the original in Atlantis and hope for more in SGU.

    As for Criminal Minds, I like the fact that sometimes even the trained-to-be-observant profilers can be oblivious when it comes to reading each other. I caught a syndicated episode a while back in which Morgan accidentally oversteps his habitual flirtatious banter with Garcia and basically insults her new boyfriend by implying there must be something very wrong with him to be dating Miss Penelope. She’s rightly offended and after a few moments (and a fine dressing down by our favorite power hacker), he begins to taste the foot he’s shoved down his own throat. And he feels really bad about it. That’s the kind of emotional dynamics I can get behind, because it easily could’ve worked if their genders were reversed. (Also, I love Garcia standing up for the adorkable Nick Brendan, but that’s my Buffy fangirl peeking through.)

  7. says

    I picked SG-1 as an example because it was so bad in so many ways on gender, and yet there was always something really refreshing about Carter in the early seasons, that didn’t completely disappear in later ones (her “crush” on Jack did not make her anymore aware of people having feelings). I’d been trying to figure out what it was for some time when I finally sorted this out over the weekend and realized it applied.

    Bones, I haven’t seen.

    Biku, I too wish people would just TELL ME IN PLAIN WORDS whatever information about their feelings they wish me to know. I have found myself in a number of disputes over the years because someone thinks they made their feelings very clear with body language and I ignored their feelings because I didn’t care about them, when in fact, I missed their body language cues completely. And apparently mine is not readable to other people because no one ever ever picks up on it when I’m extremely happy or sad.

  8. mickle says

    “I’m wondering if this is one reason why Criminal Minds strikes some people as being rather pro-women and others as okay but nothing special on the gender front. On that show, all the main characters, who are mostly male, need to be able to read people’s emotions and motives to do their jobs.”

    Ha! As I was reading through the post I was thinking the same thing…and then wondered if I should bother saying anything because I feel like every time I post here I mention CM. :)

    And I have to agree with everyone’s assessment of Bones as well. I’ve rolled my eyes a lot at the eps I’ve seen, (Half Dome is not in WA, peeps) but it has nerds! (actual nerds, not the i’m-police-not-a-nerd that CSI quickly morphed into) and Brennan is delightfully not “let’s talk about feelings” and yet still obviously has them.

    “But really, the thing that makes women women, and not men is that they always talk about the same two things: shoes and feelings! I’m surprised you were unaware of that.”

    But of course. Because if women do not talk about their feelings, your feelings, everyone’s feelings, then they can’t possibly do the emotional work for men.*

    And, you know, if we don’t want stuff like shoes, how would men be able to bargain for sex?

    *This is actually part of why I keep watching Supernatural, despite the abysmal female characters. Because they do talk about their emotions. And since it’s pretty much all men, it’s men talking about their feelings. And then they joke about the fact that men aren’t supposed to talk about their feelings. If I only I actually believed that the writers actually meant any of the snark about “girl stuff” to be mocking of sexist culture rather than in complete earnest……

  9. Amy McCabe says

    Hmm…See, I always read Sam (of S10S3) as being decent enough about reading people but completely helpless at figuring what to do or say in those situations. One of the things I really liked about that one episode where she is with Daniel and he keeps seeing his parents die over and over again, is that it seems (to me) that Sam clearly realized what Daniel was going through, felt for him but was total incapable of finding anything close to the right thing to say.

  10. Ray says

    “Biku, I too wish people would just TELL ME IN PLAIN WORDS whatever information about their feelings they wish me to know. I have found myself in a number of disputes over the years because someone thinks they made their feelings very clear with body language and I ignored their feelings because I didn’t care about them, when in fact, I missed their body language cues completely. And apparently mine is not readable to other people because no one ever ever picks up on it when I’m extremely happy or sad.”

