Women We Want
I was a little alarmed recently when I saw the tentative fall lineup on the networks. It's not just that boys' shows are in - boys' shows are always in, even when they're marketed towards women and feature pert young girls like the current bane of my TV-watching existence, Ally McBeal. That's not a problem in and of itself. Buffy, after all, is a girl too, and also one of the coolest female characters ever, even if she's balanced out by Cordelia.
What's alarming is that there are virtually no women on television.
Dr. Quinn's gone. So is Cybill. So's Murphy Brown. So's Ellen. In genre, we're losing Dax just when she was coming into her own. We've lost Ivanova, we're losing Delenn as Babylon Five winds down. And we're dealing with a much-diminished Xena who's been relying increasingly on divine intervention when she used to be ruler of her own destiny.
Lynn Elber of the Associated Press recently quoted a television interview given by Chuck Lorre, co-creator of Dharma & Greg: "The 'bitter, neurotic, angry female character' is out; joyful, life-embracing women like Dharma are in." Does this mean that women who are no threat to male dominance, who embrace their roles as sidekicks or fluff chicks or not-quite-grownups, are all right, but women who work to succeed in their own right or actually do so are doomed to be sidelined as 'bitter, neurotic, angry'?
It would seem so. Space Above and Beyond and its female captain didn't last a year. Captain Janeway's not allowed to compete with Seven the Babe. Kira's got little to do with Bajoran politics or Starfleet policies in the Dominion war. Scully complained several times this season that her life's not satisfying; in particular, the omnipresent biological clock has become an issue. It's bad enough that there are no Mary Tyler Moores or Roseannes or Angies left - women who weren't always successful at balancing jobs, families, and lovers, but at least were trying. We're not even being shown women who can do so in the future tense.
Instead we've got a crop of adolescents as our role models. Like I said, it's not that Buffy's a problem: she's a wonderfully strong, smart young woman finding out who she is. But she's not at all ready to contemplate life as an adult woman with a career and a lover and possibly a family. Buffy doesn't seem terribly sympathetic toward her single mother, nor interested in her problems except when Mom's dating a killer robot. And she's sure not getting any good advice from her either.
Nikita's better - she's fighting a real and present force of darkness, she has a complicated romantic entanglement with one of her co-workers, and a really wonderful female mentor/tormentor who's one of the strongest women on television. That's a sad statement in and of itself, given the relative numbers of people who watch network. Are we doomed to a future of women in second-place roles to men and girls? It's a pretty bleak future.
I think part of the problem is the perception on the part of certain science fiction writers that gender roles are rigid even in an era of artificial wombs and androgynous aliens. On a show like E.R., the women are more dimensional because the men are more dimensional - nobody sits around worrying about not being macho enough, or being too macho. I don't think it occurs to the producers that it would be a mistake for a male character to weep because only sissies cry, or that a woman couldn't make a brutal life-or-death decision because that's a man's job. It's only in science fiction - the last bastion of conservative sexuality and gender roles on television - where producers fret over how to make the differences obvious.
Kira and Janeway (and to a lesser extent, Dax and Torres) started out very strong in traditionally male career positions - science and command, unlike Troi and Crusher who were in more nurturing professions. Kira could talk tough and act tough when necessary, yet she wasn't an imitation man. One of my favorite Trek scenes ever was Janeway's negotiation with a Romulan using a domestic issue - the fact that they both missed their families - as a bargaining chip. I don't think it would even have occurred to Kirk or Picard to try that. It might have occurred to Sisko, who's a father as well as a Starfleet captain, but he keeps his professional and personal roles pretty distinct. There was a time when Janeway and Kira didn't have to. They were strong and commanding, and they were also emotional and passionate and sexy...OK, I realize that they were not that last by network babe standards, but that's the network's problem, not the women's.
