Life on Mars: Isn’t that where men come from?

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.


  1. Gategrrl says

    I’ve been enjoying “Life on Mars” – I’ve seen two episodes so far, I think. I’ve been viewing it with the idea that many of the show’s plots and character actions are riffs and ‘hommages’ to actual 1970s cop shows (which I never had a chance to watch thanks to a mother who set a *strict* bedtime!).

    It’s not that I don’t *care* about how women are portrayed in cop procedural shows, but I give this show more of a “pass” than, say, a show set in the modern-day like (take your pick of L&O shows). And, also, I guess I’m just so used to seeing women as the Pretty One or the Victim Nonentity, I just gloss over it.

    And true about June, the Young Engaged Girl – what if June was a witch, and the older woman was a kind soul about to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary – would the guys have reacted the same way? Would the audience? I think I would have.

    This entire show has strange riffs going on within it, also. The episode where June was shot in the car, and then the next time you see her is in the hospital? At first, when the two guys are fighting and duking it out at the end of her bed, only to settle down afterward, sitting and leaning on the foot of the bed like after coitus (I was surprised they weren’t lighting up cigarettes, but oh, they WERE in a hospital room…) it was a surprise to me when that was the “real” scene and not an “imaginary” scenerio. It did strike me how in that scene, the YEW, in critical on her bed, was truly a set-piece, another prop in the room.

    I do wonder what Annie is doing there, really, except to be Sam’s confidante to bitch to about his problems and his 1970s partner. Her, I can’t get a handle on. Oh, I see the “shippy” that’s supposed to be there, I guess, but honestly, this show is NOT about the shippy romance. It’s fully a Guy Romance between Sam and Gene, his 1970s cop partner. I normally don’t catch on to the slashy or the shippy unless it’s clunked on my head with an anvil, but this show has the Anvil working at 110% for me.

    But for the women in the show? Hm. I’d rather have the women *there* than not at all, I guess, even if they’re wall decoration. I don’t like all-male shows at all because honestly, although I don’t *need* the women there, it’s nice to know that they *are* there.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    I can totally understand where you’re coming from. I think I’ve given a lot of shows like this a “pass” in the past. Lately, though, I’ve been watching Davinci’s Inquest, which gets gender roles so right it hurts, and it’s making me feel like why should I have to give shows a pass? So that’s just where I’m at right now.

  3. Gategrrl says

    I understand where you’re coming from, also – believe me, I know. The dearth of decent television, and good roles for women, and good strong stories with competently written characters put a huge damper in my television lovin’ for a loooooooong time.

    At this point in time, I’m delighted when a show comes on that is decently written with a good through-arc and decent premise and fairly solid characters played by competent actors. How sad it that, eh? It’s a total bonus then when I can find a show that does have decent women characters or a woman lead who isn’t a … um … I don’t know, poster girl for playboy?

    Medium – fairly good lead actress, with a character who lives an almost ideal yet flawed life with a great marriage and very cute kids with their own problems
    Angela’s Eyes (I don’t watch it: the lead actress is hokey and so is the premise, which is a rip-off of Alias, far as I can tell)
    … any others?
    I hate Lifetime shows in general, on principal. Angela’s Eyes is one of those shows.

  4. Lex says

    I’ve been watching Medium here, the first season, and I’ve reached the point where I’m fed up of the woman being a miserable cow so much of the time. I think if I skip a few eps then things might improve. The other show with the same premise (Ghost something?) has recently started here and it has a really skinny woman on it who I know I’ve seen somewhere and who has the kind of personality that grates on me, but for some reason I’m still watching it. I doubt that’ll last. We had the first couple of eps of A Town Called Eureka, which seems harmless and has a couple of decent women (who are not the main character, of course). I thought I’d read that this was going to be a comedy, but I must have it mixed up with something else. And Grey’s Anatomy is coming back for S2 here next week (I think) which is something I swing between really disliking and quite enjoying regarding the women characters.

    West Wing is over now, so no more CJ Cregg. Out of all the characters on that show I’m gutted we don’t get any more of her.

