Heroes: Do better

I find it exceptionally painful when a show that is brilliant in every other way, and that I really, really love, fails miserably on the presentation of women characters. And everything about Heroes just keeps getting better and better, with that one glaring exception.

First, it’s worth noting that there are only two female “heroes” among the main ensemble cast of about ten characters. Three recurring characters have died in the show’s first season; two of them were women creeping up on relevance. We’ve got suggestions that certain minor female characters (like Mama Petrelli) will be playing an increasingly important role, but mostly, it’s all about the boys, saving the world.

The line “Save the cheerleader, save the world” has quickly become almost cliché, but it’s the first clue about what kind of role the two female main characters are playing. Claire needs saving. She’s tough (in terms of her very 17-year-old personality as well as her ability to regenerate), but ultimately, it’s the men who are doing the dirty work. When I look at Claire against the other main female “hero”, Niki, I can’t help but see another virgin/whore dichotomy. Niki starts as a single mother running a sex website in order to support her child. She quickly realizes she has a violent and powerful alter-ego, Jessica, who is not only willing to act as a mercenary (providing both sex-for-blackmail and murder-on-demand), but actually seems to enjoy it.

To review: the two main female characters are a 17-year-old cheerleader who needs to be saved, and a sex worker with a troubled and checkered past who mainly needs to be stopped. Those clauses only work in passive voice for a reason–the action centres around what the male heroes, almost without fail much more complex characters, do with respect to dealing with the competing problems of stopping the “whore” (and those she works for) and saving the “virgin”. Neither is really an agent in the events so much as a passive, archetypal figure that must be factored in as the male heroes struggle to prevent tragedy and figure out their own goals in a morally ambiguous world. The men are multifaceted, but the women are dichotomous: Daughter/mother. Cheerleader/killer. Protected/threat. Young and pure/older and damaged. Virgin/whore, pretty much literally.

Here’s my memo to Heroes: You’re a great show. You’re original, and complicated, and exciting, and brilliantly geeky. But you seem to have issues with women. Do better.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    Sounds like just about every TV show I’ve ever loved. “It’s so awesome, if you can just kind of ignore the stuff about the women”.

    Which we do. We’ve been trained to “just not let it bother” us for centuries.

  2. says

    You know, as a total comic book/superhero geek, I love the concept of this show. I love that they’ve got this sense (sort of) of X-Men, but the “heroes” aren’t all one big entity (i.e. The Fantastic Four). I like that the plot and story archs are incredibly relevant (i.e. the connection between the mutants and immigrants–illegal or otherwise–in Monday’s episode). I agree, though, I DON’T like the development of the female characters. Claire is a little too Buffy Summers for me, and Nikki… well I just don’t get what the point of having Nikki around is. What does she do? Which, is sad because I think there is SO MUCH to explore in her character, they just don’t do it. Furhtermore I hate that these female characters constantly need saving–Claire from Silar, Nikki from her bad, bad self and the law–and for some reason they can’t seem to do it themselves. Which, actually, is a trope often seen in comics–comic book heros are supported by their women counterparts, and the female heros are often the space in which violence is enacted (see: http://www.girl-wonder.org or google Stephanie Brown) as a means to reinforce male power. If Heroes intends to be a T.V./visual representation of what comic books entail in this sense, than I would say the show is doing “well” in that sense. However, I (like Purtek) wish that they’d take more risks with their female characters to break those stereotypes. Because women watch too.

  3. says

    For a brief moment in one episode I had hopes for a new kick-ass female hero, Wireless. But she only had those few minutes stirring up radioactive man and Matt. She was awesome. Sigh. I truly hope they pick up dangling plot thread SOMETIME.

    It does seem that the producers are noticing, if nothing else, the gender imbalance in the show. They have promised to add a new FEMALE hero next season. Somehow I doubt the characterization issues will occur to them when casting/writing her.

  4. sbg says

    Future!Claire’s switch to “I’m just a waitress” from “I’m just a cheerleader” did indeed make me want to hurl something at the telly on Monday.

    So did Future!Nikki apparently losing her super alter ego when she lost her husband and child.

