Northern Exposure: Maggie O’Connell

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I recently watched the first three seasons of Northern Exposure on DVD, and it struck me the same way it did almost fifteen years ago. At first, all of the women in it are pretty interesting, except Maggie. Maggie, from start to finish, is a neurotic mess. And whatever the writers intended (don’t know, don’t care), she ends up playing as a warning to feminists: “you just try to take care of yourself for a while, little girl – you’ll be back, begging for a strong man to earn your keep and protect you while you sit around not worryin’ your pretty little head.”

Janine Turner as MaggieShe may have short hair, low-key makeup and fly a small plane for a living, but it ends there. Her boyfriends all die, presumably because wanting but not needing a man is poisonous to men. (Remember, girls: cling to your men! Cling! Cling!) When the boyfriend she started the show with dies, she starts falling apart.

It’s at the end of the third season that the writers really pull off an accomplishment, though. There’s an episode in which she hasn’t slept for 36 hours, and she and Joel decide to have sex. But they go their separate ways for a few minutes first, and during that time she falls asleep. He tries to wake her, but she’s out cold, so he lets it go. The next morning she can’t remember anything and assumes they had sex as planned, so she tries to fake remembering. He’s about to tell her the truth, like a dozen times, but she keeps refusing to let him speak. Then, in one of the sloppiest bits of “we need the character to say this to keep the plot going” dialog I have ever seen, she tells him that if anyone ever found out they’d slept together, she’d die of embarrassment.

At that point – with full support from the audience who now wants Maggie to crawl into a hole and die – he decides to let her continue thinking they slept together for a while longer. After a couple of awkward days which dominate other episodes much the way a 20-car pile-up could be said to dominate a highway, he finally tells her they didn’t sleep together. Guess why she goes ballistic? Because he let her think a lie? Nah.

Because he didn’t have sex with her while she was unconscious. When he asks point blank if she’s saying he should have just ripped her clothes off and had his way with her while she slept, she answers, “Yes! You had permission!”

Right. And that’s not all.

In the next episode in the pile-up, she goes to his cabin and announces she needs to have sex with him after all. Something about guilty pleasure or something – it doesn’t really make any sense, so don’t sweat it. Clearly, by this point, the creators of the once brilliantly-written show had already started moving to Miami for their new show in a nicer climate and didn’t give a rat’s ass. (Note: new show failed rather hilariously about three minutes into the first episode, which makes me rub my hands together in glee.) Anyway, as they’re getting hot and heavy on the couch, Maggie asks Joel how much he wants her – he responds with several passionate remarks on the topic. She asks if he would let anything stop him from having her. Going along with the moment, he says no and yammers on about earthquakes and other natural disasters that couldn’t impede the impending boink, apparently forgetting that Maggie herself is the ultimate natural disaster.

And suddenly, Maggie realizes that’s all she really needed – just to know he wanted her. She’s good to go now, so she’s gonna leave. At that point, Joel conspicuously fails to hold her down and ravish her on the floor, thus belying the statement about earthquakes and stuff.

I could write another six paragraphs about why I have a problem with this, but I have laundry to do, and this show has had more attention from me than it deserves.

Comments

  1. says

    You write, “Her boyfriends all die, presumably because wanting but not needing a man is poisonous to men.” That is the COMPLETE opposite of my reading, and I feel compelled to rush to her defense (respectfully, of course) of Maggie as a pre-cautionary pro-feminist story, rather than your criticism of the “fantasy faux feminist”.

    Specifically, it was not her independent “not needing” that was killing the men — it was her ceding of independence that did it!

    As I saw it, Maggie’s life-force was pushing back against her “submission”. She’d be off doing her “independence thing,” but she wasn’t really serious about it, at least on a surface level, because she would find a boy, and then follow him off on whatever “his thing” was, and be miserable about it. But think (wrongly) it was what she wanted to do. (She had even gotten to Alaska by following a boyfriend there.)

    But her life-force rebelled against the submission (not her independence!), killing off the boys and allowing her to regain her independence. Essentially, the feminist life-force wouldn’t be able to keep a man until she could do it WITHOUT giving up her independence.

    I don’t remember which season it was that had “Mike”, the bubble-guy played by Anthony Edwards(after Revenge of the Nerds, but before ER). When they start dating, Maggie falls back into her old pattern — she drops her own interests to help him on his environmental crusade, cooking organic foods and wearing pretty housedresses. Again, the life-force rebels, but in a way specific to this sickly character — it cures him, so that he leaves.

    The only character that she sleeps with who she doesn’t kill is Joel, and that was because she never submitted to him. She matches him neurosis for neurosis, of course, and sometimes acts in questionable ways (as, I agree, the non-sex episode shows), but I thought that in many ways it made her a richer character, both as a character and as a female character.

    Far from being a “warning to feminists”, it read to me as a warning to men — “Don’t squelch the latent feminist spirit, because it can’t be kept down.” It was not, after all, the feminists who were doing the dying! Mike wasn’t killed because he never bought in to the new “domesticated” Maggie, and left her rather than dragging her away on his crusade. He respected the spirit, so the spirit respected him.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Your reading does make complete sense to me. And I’d really like to post it – either as me quoting your comment and acknowledging that you raise some strong points, or we could post it under your own name as a regular post rebutting mine.

    Obviously I don’t know what was in the producers’ minds. Given the level of intelligence the show catered to, your read could be what they had in mind since it would be subtle (yet clearly substantiated). My problem was – and maybe this came from my screenwriting ambitions – I couldn’t help but see how (I think) the average viewer would interpret it, which is what I’m used to seeing producers cater to. My read is the superficial one, especially to someone *looking* for evidence that feminism is not pro-female but rather anti-male.

    For me, by Season 3, Joel was becoming more stable, while Maggie was becoming more neurotic. That, combined with Maggie wishing Joel had had sex with her while she was unconscious, then turning around and getting him all hot and bothered and realizing she didn’t want sex after all, struck me as the final proof that covert misogyny was at work.

    Ultimately, I stand by my reading as a valid interpretation and one that I have a right to be concerned about. But your reading may actually be more correct.

    Maybe in a more equal world, without the context of TV largely being a conduit for misogyny back then, your reading would have been the only one to occur to me. Someday, someday. :)

  3. says

    Your reading does make complete sense to me. And I’d really like to post it – either as me quoting your comment and acknowledging that you raise some strong points, or we could post it under your own name as a regular post rebutting mine.

    Thank you for the compliment. Please feel free to post it in whichever manner you feel makes the most sense.

    Ultimately, I stand by my reading as a valid interpretation and one that I have a right to be concerned about. But your reading may actually be more correct.

    Oh, it is certainly a valid concern. How it “reads” is certainly at least as important as how it was “meant,” and I did not mean at all to imply that your interpretation was an impossible reading.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’ll post it, then. That’ll give me a chance to make it clear I endorse your take on it. :)

    Isn’t it nice when debates are civilized?

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