    Yes! And I have more than once gotten the “you’re a woman, so you should be able to sense these things” response when I failed to be hyper-sensitive to someone’s mood. It’s my pet peeve…

    When I was younger my mother would frequently reprimand me for “being so negative all the time,” but my response was always that when I want someone to know my thoughts, positive or negative, I TELL THEM, instead of being coy about it. Sure, there are times when tact is important, but I always appreciate it when people just tell me how they feel, instead of complaining that I am insensitive when I have no way of knowing what’s going on with them.

  11. Ray says

    “Biku, I too wish people would just TELL ME IN PLAIN WORDS whatever information about their feelings they wish me to know. I have found myself in a number of disputes over the years because someone thinks they made their feelings very clear with body language and I ignored their feelings because I didn’t care about them, when in fact, I missed their body language cues completely. And apparently mine is not readable to other people because no one ever ever picks up on it when I’m extremely happy or sad.”

    Yes! And I have more than once gotten the “you’re a woman, so you should be able to sense these things” response when I failed to be hyper-sensitive to someone’s mood. It’s my pet peeve…

    When I was younger my mother would frequently reprimand me for “being so negative all the time,” but my response was always that when I want someone to know my thoughts, positive or negative, I TELL THEM, instead of being coy about it. Sure, there are times when tact is important, but I always appreciate it when people just tell me how they feel, instead of complaining that I am insensitive when I have no way of knowing what’s going on with them. People have more than once remarked that this is “loud-mouthed” and therefore not very “feminine” either.

  12. says

    No worries on the double-posting, LOL.

    Sometimes when someone’s glaring at me ferociously and I get the feeling I’ve totally missed something, I tell them in a polite, modulated voice, “Okay, you know, I’m not a mind-reader. If you have something you want to tell me, I’m listening, but if you think I can pick it up from your body language, believe me, this right here is as close as I’ll get.” That always results in the person deciding not to speak to me ever again, which I then assume was probably the best possible outcome.

    Seriously, I don’t know how to put it anymore delicately. If that doesn’t cut it, then I’m not going to deal with someone who holds me accountable for having psychic powers.

  13. says

    Seriously, I don’t know how to put it anymore delicately. If that doesn’t cut it, then I’m not going to deal with someone who holds me accountable for having psychic powers.

    To be fair, it’s not a psychic powers thing. I can read body language and facial expressions (most of the time; no one’s perfect) and it does add a whole dimension to conversations.

    You’re right, people shouldn’t get angry if you say calmly and clearly that you aren’t picking up on the signals, just like someone who can see colour shouldn’t get angry that someone colourblind can’t tell the difference between green and brown (a common condition in my family, but not with me).

    People who *only* expect you to read their body language aren’t worth anybody’s time–who wants to hang out with someone who won’t use their words?

  14. says

    Biku, it sure feels like psychic to me because I really, really lack those skills. I mean, *I* grew up able to recognize a sociopath a mile away – you know, the one who works in your office that everyone thinks is such a nice guy with such a happy marriage and great kids? *I* recognize that guy as a sociopath, and throughout childhood, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t obvious as anything to everyone else. I thought it WAS obvious to everyone else, and they were just in denial.

    Unfortunately, I was over 30 before I realized the denial was far less widespread than I’d imagined, and most people just really didn’t have the skills to read sociopaths correctly. While I’d been learning those skills as a matter of personal survival, they’d learned how to read folks who DON’T lack a conscience and the ability to empathize. That’s the skill set I missed out on.*

    But the difference is, even when I thought everyone was full of shit and secretly in support of sadists, I knew I wasn’t supposed to judge folks for lacking my sociopath-reading skills. But I got judged for allegedly having non-sociopath-reading skills and ignoring what they told me about someone’s emotional state of the moment, because that’s which direction the privilege runs.

    *You might think that because sociopaths don’t WANT to be read, the ability to read them would make non-sociopaths a cinch to read, but sadly, it doesn’t work that way. I can indeed read very deep things about a non-sociopath – stuff they don’t want read, that creeps them out, and has at times creeped people out – but whether you’re mad at me for something I don’t realize I did wrong or just experiencing heartburn? I haven’t a clue.

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