    Personally, I think it would have been really, really interesting if they’d made Sylar a woman. I think the actor who plays Sylar is pretty dang good at the evil thing, but it still would have been intersesting.

  5. S. A. Bonasi says

    Not only that, but they’re going to correct the gender imbalance by adding *a* new female character. As in *one*. As in if that’s really going to correct the gender balance of their only being two series regular female heroes as opposed to how many series regular male heroes is it now?

    *sigh* In my perfect world, they would not only give us the new female hero, but bump Kimiko, Angela, Wireless, & Candice up to series regular status. And give them quality plotlines.

  6. Purtek says

    re: Claire as too “Buffy Summers”. I don’t see that at all. I get the cheerleader link to the original Buffy, and I certainly think Buffy (both the show and the character) as “feminist icon” had major flaws, but one of the points was that she was the hero, not the one constantly needing to be saved. Claire is almost entirely passive; there’s no agency there, no real relevance in her actual skills–the reveal of the reason that “Save the cheerleader” could “save the world” shows that not even that is about her. It’s about preventing Sylar from gaining access to her regeneration ability. Buffy was a lot of things, sassy notwithstanding, but she was above all else an active and relevant participant in the events, which Claire is not.

    re: Sylar as female. I like it in theory (relating to Betacandy’s post from a while back on an episode of L&O: CI) in that it’s entirely unexpected and has the potential to be subversive. But without the simultaneous addition of a substantial number of other female characters, it makes me uncomfortable. Personally, I don’t feel that much better about the threefold options of virgin/whore/serial killer than I do about the classic dichotomy.

    re: S.A. Bonansi’s entire comment. Exactly. *A* new hero doesn’t solve our problems. Fleshing out all those peripheral women into characters and agents in and of themselves, as opposed to props used to show us something about the male to whom they are related/connected and *his* heroic journey, is key. Wireless, Mrs. Petrelli, and Candice have superpowers too, so it shouldn’t be too damned hard to figure out how to work them in. Bennet’s arc has shown that the hero-adjacent characters can be extremely complex and interesting as well. I had actually forgotten about Kimiko’s appearance entirely, and she was a brief moment of awesome.

    Also, speaking of Kimiko, it’d be really nice if one of the women we were supposed to care about were something other than blonde.

  7. sbg says

    Sorry, should have clarified that my comment on Sylar being a woman was meant as an addition to the list and not really a standalone thing. As in, “Not only should there be more female heroes, but wouldn’t it have been intersting…”

  8. Ifritah says

    I adore this show, but I most definitely agree with you.

    I actually wished Peter would have been cast as a woman. A woman who can tap any power that she’s come in contact with versus a man who’s stolen every person’s power that he’s come in contact with.

    I’d love to see that show-down.

  9. Purtek says

    I actually wished Peter would have been cast as a woman. A woman who can tap any power that she’s come in contact with versus a man who’s stolen every person’s power that he’s come in contact with.

    I think that’s the best idea ever. I can see the kind of backlash commentary it would generate, but…I mostly don’t care. God, making Peter female could have added so many layers to the story. I’m a big fan of the hotness that is Peter (though I know not everyone is), but I’ll sacrifice that any day for the metaphorical potential that you suggest.

  10. says

    Claire CAN be an active character- she let herself get shot to save her mother and got all kinds of burnt stopping Nuclear Ted. So yeah, it’s weird to have to save her, especially since Peter’s already shown he could self-heal to the point of resisting Sylar’s brain intrusion. Why couldn’t Claire do this, again?

    I hate Nikiessica. She seems to be there for the cheesecake factor. Niki’s a wuss, Jessica’s a killer, and either way Nikiessica is the least “heroic” character on there and she doesn’t fit it. Why can’t they kill her off?

    Peter should have been a girl. That would have been awesome. As usual, the men get the most interesting parts.

  11. S. A. Bonasi says

    Jennifer, if either Peter or Claire gets jabbed in a certain point of the brain, they [temporarily] die. If Sylar were to then remove the brain, they’d stay dead.

