I realized something recently, and I’m still working through it.
There’s a trope in television that always really bothered me: female characters all the time monitoring everyone’s feelings and remarking on them. “I can tell you’re sad.” “Talk to me – I know it bothered you.” “Aha, you love her! Have you told her yet?” I’m not wild about Emotions Exposition in general, because character motivation should be shown, not told. When Emotions Exposition is strictly the function of your female characters, however, you’re adding gender stereotyping to bad writing. I find this just as frustrating as when I detect that the only reason one of your characters is a woman instead of a man was that your plot needed her vagina for baby-makin’ or boinkin’.
This – yes, this – was the main reason I loved Sam Carter when I first started watching Stargate SG-1. Here was a woman who could watch someone walk into her lab in full waterworks pointing a loaded pistol at his own skull and not be quite one hundred percent sure he was unhappy. After all, there could be any number of physics experiments that involved that sort of behavior, right? Or maybe he’s rehearsing for a play at the community theater. (Meanwhile, any of Sam’s three male teammates were far more likely than she to notice someone moping or falling in love or whatnot.)
I loved how oblivious Sam was, because women are not inherently good at interpreting other people’s feelings. Nor are men inherently bad at it. We just live in a society that holds women responsible for knowing what people are feeling via psychic ability and discourages men from even admitting they know emotions exist. “Didn’t you know he was crazy?” women are asked every time they’re harmed by some man who went to church with 800 people who thought he was so together and wonderful, who worked with 3,000 people over the years who never noticed everything amiss, etc.
In real life, there’s a lot of lip service to the idea that men function and women feel, but it doesn’t hold up to even the most cursory analysis. Even the most traditional housewife and mom represses her feelings in order to keep authority over hyper kids and keep the peace with an irritable husband. It takes incredible organizational and management skills to run a household. Meanwhile, the traditional male role involves denying you have any feelings until you just can’t take anymore, at which point you whip out the bazooka and show that jackass in shipping that Cleveland really is the better team. The whole idea that women experience life in terms of relationships and men experience it in terms of functions is absurd. Everyone learns to read social cues from those “above” them on the social ladder as best they can, because it’s the only way to avoid getting dumped on by privileged people who don’t even bother to know you’re there. But even in the most traditional 1950s fantasy, men struggled to “read” their male bosses the same as wives struggled to read their husbands.
The dichotomy is breaking down now that women are, well, much closer to being men’s equals in the workforce. In reality, it’s not that unusual for a man to notice someone’s moping and a woman to walk right past. And yet it’s still new and exciting every time I find an oblivious female character. Bonus points if a man tells her she’s being insensitive. You know? It’s crazy to be relieved to see something that ought to be so mundane, because it happens.
I’m wondering if this is one reason why Criminal Minds strikes some people as being rather pro-women and others as okay but nothing special on the gender front. On that show, all the main characters, who are mostly male, need to be able to read people’s emotions and motives to do their jobs. The Emotional Exposition makes sense here, as discussions about feelings and motivations are a big part of criminal profiling, and the male characters are no less likely to pick up on someone’s emotions (even someone on the team who’s going through something) than the female ones are. (The one exception being Pregnant J.J., who suddenly developed a mild case of Emotional Exposition Fever.)