I’ve been watching Life on Mars on BBCAmerica. It’s fairly entertaining, and yet I don’t enjoy it, because it’s yet another show that would’ve been better off with an all-male cast. In two episodes, we’ve met four women, and three of them exist for the only reason some shows ever feature women: romance and victimization.
Let’s talk about the “default character is male” syndrome for a second. It’s where the writing team for a show automatically designates all characters to be male, until either they decide they need romance or a victim, or someone reminds them, “Hey, shouldn’t you have some women on this?” This happens because our entire society is male-centric – even women do it. Because we’re so conditioned to thinking of quests and roles in life as a male privilege, we automatically assign stories to male characters. Some writers are starting to write lawyers and soldiers and heroes who happen to be women but don’t have to be; but we are decades away from any serious progress.
So let’s talk about Life on Mars. The show is the story of a male cop (Sam Tyler) who’s working a case in 2006 when he gets hit by a car, goes into a coma, and finds himself working a similar case in 1973. We don’t know if he’s dreaming, traveling time, or what. But here are the women in his life.
- Sam’s 2006 girlfriend who is also his cop partner, who calls him “Sir” while they’re working (the disturbingly popular “she may work a man’s job, but she still needs a man” kink designed to comfort the target demographic audience in this perplexing new world of which he’s not the center). He takes her off the case, so what does she do? Well, the writers need her to provide Sam a motive, and the easiest way to do that is to make her an idiot: she recklessly goes off after the serial killer to prove she can do her job, and gets herself kidnapped, thus proving she can’t. Oh, but I’m sure the writers don’t mean it as a condemnation of women: it’s just that they see women as disposable plot devices. That’s different, right? So they trivialize women and their suffering on screen – it’s not like anyone ever does that in real life, is it? (And I really think there are writers who don’t get this, having never experienced the real life pain of trivialization themselves.)
- Then there’s Annie, the woman he meets in the 1970′s world who quickly becomes his defacto caretaker (read “mommy”). But she’s young and pretty with a little girl voice, and he’s already touched her boobie to see if her heart was beating, so you just know the romantic tension is around the corner. As an added bonus, she’s also pulling double duty as Woman in Jeopardy, so Sam can make his heroic rescue. Remember: when women are in jeopardy, it’s really just a plot device for the men around them. You shouldn’t take it as, like, real victimization, because women aren’t real people. Except in chick flicks, which Hollywood has so graciously made for you ungrateful females even though there’s no profit in it.
- Then there’s June. The beautiful young cleaning girl at the police station, who was nearly killed when she went to get her engagement ring fitted. This was all very tragic and sentimental, and if it had happened to anyone but a young, pretty woman, I might have given a shit. I’m numb to pretty girl jeopardy by now. I guess it still works on young men with knight complexes, but I have my own knight complex, and I actually want to save all sorts of people in jeopardy, not just the ones I would like to bed.
- Finally, there’s some older police operator woman Sam has already accused of not being “human” because she said something snotty. Of course, a young, sexy woman would never say anything rude. Only a bitter old hag would have any reason to be nasty. Of course, the male boss is always saying snotty things to everyone, but he’s going to be Sam’s Fascinating Male Foil, so that’s okay.
My objection to all this is not so much political as that I’m just bored to death. The minute a young woman with stereotypical prettiness gets a closeup, I know she’s either going to get hurt or get laid. So when it actually happens, I can’t possibly care – even if I might have, under less predictable circumstances. And it’s all the worse, because I know if she’s raped, hurt or killed, it will actually be all about the men and their reactions to her victimization, not about her. And that’s an attitude I’ve dealt with one too many times in real life.