The Kincaid Effect

You’re watching a series. There’s a good female character in it that you enjoyed all last season. She made sense; she had flaws; she had strengths. She didn’t bang her male boss. They were true colleagues. It rocked.

Then the man who played the her boss left the show, and they brought in a new boss character for her. Upon their first meeting, she tirades at him about how he’s slept with all his female assistants, but that won’t be happening with her. Then her whole personality changes over the next few episodes. Notably, her feminist sympathies for female victims disappear.

There are other things happening to – things you can actually not notice consciously, but you do notice them unconsciously. She and her boss touch each other a lot – fleetingly, but this never happened with the old boss. Often they stand too close each other for no reason. And the camera frames them intimately. Consciously, all you remember may be, “I hate that stupid woman character now.” Without meaning to, you “blame the woman”. The affair between the newly annoying woman character and her male boss is kept out of the text until she leaves the show in a body bag, and you suddenly realize you have a whole new reason to be glad she’s dead.

Sound familiar? I’m talking about Claire Kincaid of the very old Law & Order, but it’s happened on so many shows. A female character is awesome, until suddenly her entire role and personality are reshaped around a male character. Which makes her look like the sort of woman who changes her personality to nab herself a man. No wonder we hate her, when we should be hating the producers.

But that’s something we can work on, right? Blaming the male writers instead of the female characters? When I first started this site, there was a lot of debate about whether the producers of Stargate meant to imply a sort of romantic “understanding” between the female lead and her boss. After reviewing season 5 of L&O, I have no doubt: those camera shots and that actor positioning the producers swore was totally coincidental? Not.

I’m nicknaming this the phenomenon the Kincaid Effect, after a character I really, really liked one season but struggled to watch the next. How many other shows have you observed this phenomenon on, where a female character changes her personality to get it on with a male character and ends up looking like an ass?


  1. Gategrrl says

    It must be the actress, but I never ended up hating Claire Kincaid. That might also have something to do with the fact I saw the first seasons in syndication, and the episodes were out of order – and because it was so subtextual, when she was killed in that car crash, I had one of those big, “WTF?” moments, and was completely perplexed.

    I mean, it had nothing to do with anything on the series, so why bother showing it, or not, and playing it that way (or not)?

    I’ve gone back and watched those earlier seasons, before I got bored with L&O, but I never clued in that they had a sexual relationship going on. Even when I knew about that final episode of Claire’s.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    I never entirely hated her – and I do think it was Jill Hennessey’s good work (and also her first season being so good). But I did see the eps in order when they first aired, and I kept seeing hints of a relationship and thinking, “Okay, I’m being dirty-minded here, surely they wouldn’t”; when it was confirmed, I was livid. I couldn’t watch her again after that for a while.

    In hindsight (I’m currently re-watching S5 on DVD), it struck me how similar the effect was to the stuff people complained about on Stargate, which the producers insisted was all in our heads. And I don’t even know how many female characters I’ve liked until they suddenly turned into someone else in order to get shipped with the last guy on the show they’d willingly be with. I tend to block them out once it goes that way.

  3. MaggieCat says

    I always liked Claire and she’s still my favorite ADA to date, although part of that may be because her political views fall closer to my own opinions than most of the others. Granted, I saw those seasons when they originally aired (and was only 12 or so at the time) which probably affected my perception of things, but while I didn’t pick up on the Kincaid/McCoy relationship while she was on the show, it didn’t seem odd when it was revealed after her death. (Especially given that relationship she’d had with the judge she clerked for right after she finished law school.) I may have been distracted however, with hating McCoy for his first few seasons. I really liked Ben Stone.

    Any personality shift that occurred when McCoy replaced Stone wasn’t a problem for me either, since Stone and McCoy had such different personalities that you’d have to relate to them completely differently- well, it made sense to me at least.

    What I do find odd is that reportedly Jill Hennessy wasn’t told that Kincaid and McCoy were involved, but Sam Waterston was. I suspect that has something to do with why some people thought it was weird in one way or another- because only one actor had the backstory, so it couldn’t have played as evenly as it could have been.

    Not that I’m suggesting we look to 12 year olds for critical analysis. 😉 And it’s been several years since I watched with any regularity (I like Jesse L. Martin but not on L&O, so it kind of put me off the show) so there may well be things I’ve forgotten. My memory is helpful like that.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Just as a disclaimer, I should note: McCoy is probably my least favorite TV character ever. Stone rocked. He still rocks.

    When I first saw it, I was in my 20’s and getting pretty damn cynical about TV and ship. For me, the awareness that she would date such a sleazebucket (AND her boss) was enough to make me dislike her. And I hated the show for that, because I’d liked her so much.

    What I do find odd is that reportedly Jill Hennessy wasn’t told that Kincaid and McCoy were involved, but Sam Waterston was.

    Good grief. If that’s true, the producers weren’t playing with a full deck. That doesn’t make sense from any angle I can think of.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s just bizarre – not telling her. The show definitely went into decline in the fifth season, and never recovered what it had been in the first four. Although I think CI is as good as early L&O, though I may be biased by the Chris Noth factor. 😀 Nah, just kidding – the stories are fantastic again.

    Their affair definitely was the sort of thing one could ignore. The problem, however, was the same one Stargate had: once you noticed the hinting, you started noticing even more, and you couldn’t go back, and if you didn’t like the implied unconsummated ship, you were still stuck with it.

    Claire was great with Lennie. I also liked her fairly adversarial relationship with Logan in which he seemed to think she needed everything spelled out in small words and she seemed to think he was a dick, LOL. That was also a relief because when she came on, for the first time the show had both a hot young man and a hot young woman – the standard formula for romance. When they didn’t even particularly like each other, I was relieved. Hmm, that might be another reason I wanted to strangle the TV when they shipped her with McCoy.

    It’s really leaping out at me now, as I re-watch these, how snotty Adam is to her, though. “I don’t like your implications and I really don’t need the sarcasm, young lady!” As if she’s his teenage niece.

  6. MaggieCat says

    Well, I don’t remember when I heard that, and my attempts to search for it have been fairly useless, so take it with a grain of salt. Wikipedia says I’m not insane though. 😉 But yeah, I can’t think of any way that makes any sense. I’ve never really understood the idea of keeping information from the actors that their characters would have- I mean I understand a desire to keep spoilers under wraps, but you’d think the actor would have a vested interest in that too. (Which is one of the many, many reasons that Lost sucks- several actors have said it’s really difficult to commit to anything since everything they think they know about themselves could change in the next episode.)

    I do think my age at the time had something to do with the way I saw it- it was more “well, maybe she has lousy taste in men” to me than a statement about her character. I was doing a pretty good job of seeing what I wanted to and ignoring the more insulting messages television was putting out at that point. (Sometimes obliviousness is actually helpful. Hee.) I always found Claire’s interactions with Lennie far more entertaining than a lot of her scenes with McCoy anyway, which is part of the reason I cried when she died, even though I almost never cry at television shows and movies.

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