For a long time, people have been complaining about the lack of “strong” women in film and tv. And that’s good. I’m a strong woman, and I’d like to find a character I relate to that’s not a man. But I think the response we’ve gotten has been… well, sarcastic.
Take Northern Exposure, which I’ve been re-watching from the beginning lately. Most of the women in it are just as interesting as the men. But Maggie O’Connell starts out strong and independent – there’s very much a role-reversal thing going on as she plays landlord to Joel Fleischman, fixing leaks and dry rot in his cabin. She flies a plane for a living. She speaks her mind. She’s not the picture of perfect mental adjustment, but Joel’s way worse off than she is.
Then her boyfriend dies. Turns out all her boyfriends die. She starts falling apart. She sees a fortune teller who predicts an unhappy marriage with a hunk, and the first hunk she sees – a total stranger on the street – she gives this long speech to about how the sex would be terrific and the kids would be beautiful, but she needs to be happy. The poor guy’s just standing there at his car.
Meanwhile, Fleischman is adjusting better and better to being stuck against his will in Alaska. He started out traumatized and semi-functional, but he’s pulling it together. Real character growth there.
What have we learned, boys and girls? You little ladies may think you want to be big, strong manly women who don’t need no stinkin’ man and bring home their own bacon, but just wait ’til you’re all alone! You can’t live without us men! Just try it! Hahahahaha!
Tad over the top? Maybe. I wish I was sure.
Maggie’s just one example. There are so many others. I thought Scully (from The X-Files) was going to be my idea of “strong”, but Mulder sure played her like a harp – he always knew exactly which buttons to push to keep her coming and going and ultimately serving his purpose. And, hey, it wasn’t like she had a purpose of her own to begin with, was it? She was supposed to go spy on him to serve the needs of her bosses, but she ended up serving his needs. Long as she’s serving some guy’s needs, everything’s nicely status quo.
Xena is one exception. I’ve written enough about her in other posts – a show where the men were the incidental characters. Xena wasn’t just physically strong: she had a purpose, and her mistakes were as big and bold as her good deeds. You could’ve told the same story about a man without changing anything but pronouns.
Sydney Bristow from Alias probably qualifies as another exception. I’m only to the end of Season 3, but so far she’s complex and true to herself. That’s my idea of strong – not kick-ass (although that’s fine), and not bitchy. Just real and purposeful.
But for every Xena and Sydney, there’s about ten Desperate Housewives, a dozen military or government agent women gone mad (or desperately needy, or incompetent), and a hundred Willows who’ve suddenly turned into addicts – to men, to drugs, whatever. Long as they’re needy.
The message is “here’s a nice strong woman – enjoy!” The metamessage – what they’re really saying – is “here’s what happens to strong women, so think before you make another stupid request like that, girls”.