Then the differences between men and women on Trek got reduced to catsuits. Kira got put in one; Janeway merely inherited a character who wears one and who promptly became the only female on board with any sexuality at all. I started tuning out both shows when these changes occurred, as did many of the women I know who watched them...but we don't count, right? We're not part of the male demographic! OK, the hell with us, but I still don't understand the reasoning behind the concept that relationships and strong women characters turn a show into a soap opera. E.R. and Chicago Hope and L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues and too many other shows to name were very relationship-oriented and character-driven, with very strong women, and they still got much higher ratings among male audiences than any of the current science fiction series. Do network executives really believe that men and women are from such different planets that nobody can tell good stories which will appeal to all of us - particularly in science fiction, where it's apparently easier for them to believe in warp speed than in men who take orders from women?
Realistic television drama supposedly reflects the real world (with a lot more killings and sex). As women's roles in the public and private spheres have expanded, the shows have reflected that. We started getting women who are doctors and lawyers, and women who try to balance families and jobs, and women who give up their personal time to become corporate successes and women who like sex enough to complicate their lives with it. There are also more women writing and producing such shows, though not nearly enough for real balance.
Science fiction, however, exists in a bubble: all those boys who write it (and it is overwhelmingly boys) get to create their own little worlds. So if they have a problem with women in power, or women with independent sexuality, or women who don't fit neatly into whatever stereotype they'd prefer, they can simply declare that such women don't exist in their futures. Instead we get what they want to see, or what they think their target audience wants to see. So yes, we can have Captain Janeway, but she's never going to have a life outside the captain's chair. And sure, we can have Kira, but she's going to have big breasts and worship the Emissary, who also happens to be her immediate superior. And fine, we can have Delenn, but she's going to end up an attache to the most powerful man around. And OK, we can have Scully, but let's not forget that The X-Files are Mulder's pet project and she was originally an interloper in his little corner. As for people like Shane Vansen of Space Above and Beyond or Sheba from Battlestar Galactica, two strong women in positions of authority...we can have them too, as long as they're babes.
I'd lose hope entirely if it weren't for Xena and Buffy, true feminist heroines who have somehow managed not only to make it onto television, but to thrive in syndication. Neither one of them is perfect: Xena has made some monumental mistakes in her life, while Buffy is in many ways a standard ditzy teenager. Yet they both have wit, gumption, strength, and real independence - neither one of them has ever let a man control her destiny, even in love. They're empowered in a way few women on television ever are, not just because they're tough but because they fall apart on occasion and still get it back together. I love them.
Let's add up the numbers: shows with strong women include La Femme Nikita, Buffy, Babylon 5 and Xena. And I think you have to count Kira Nerys as well, although I agree that at any moment she might start becoming Lucy to Odo's Ricky Ricardo; never can trust these Trek writing committees.
And Scully has to count, too.
Shows which don't have any women characters of note: Hercules, Highlander.
Shows where women should be ashamed to draw paychecks for appearing: Star Trek Voyager.
Even giving you Buffy as an adolescent and therefore not a proper role model for adults (which I don't agree with, but grant it for the sake of argument) that's four shows without heroic women and five with. Yes, I'd like it to be 100%, too, but look at it from my perspective: why should I, a man, watch Xena? (Don't answer that.) Or Voyager? (Ditto.)
Seriously, though, I believe your objection is not to quantity but quality, not to the number of heroines presented on TV but their tendency to break nails, whine, worry about their hair, and exhibit other utterly un-heroic traits that the (almost exclusively) male writers throw in with impunity. Sure, Hank Hill is funny when he does the "tool-usin' beer-drinkin' football-watchin' Guy" thing, but how often do TV heroes look stupid by looking classically masculine? On purpose, I mean.
And yes, the sting of hopes betrayed goes very, very deep. I never did get over the notion that Twin Peaks wasn't a mystery, but a congeries of random images with absolutely no unifying storyline. I believe it, but I can't accept it. And whether you're He or She, you can't help but be dismayed at how far Voyager's women have sunk.
The solution? Well, short of becoming TV producers ourselves (not that I'm opposed to the idea in principle, you understand) I have to suggest that as long as there is no penalty for being lazy, they'll keep on doin' it. Support Buffy, Xena and Babylon 5 for their strong, sensitive, feminine women, and slam Trek and yes, occasionally X-Files when they present the reverse.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.