A couple of months ago, I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. That review really didn’t adhere to my usual quality standards (sorry!), and so Mr. Gaiman himself called parts of it into question, as did other commenters. Fortunately it led to a really worthwhile discussion. But in lieu of my mistakes, I agreed to read some more Gaiman stories and review them (here’s Coraline) – and I also decided to re-watch Neverwhere and further analyze what did and didn’t work for me about it. As with my prior review of Neverwhere, I want to stress that it does a very good job with the female characters, and the only reason I’m nitpicking is that analyzing good female characterizations can be a lot more revealing than a review of something where the writers just stuck to the usual tropes, cliches and stereotypes, oh, my.
One thing I wanted to figure out on my re-watch was why Jessica, the really obnoxious fiancee, didn’t strike me as a stereotyped castrating witch – which is one of Neverwhere’s big positives. The answer was so simple: Elizabeth Marmur delivered her lines in a low, calm voice instead of harping or screaming or whining (the vocalization styles typically reserved for the Bad Girlfriend You Should Hate of TV and film). And she never did anything overtly cruel to Richard – she just is what she is. There’s also no suggestion that we should pity Richard for being engaged to Jessica – for example, no one makes the de rigeur comments about short leashes or being “whipped.” Richard chose to date an uptight phony, and he’s a grown-up who can make a different choice anytime he gets up the nerve. The script doesn’t require us to hate Jessica; after all, for example, I’ve known people in real life who agree with her claim that there’s no such thing as homelessness and it’s all a scam to take money from hard-working folks. If those people watched Neverwhere they might think Jessica’s got a good head on her shoulders and Richard’s a fool not to stay with her. All the script requires us to understand is that, until now, Richard has been content with a girlfriend who doesn’t share his values, and that contentment is about to change as his character gets impacted by the story’s events and grows.
The next thing I wanted to understand was why I didn’t like any of the women characters quite as well as I liked the Marquis and Old Bailey. Now, I did admire the women, and I was thrilled none of them were characterized by obnoxious stereotypes. But I really liked the Marquis and Old Bailey, so I had to ask myself what precisely was the difference? The first thing I realized was that the women were mostly oblivious to Richard’s discomfort. So were many of the men – but Old Bailey asks Richard if he’s all right and tries to feed him. The Marquis occasionally hands out stern encouragement, so he has noticed Richard is afraid and overwhelmed. This endears the two characters to me, because Richard is the Everyman through whom I put myself into the story. It’s inevitable that I’m going to perceive any character who fails to notice his feelings as insensitive to Richard, and by extension to me.
There are two exceptions to the above: Anesthesia clearly notices Richard’s discomfort and is very endearingly kind to him. Unfortunately, she dies after, like, five minutes of screen time. So the one female character I really found myself liking was gone before I had time to enjoy her. As time goes by, Door does finally acknowledge that she’s inadvertently screwed up Richard’s life, and she takes pity on him. This did cause me to like her more than I had before, but still not as much as I liked the Marquis. Why?
Humor. I don’t know if I’m unique on this point or not – you tell me. But one way characters can endear themselves to me is by being funny. The Marquis cracks wise pretty much throughout the series – which is used to even greater advantage by making his serious moments seem all the more grim. The women in this story do not joke. In fact they’re pretty damn sober throughout. There’s such a scarcity of wisecracking or otherwise funny female characters in film and literature. Neverwhere, for all its achievements, does nothing to correct this. Someday I’d love to see the Marquis – the wisecracking, self-sacrificing, dubiously loyal hero’s guide – as a female character.
I also found my admiration for Hunter diminished when Richard inherits her title without learning any of her skills. He kills the beast almost accidentally – and only after she’s wounded it – and suddenly that makes him the greatest hunter in London Below? Like he can ever give a repeat performance of that? Hunter had spent most of her life preparing to kill the beast. I’ll admit that if you strip the characters of their demographics, this plot point still annoys me because until now Richard has been earning stuff, like the key. I don’t ever like seeing something handed to a character on a platter as if he earned it. But when you add the demographics back in, you have a man reaping the rewards of a woman’s life work. That’s… painfully familiar.
Despite these things, it is really good to see a story about an ordinary (even dorky, I would say) man surrounded by extraordinary women and men. This is a vast step-up from the usual stories of extraordinary men surrounded by adoring/decorative women, or ordinary men surrounded by extraordinary men and adoring/decorative women. The women in Neverwhere have not only agency but clear personal goals. Most of them are on quests of their own, and it’s explicitly through the quests of Door and Hunter that Richard discovers himself.