Guess who this TV character is? (Hint: show filmed on the northern west coast of North America, the cold rainy nasty bits)
She’s a pilot. She wears her hair military short. All her boyfriends have died. In the first season, she’s tough, opinionated, and not in need of a man. She develops a certain “unresolved sexual tension” with the male lead. And then she is carefully deconstructed by the writers so that we may see that all that was just a facade, and the real woman is a neurotic mess. She starts dating a guy after a few seasons, but it turns out he’s just Plot Device Boy designed to launch her into the arms of the lead male after all. Oh, and she and the lead male very, very rarely call each other by first name.
Think you got it?
You get one last hint: she’s brunette.
That’s right… I wasn’t talking about Sam Carter from Stargate. I was talking about Maggie O’Connell from Northern Exposure. It’s like they recycled the bio or something. The only sigificant difference is that Northern Exposure was much better written, there was nothing particularly tasteless about the unresolved sexual tension, and the leads had enough chemistry that their relationship was not wildly overshadowed by other, far more highly charged relationships on the show (between the guys, of course).
It’s one thing for a show to take cues on hair cuts, skills and character arcs from another show. What’s really odd to me is the thing about all the boyfriends dying and the apparent conviction that women who appear tough or independent are really just neurotics under the hood. Did Maggie try not to need men because she seemed to keep killing them? Or did they die because she wasn’t fulfilling her feminine support role for them?
I have a bad feeling it’s that second one. Women are taught from birth that you get somewhere by supporting and caretaking. Men are taught that you get somewhere by earning it. But what’s spelled out in the fine print is that “getting somewhere” for women means becoming part of a man.
What TV often does that’s so disturbing is, they pretend to follow along with the new ideology: that women can be happy with or without men, on their own terms, doing their own things. But then, once they’ve got a season or two under their belts, the deconstruction begins. We learn that this woman can’t be happy without a man. It’s just not natural. And she shouldn’t feel pressured by the Femi-Nazis to try to be happy without a man. Real Women admit they need men, and Real Men admit… oh, hey, look, there’s a dog with a fluffy tail!
When’s the last time you saw a male character carefully desconstructed and shown to be a neurotic, self-deluding fool? It would be one thing for a show to present one woman who feels she does need a man to be happy, and another who doesn’t. That’s just realistic. But the very act of deconstructing a character suggests you’ve deconstructed some great sociological fraud – clued the audience in on something that applies to everyone.
The lead males on both Northern Exposure and Stargate are flawed and somewhat neurotic from the start. There’s no deconstruction: no great mystery of human existence is being revealed to the audience. You don’t get the impression that the writers are on a mission to show that every Jewish doctor or colonel in the U.S. Air Force is really a psychological disaster zone underneath a competent facade.
But the deconstruction is like a betrayal: it makes you feel like the character never was what she appeared to be. She fooled you, stupid. And that makes you resent her, and then – if you’re not the self-vigilant type – it might just make you suspicious the next time you meet a real life woman who says she doesn’t need a man to make her existence worthwhile. You won’t be fooled twice!
The reinforcement of stereotypes is that subtle, and that simple.