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.