One of the things I liked about Alias was how, after Sydney found out what a monster Sloane was but decided she’d stay on as a double agent in order to take him down, she had to play nice and pretend she didn’t want to go hose herself off every time he placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder. She had to make him believe nothing had changed, that his displays of affection were as welcome as ever.
It wasn’t until I saw the same dynamic played out far more uncomfortably in another show that I began to question: why the hell did I like seeing a woman forced to endure physical and emotional displays of affection from a monstrous man?
The other show in question was BBC’s Robin Hood. This time, the dynamic was romantic rather than familial. The sheriff’s right hand man (Guy of Gisborne) wants to court Marian, and in order to keep her cover as a noble loyal to the government, she doesn’t dare reject him outright. She uses every excuse to pick quarrels with him, plays on the capricious woman stereotype to keep him confused, but always ultimately lets him keep the illusion she might marry him eventually.
(The Big Huge Spoiler from Series 2 lurks behind the “Read More” link.)
Until the end of Series 2, that is, at which point she uses the truth – that she’s been stringing Gisborne along all the time, and always loved Robin – to distract him from killing King Richard. It works; Gisborne kills Marian instead. (That story deserves its own post and then some, but I’m holding off until I’ve actually seen the entire series instead of just large chunks uploaded to YouTube.)
As much as I hated this turn of events – I was loving Lucy Griffiths’ work – it didn’t dim the weird pleasure I got from this dynamic of a woman forced to make nice to a man who not only is capable of hideous brutality, but is capable of killing her the instant she stops stroking his ego.
Once I started questioning my response, I recognized it for what it was: catharsis. Like (I would guess) the majority of women, I’ve been in the position of feeling I had to “grin and bear” a man taking verbal or physical liberties I found overly familiar, creepy or just plain misogynistic. Like (I would guess) a significant majority of women, I’ve danced on eggshells around an abusive man for a protracted, tense, traumatic period of time. Seeing Sydney and Marian endure the same thing but for the greater good, playing their own noble endgames against the men in question, was cathartic and inspiring. You’d think I’d prefer Sydney’s ending to Marian’s – Sydney lives and Sloane suffers a fate worse than death – but since Sydney isn’t the one to destroy Sloane in the end (her father sacrifices himself to do it for her) – I actually found Marian’s end more satisfying: she plays Gisborne like a harp to the bitter end, using what little power she has to achieve what she believes must be done.
It’s a sign there’s something very, very wrong with your society when you find it refreshing to see a woman character take shit from a man in order to achieve something because you’re so used to seeing women characters take shit from men because the writers don’t even realize their male characters are being shitty.
Apparently, I take women putting up with men’s shit as such a given in life (and TV) that I’m making a distinction based on how and why she puts up with the shit. What I should be asking is: where are all the stories of grown men being forced to endure displays of affection from hideous brutal women to save the world (or just, you know, because it’s their lot in life)? The comparative scarcity of that storyline – the implausible sound of it – is a dead giveaway that we’re far from the equal, post-feminist world most people seem to think we’re living in. We’ve been conditioned to find it hard to imagine women having that sort of power over men and hard to believe men could ever feel sullied by sexual advances, even from their female arch enemies.