    I’d argue the solution to Niki/Jessica is to write better plotlines for her, not kill her off.

    Ya know, now that it’s mentioned, I could really did Peter as a woman.

  12. Ifritah says

    I’m a big fan of the hotness that is Peter (though I know not everyone is), but I’ll sacrifice that any day for the metaphorical potential that you suggest.

    You know, I never thought Peter was attractive until this last episode where we saw Future!Peter. That hotness, I could totally get behind. The Normal!Peter though? Ugh. Him and Parkman’s wife are the top ‘please die’ peeps in my book.

    *Cough* But anyway, yes, I’d even give up sexy Future!Peter for a female protagonist in his spot.

  13. scarlett says

    I think Nikie/Jessica could have been done better. I think Ali Larter does a brilliant job of playing them both, but I still thnk there’s a very black-and-white attitude about her character/s. Basically I think Larter is the character/s’s saving grace.

    As far as Claire goes – give how awesome her power is, I’ve been waiting for her to do something, well, awesome. Running into a fire to save someone in the first ep seemed to be as awesome as she got :(

  14. Purtek says

    I think both Larter and Panetierre have been the best thing about their respective characters. They’re rocking their acting choices.

    You’re right that the first ep was Claire’s best moment, when she actually behaved heroically and saved someone. Given her power, and this precedent, why isn’t the reason “save the cheerleader” can “save the world” that if she is saved earlier, she ends up being the one to kill Sylar (or whatever). Instead, it’s save her so that Sylar can’t get her power (passive!), which will let one of the male heroes stop him.

    As Jennifer said, as well, Claire’s shown other moments of being active and heroic, but they’ve been few and far between, and generally relatively minor. So much potential in that character, so far amounting to very little.

  15. scarlett says

    Well I think Claire has the best potential to be a hero – I mean, seriously, to almost never die? That’s got to be one of the coolest powers! She could so easily become a proactive hero on par with Hiro or Peter. In fact, she could pretty much whoop their asses…

    Another problem I have with this show is that the female characters get killed off so easily. Here in Oz we’re a few eps after Eden/Sarah being killed, but I think she showed so much potential – I mean, the power of persuasion? How cool would that have been? But of course, she had to go down like a stereotypical woman, not listening to advice, and dying because of it…

  16. Purtek says

    Another problem I have with this show is that the female characters get killed off so easily.

    Tell me about it. I only briefly alluded to that in my post, for the sake of not babbling, but it’s another huge problem I’ve had. I forgot you were in Australia and therefore behind, and the timeline’s not clear in my head right now, but there’s another death that I find even more grossly stereotypical. And the guy who ends up dying? Goes down much more heroically, accomplishing something useful (could argue that Eden did too, to a degree, but not to the same extent).

  17. scarlett says

    From Purtek:

    that if she is saved earlier, she ends up being the one to kill Sylar (or whatever).

    OMG, I must have overlooked this comment. The potential for her, having been saved once, to have continued on to save the world, is phenominally huge. Beyond words. I don’t think we can saves Heroes, but maybe the shoes that come after it…

  18. Gategrrl says

    The stereotypical death? Would that be Simone? She walked into Isaac’s apartment; she wanted to give his key back, he wanted her to keep it, even though she was looking for the guy she was currently screwing/seeing (Peter Petrelli).

    She used her key, walked through the door, and got shot accidentally by Isaac, who was really aiming at Peter.

  19. Purtek says

    Um, yeah, but I was specifically trying to avoid spoiling scarlett, who, living in Australia, probably hasn’t seen that yet.

  20. Gategrrl says

    Sorry bout that. I keep forgetting which people live in what country and who has seen a show before or not. And who has seen it on the internet truck or who hasn’t and who is a spoilerphobe or who is a spoiler ‘ho. My bad.

  21. Gategrrl says

    And how is it possible, btw, to have a truly relevent discussion on this topic, if you’re pussyfootin’ round a main storyline and character/s?

