Since the 1980’s, we’ve been seeing a lot of female characters start competing with men for jobs, promotions and acclaim. Sounds like real life… until you notice that that a woman character capable of being in charge always suffers one of two fates: either she never gets put in charge, or she’s put in charge and quickly shows she can’t handle it. Women can kick ass when they’re acting as rogue agents or under someone else’s command, but we still can’t have them shown as successful leaders.
In real life, women are held to different standards by most people, who’ve been trained by society to value different traits in women and men. When a woman calmly and effienciently gives out instructions, she’s far more likely to be judged as unfair or unpleasant than a man issuing orders in the same words and tone. The traits that make a good man and a good leader – authoritative, capable, direct, effective – are indistinguishable. But the traits that make a good woman – cooperative, supportive, requesting rather than ordering – are contradictory to a leadership position. So one of the biggest issues a real woman faces in the real world is the difficulty of choosing between being a good leader or a good woman in the eyes of others. Knowing those others will most likely judge her first as a woman, then as a boss, no matter how she approaches them. If she “fails” the woman test by choosing to be a good leader, she risks never even getting a chance to be an effective leader before losing command. And if she fails the leader test by being a good woman, she won’t get command in the first place.
I’d love to see a show where a woman is #1 in a traditionally male-dominated field, and she struggles to be a good leader while enduring criticism for not being nice enough, or supportive or cooperative enough – in other words, not being a good little woman. Instead, over and over, we see the female leaders deconstructed into mere females again, thus restoring the balance of the status quo.
I’m going to use Stargate yet again, because – unfortunately – it provides rich, eloquent examples of pandering to the status quo. But there are a number of other series making the same mistakes.
Sam Carter is arguably #1 in a traditionally male-dominated field – astrophysics – and she’s also an Air Force officer. On the surface, particularly on first viewing, she gets a lot of respect from her commanding officers and often saves the day. She’s alert, efficient and effective in the field, and she’s brilliant and quick-minded in the lab. But all of these powerful and independent traits are boxed into the supportive and cooperative role of second-in-command, lest she compromise her femininity by becoming a leader (because that is, sadly, how many viewers would interpret her giving orders to men).
As time passed, Sam should have learned to command in her own right. Instead, in later seasons, we’re more likely to see her losing control of a situation. In one episode, she’s in charge of finding out where two officers disappeared to, but the civilians studying the evidence have been called off the case behind her back, by the general. Sam is pissed, but not because the general hasn’t filled her in on the details she needs to do her job – her attitude is framed with hints that it’s all about her concern for one of the missing officers. It’s okay for a woman to get upset about a person in need, you see: it would be quite another for Sam to go to the general and say, “May I speak freely, sir? Why didn’t you tell me what was going on? How can I do my job if you’re calling the shots without informing me?” That would imply leadership, which would (evidently, in the producers’ minds?) detract from Sam’s value as the only full-time woman on the show.
How about another episode in which she attempts to brief a room of Air Force pilots on flying a space craft she helped to design? They demand to be brief by Colonel O’Neill, the only person who’s actually flown the experimental craft, although she did fly second-seat on the very same mission. O’Neill is, at the time, in the body of a teenage boy (it’s sci-fi, folks, what can I tell ya?). He takes over the briefing for her, and we discover that even in a teenage body, O’Neill is a true commander. Sam is not. Sam is a true woman.
But what about another episode in which Sam rescues the entire captured crew of a ship? Unfortunately, the whole rescue is lost in a flurry of hallucinations meant to explore Sam’s unconscious mind – which turns out to be as lacking in insight as her conscious mind. Even ignoring this, it’s notable that she’s completely on her own as she rescues the crew – no one above her or below her in the chain of command. It’s acceptable for a woman to kick ass on her own. But to kick ass as a leader of others?
In one of the later seasons, Sam actually becomes the commanding officer of her unit. Unless I’m mistaken, at no point in that season does she actually issue a command on screen to either of the men under her. The one time she tries to get one of them to do what he’s told without argument, she wheedles him, speaking his name in a soothing, questioning voice: her tone says pretty please? For me? After that, as part of the backstory between seasons, the team is disbanded and Sam goes to a new post. In the first few episodes of the current season, the team reforms with a brand new white male commanding officer. Sam returns, and it’s only natural that she take back her old role of second fiddle. But if you strip off the how and why, what we have is Sam being demoted back to her acceptable role as a skilled woman, instead of being allowed to show that you can be a woman and a leader at the same time.