How Much Sex Appeal Can One Show Take?
I want to talk about something which I know is of great interest to viewers, because the networks keep telling us so, and using it as their excuse for most of the things I don't like on my favorite shows. I'm talking about sex appeal. Specifically, the kind of sex appeal we see on television - on Baywatch more than most science fiction, to be fair, but Voyager and Hercules and Buffy certainly have made strides into the territory. Am I the only viewer who not only isn't swooning over all the young, nubile bodies on TV, but who is actually turned off by the narrow, limited view of beauty we're shown?
I'm not a woman who particularly resents Seven of Nine's catsuit or Aphrodite's lingerie. Really, there are more gorgeous men on Voyager than there are gorgeous women - Robert Beltran and Tim Russ are really wasted playing dull guys like Chakotay and Tuvok because they're both really hot when they grin, and so are Robbie McNeill and Garrett Wang and that silent hunk Ayala. Plus I never mind watching Kevin Smith and Kevin Sorbo wrestle. If the only thing that bothered me about female sexuality on TV was the costumes, I'd shut up about it. There's a decent balance of fleshly delights for male and female viewers; in that regard, television's pretty much a free for all.
Unless, that is, you actually like women with character lines around their eyes. Or men with paunches. Or women who don't wax every single hair off their bodies. Or men with more salt than pepper on their heads. Or women with butts that are visible when they turn sideways, or men with flabby arms. Are these prospects really so offensive that they have to be kept off our television sets for fear of sending viewers screaming from the room? Would anyone really stop watching Nightman if he fell for a woman who wore a size fourteen, would viewers really have a problem with Taelons working harder to convince senior citizens of their benevolence?
Let's count the number of over-50 regulars on science fiction television. Tuvok, but he's a Vulcan, so he doesn't look it. Dax - 'nuff said. Lwaxana Troi - when's the last time we saw her? Londo Mollari, maybe, but he's from a species with rather different notions of physical attractiveness, as we get pointed out to us all the time. Old and unattractive people on Hercules and Xena seem to exist primarily to dole out advice and get rescued. Maybe Skinner - actually, I should exempt The X Files from this criticism altogether, since neither Mulder nor Scully looks like a TV star and there are a number of characters clearly not designed for babaliciousness, despite the undeniable charms of Krycek and Covarrubias.
In straightforward action, I guess we have to expect our heroes to be perfect-bodied demigods. But in science fiction and fantasy, one would hope for more diversity - a view of the future in which people are no longer judged by the shapeliness of their environmental suits. I suspect that Trek's future involves a lot of genetic modification for cone-shaped breasts and flat stomachs, and I want to know why even on fairly enlightened shows like Babylon 5, the "ugly" aliens like the Drazi are so much more likely to be bad guys than the more attractive Minbari. Genre television's reinforcing prejudices based on difference and narrow definitions of beauty, not helping to disrupt them.
Personally, I'd rather them bring on the geeks.
Well, I'm here to defend the TV universe in which everyone looks like an underwear model, male and female alike. No, wait, that's the comic book universe …
Actually, it IS the comic book universe. In a comic book with several heroes, such as Superman, Batman and the Flash, usually each hero has his own regular series. Well, as the hero, he's supposed to look pretty sharp compared to the normal people he meets. Problem is, when you get them all in the same room, they all look pretty much the same.
And TV shows on which they try to make everyone the hero fall into this trap, too. Consider Babylon 5; Sheridan and Delenn are conventionally attractive, as one might expect; it's their story. But Garibaldi and Londo, my two favorite characters, are not; one's bald and one's old with funny hair. If it were a movie, Sheridan and Delenn would be "leading man/lady" actors, while Garibaldi and Londo would be considered "character actors." Leading men have to be handsome; character actors (and I include Robert deNiro) don't.
So who is the character actor on Voyager? Neelix? Yeah, but he's not used as a character - he's comic relief. And he's at least partly comic relief because he's not good-looking, like everyone else is.
Buffy? Well, there's Giles … and, um, there's Giles. Okay, I can't defend most TV, genre or vanilla. But let's just observe that shows that seem to have spent way too much effort getting attractive actors, and not enough effort on stories and writers, tend to wind up failing, even if they have the massive head start of the Star Trek name behind them.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.