  22. scarlett says

    Yeah, don’t be too concerned about me – I’m a total spoiler hog for US shows, and when I’m not, I avoid threads where I’m likely to run into spoilers, so you haven’t ruined anything for me :p (We’ve just had the epsiode where they realise at the end the Invisible Man is still alive.)

    As far as I understand of Simone, she only existed to create tension between Peter and Issac.

    With Eden’s death, it pissed me off because she was given a DIRECT ORDER not to try and kill him, and she went against that, getting killed in the process. It seemed to me like a case of ‘woman doesn’t do as she’s told and get’s killed for it’.

    And how is it possible, btw, to have a truly relevent discussion on this topic, if you’re pussyfootin’ round a main storyline and character/s?

    That’s basically how I feel, people in the US who don’t want to read spoilers tend to avoid threads where they might be anyway, so I don’t see that you should avoid direct references to something and ruin the discussion in the process.

  23. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think most people know that if they venture into the comments after a post, they may get spoiled – there’s no way to have a free discussion without that risk.

  24. scarlett says

    Oh, something else which bothered me about the show – that both main female characters are really apprehensive about their powers. I get that some people are going to be apprehensive and try to pretend they don’t exist – Nathan Patrelli, anyone? – but the difference is that Nathan is augmented by Peter’s sense of obligation to use his power’s, Hiro’s conviction that he’s on a mission, Invisible Man’s cynicism, Sylar’s pure evil. The male characters got a whole slew of characterisations, but both the female characters got apprehensive.

  25. Purtek says

    OK, sorry for getting spoilerphobic.

    Purtek, concerning the hero in question, I had a bit of a problem with his death from a racial standpoint.

    That’s an interesting point. I mean, of course the one male character who’s died would have to be a character of colour, and especially given his history of untrustworthiness and drug abuse, the characterization as “saviour, but no one knows” is small comfort (I hadn’t recognized it as so cliché). Simone’s is even worse, though. As Gategrrl describes above, it’s essentially useless and largely centres around her being involved in a love triangle with two men. So even in death, her role is to reveal something about the male characters’ reactions and interrelations. Plus, she was the *only* female character of colour (except, I guess, for the single episode with Kimiko?) and there are still prominent male characters of colour, including D.L., Hiro, Ando, and Mohinder. We could probably talk about various stereotypical aspects of those characters and poor racial characterization, but for women of colour, we can’t even do that, because now, they don’t exist.

  26. Purtek says

    With Eden’s death, it pissed me off because she was given a DIRECT ORDER not to try and kill him, and she went against that, getting killed in the process. It seemed to me like a case of ‘woman doesn’t do as she’s told and get’s killed for it’.

    There was also an element of “woman isn’t as powerful as she thinks she is”. Contrast that with the apprehensive reactions from Claire and Niki as well as the varied reactions from the men (who as a result get to explore all kinds of angles on the nature of heroism, so ITA with you there). Eden’s the one who is actually confident of her abilities, and she gets smacked down for it. The male characters have almost to a man erred on the side of underestimating their abilities. Eden–again, the one woman who isn’t terrified and somewhat deferent to the men–thinks she can handle it, but just can’t compete against the big boyws.

  27. scarlett says

    I think Eden had the potential to be a powerful character – I mean, she was the only character who could apprehend Sylar – but they dispatched her pretty quickly. I mean, how many episodes was she in that we even knew she had powers? And here she could have been a confident, powerful hero. A total waste, in my book.

  28. sbg says

    I think this thread has cemented me not watching the show when I get the chance.

    Despite the huge flaw when it comes to female characterization (Mama Petrelli still fascinates me), it’s a good show. I cling to hope that we’ll see Claire as more than a pawn, that maybe she’ll actually listen to the only person telling her she shouldn’t run and hide and pretend to be normal.

  29. Purtek says

    So not my intention, SunlessNick! Oh well.

    As a sort-of amendment, last night’s episode was interesting in what it said about Claire’s potential role in saving the world. The stuff I said above about that role being passive (ie. not giving Sylar the opportunity to get her power of regeneration) was based on the future presented a couple episodes ago. Peter, not knowing anything about that (potential and changeable) future, assumes that her need to be saved was in fact so that she could be the one to stop the bomb going off–handing her a gun with the instructions to shoot him should he prove unable to control the explosion himself. He recognizes that she would be the only one who could “get close enough” to do this, making her power and agency directly relevant.