  5. spiralsheep says

    (Here via the feminist sf carnival)

    I’m a Brit and the first series of LoM has finished over here. I hated the way the non-white non-male characters were treated much of the time BUT…

    (I don’t want to spoil the plot for you so I’m trying to be careful what I say here)

    …our point of view character, Sam, recognises that the police in 1973 were/are corrupt and inefficient (which they were), he recognises that women were/are shittily treated in 1973 (which they were), he recognises that non-white people were/are shittily treated in 1973 (which they were: take note of the pub barman when he explains his accent). Sam, despite his recognition that 1973 was shitty for Other people, has fond nostalgic memories of his childhood and his family in 1973. As the plot progresses Sam realises that the activities he remembers as fun for him weren’t necessarily fun for everyone else, he realises that his own childhood was shittier than he recognised at the time, and he realises that his own family and the 1973 style relationships therein were shittier than he recognised at the time.

    When he first arrived he only realised that 1973 was shitty for Other people but by the end of the series he has realised that it was shitty for men like him too. The nostalgia he had for 1973 has been stripped away.

    I still didn’t enjoy watching the series though because it didn’t convey a message I needed to hear (I already remembered the 70s being shitty) and there wasn’t anything else in it for me.

    There are, of course, many more possible interpretations of the series than mine. *shrugs*

    Thank you for an interesting post. :-)

  6. spiralsheep says

    And now I’ve noticed the date on your post and realised that my own time-travelling comment was probably redundant.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    No worries about the time travel. 😀

    Your interpretation of the show is perfectly valid. My main problem with it was not what the stories were trying to convey, but the cliched conventions the writers used to convey them. In the first 10 minutes of the pilot, Sam’s 2006 girlfriend goes from “the girl who’s diddling Sir” to “damsel in distress”, thus neatly covering two of the most annoying stereptypes assignable to women characters, IMO. And for me, after that, it just didn’t get any better.

    But that’s not to say there was nothing else of value in it. I’ve just reached a point where I’m so tired of the cliches that I can’t always look past them. (I’ve really been struggling with House for a while now, for example.)

  8. Maria says

    Life On Mars is a parody of a seventies cop show. Women are treated the way they are because that is the way they were seen in the 70s(see Quincy, Columbo, et al). To have a strong and intelligent woman portrayed would invalidate the period detail. I am not for a second saying that there were no strong and intelligent women in the 70s…just that they weren’t shown in 70s cop shows. Check out a rerun of Quincy where if there is a woman character she is protected and patronised throughout…and a woman doctor is treated as some kind of miraculous angel. That is what the creator of Life On Mars is going for. Luckily we are secure enough in our femininity now to view it with the irony it is asking from us.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Life on Mars was not parodying a 70’s cop show when the girlfriend in 2006 proved to be a walking stereotype by ignoring orders like a fool, performing incompetently, and boinking her boss while calling him sir. Maybe you missed that episode.

    And Quincy’s girlfriend, Lee, was positively enlightened compared to any character I saw on Life on Mars.

  10. Gategrrl says

    I see aspects of LoMars parodying some cop shows that were really filmed in the seventies, for instance, when the two main characters jump over a desk at the same time (Starsky and Hutch, anyone?), or throw a punch at the same time, or when Sam says – outright! – to um..whathisname, Boss Cop, about his obsessive need for Male Bonding, you just have to laugh.

    But as an overall parody…no…I think it plays *riffs* on the original shows, but it does have it’s drama moments – usually with Sam when he confronts something about himself, or the era, or how the police ran the town back then, or about his own mysterious condition.

    I think the way women are treated on the show *might* follow the precepts of how women were portrayed on cop shows back then…but I have a feeling it’s more based on a cultural blindness. The writers don’t even realize they’re doing it, because to them, that’s the default. Of course, I don’t KNOW if they don’t realize they’re doing it, but this phenomenon has been talked about before in relation to the producer/writers of Stargate.

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s exactly what I was trying to say – both in the original article and in my comment. Regardless of any ironic elements, the 2006 girlfriend’s presentation as an overly emotional woman who can’t do her job or refrain is NOT ironic.

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