    I thought this reflected pretty well on Peter (though Claire still went with the “apprehension” we were criticizing above) and that it was interesting that he would be the one to say this, given the animosity I’ve seen directed towards him as overly self-absorbed (among other things). Plus, it says something about the chance that Future Hiro’s assumption of the reason his intervention with “Save the cheerleader, save the world” would work was just flat-out wrong.

    And: what sbg said re: Mama Petrelli. Many layers remain to be explored in that character.

  30. Purtek says

    Yeah, that certainly didn’t go on my list of “pros”. Sometimes I try to focus on the positive, though, however dim the light my be. Only sometimes.

  31. says

    Let’s brainstorm and settle on another Dale-level actress or two to suggest and start a letter-writing campaign to the producers, writers, and advertisers to introduce a season-regular character just like Dale next season.

    C’mon, Daily Kos got advertisers to divest from Ann Coulter’s websites…we can get another Dale-like character on Heroes, right?!

  32. says

    Oh, also, the Grey’s Anatomy spinoff article made me realize something–“mother/whore” as she may be, Niki/Jessica also has some neat characteristics that are totally individual to her, rather than being “typical of her gender.”

    For example, she can keep a lot of her rollercoaster thoughts to herself.

  33. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’d be curious to know what that contract dispute was over, though. Were they willing to keep her on at a fair rate, or did they think they were getting a bargain until she decided to demand the same as they’d pay a man?

    The wage gap is, last I heard, even greater between male and female actors than between men and women in most other jobs.

  34. MaggieCat says

    I cut Claire a bit more slack than I would say, Niki. Claire is still just a kid, invulnerability doesn’t suddenly make you more mature. Her first instinct is to help (like after the train wreck) but if you give her a while to think about it a teenager’s natural instinct for self-preservation is going to kick in. At 16/17 the one thing most people want most in the world is to fit in, and she stands out in a very significant way (and her power is more difficult to hide since it’s involuntary), so her behavior seems fairly natural to me.

    I think Eden had the potential to be a powerful character – I mean, she was the only character who could apprehend Sylar – but they dispatched her pretty quickly. I mean, how many episodes was she in that we even knew she had powers? And here she could have been a confident, powerful hero. A total waste, in my book.

    To be fair, I should say I’ve heard rumors from several different sources that the reason the character was written off was because of a contract dispute with the actress. Now that doesn’t excuse how she was written off, and I can’t for the life of me find the link in my cluttered list, but if it’s true then they were apparently planning on keeping her character around.

    Howdya like them not making Dale a recurring character, Purtek? Toldja you’d hate it!

    I don’t know about Purtek, but that depresses me so much. I know a good bit of that is because I love the actress, but it was great to see a female character who not only accepted their ability but thought it was great and worked on learning how to use it. I knew she was a goner given that Sylar was standing right there but still…. *sigh*

    I would have traded Niki for Dale in a heartbeat, but I guess you just can’t trust the stupid brain stealing serial killer.

  35. scarlett says

    The wage gap is, last I heard, even greater between male and female actors than between men and women in most other jobs.

    I heard at one point that the entire suration of X-Files Gillian Anderson was getting about half what David Duchovny was.

  36. dew says

    Thank you for these observations. The whole cheerleader needing rescuing thing has been bothering me since the show began. Cutting Nikki/Jessica in half (good mommy/bad whore) has also bothered me. It also bothers me that the women on the sidelines are people like a clueless wife obsessed with doggies or a powerhungry politcal mom or a bitchy cheerleader rival. I hadn’t noticed some of your other points, though.

  37. Purtek says

    This thread has revealed so many aspects of this show that I either didn’t have space for or didn’t think of when I wrote it initially. I hadn’t even quite conceptualized the dichotomy existing within Nicki/Jessica herself, partially because the “whore” half of her character has had so much more agency–another interesting point in itself.

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