Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Where are all the good female characters?

A little while ago, I downloaded Amazon Prime.  I was pretty much forced to - Amazon offered me a free trail and I forgot to cancel before they loaded €50 onto my Mastercard.  These are the perils of having an account in a language you don't properly speak yet!  Unfortunately you really do need to use when you live in Germany - using the version only precipitates extra delivery charges, and there isn't a magic button you can press to have it all appear in English.  

It all worked out ok though, as despite the fact that most of the shows are in German, there's still a good proportion of them that appear in their original version, or "OV".  There are loads of things actually, and they're adding to the list all the time.  I was disappointed not to find Mad Men or Community under the list of shows that I could watch without paying extra, but had heard good things about Breaking Bad, so decided to give that a go.  Which...... pretty much put paid to the next two months of my life, as I developed a dependence in no time at all.  Wow - what a piece of work that show is.  Its Wikipedia page describes it as being "considered one of the best television shows of all time" and it is a well-deserved assessment.  I was going through my Mad Men and Game of Thrones stage when everyone was watching Breaking Bad, and I wish someone had told me about it!  The writing, the story, the character development, the conflicts, the acting - even just the concept is quite brilliant.  We've been told lately that we're going through a Golden Age of television, and with shows like these it's easy to see why.  It seems that have eschewed the tired cops and robbers/doctors and nurses/legal formats, and now we have mould-breaking, unique stories about seemingly real people with real conflicts and flaws.  Mad Men is similar - you won't find "New York period drama about advertising" in the Little Golden Book of Television Clichés either, and along with other intelligent programming like House of Cards, House and the afore-mentioned Game of Thrones, the claim has been made that we've finally grown up as audiences and are watching more nuanced, sophisticated storylines with more realistic, flawed characters.  Thank God.  We have the Sopranos to thank for it, apparently.    

And yet!  

The other day, to my intense regret, I ran out of Breaking Bad.  Along with everyone else who has seen it, my head exploded with the brilliance of the last episode and the sheer poetry of it all.  I watched and re-watched the last ten minutes or so over and over, read about the development of the series, learnt about the choice of final song for the closing stages, saw interviews with the actors online, and pretty much did all the things that sad, pathetic people who are hooked on a tv show do when they can't let go.  It seemed like I would never quite be the same again, but after the appropriate mourning period I set about trying to find something else to become worryingly addicted to.  I'd probably had my fill of harrowing violence and plot twists for awhile, so decided to try "Alpha House" - a light, fluffy sitcom about the Republican Party, which surpassed expectations despite the fact that I got bored of it midway through the second season.  I went looking for something a little more substantial earlier this week however, and had quite a lot to choose from.  In the 24 hours or so following a return from a really intense tour, normally premium time for me to put my eyes on screen-saver and take in as many films and tv shows as I can, I tried in no particular order, "The Man In The High Castle" (definitely promising), "Vikings" (up and down), "Transparent" (weird), and "Secret Diary of a Call-Girl" (meh).  Eventually I decided I might want to try some legalise though, and tried both "Damages" and "The Good Wife".  They both had good casts (Damages stars Glenn Close for instance) and are both clearly aimed at a female market, and I thought that along with my Facebook feed they might contribute to further rounding out of my slovenly male personality and dragging me just that little bit more out of the patriarchy.  Much of the above television that I've seen stars male and female characters, but men were invariably the main pro/antagonists - it would be good to see what female characters could do in hard-hitting drama.  

If you haven't seen either of them, here's a brief summary.  The Good Wife: a lawyer turned housewife is forced to return to the profession to support her family after her State Attorney husband is accused of sleeping with prostitutes on the government purse.  Damages: a hotshot young female law graduate accepts a position with a prestigious New York law firm, and becomes the protégée of the ruthless, manipulative senior partner.  Not bad to start with, huh?  Plenty of room for conflict, twists and turns and general character study, right?  Well.  

Unfortunately I was met with a big, fat bunch of cliché and total lack of plausibility.  Some of it was basic television cliché (everyone in The Good Wife boasts model-esque good looks and wardrobes, even the people that work in the call centre for strippers in the second episode), but perhaps more alarmingly, a lot of it was motivated from a sexual politics standpoint that verged on the downright irresponsible, if not just really boring.  Here's a brief run-down, taken from only the first couple of episodes and a bit of forward reading in the episode guides:
- Damages: the young protégée is never really seen to do any real work and always has time for her family and friends, despite the fact that she'd be expected to pump out an eight-day week and take loads of work home with her  
- Both: the protagonists have the ears of senior partners and play major parts in important cases from the outset of the show, desipte the likelihood (particularly in Damages) that they would start in very junior positions 
- Both: the bad guys are always men and they always lose, no matter how much money they've got and how many platinum gold lawyers they're toting.  This is taken to extremes in only the second episode of The Good Wife when the plaintiff, an achingly glamorous rape victim, turns down a $450,000 settlement on a point of principle for a crime she can't prove 
- The Good Wife: despite her husband being caught literally with his pants down, our herione Stands By Her Man with only token moments of anger at his obvious and public betrayal.  Her house is also always immaculate and her kids are perfect angels - insert "domestic Goddess" cliché here
- Damages: despite her Ivy League education, it is revealed that the protégée is from a working-class background, 'cos y'know, that's where all New York corporate lawyers come from.        

..... I could go on.  

So much of what has been impressive about shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad is that the characters are "real" people.  In some cases they're anti-heroes, who do frankly horrible things.  Don Draper is a sexist, selfish, philandering alcoholic and a bully.  Walter White is a ruthless, violent killer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, no matter the collateral damage to his family and those around him.  These are bad men!  And yet we love them for all the horror they bring to proceedings, just as we loved Tony Soprano.  Finally we see that the messages television shows are bringing is not delivered on some pink cloud where all the protagonists are nobly motivated.  Have we grown up on that basis, though?

I'm not so sure, because it seems to me that these characters are all men.  Yes, there are plenty of "supporting" female characters in these shows that could be described as being realistic, but when it comes to genuinely plot-hinging character studies with just enough darkness, evil and menace, it's the men who portray them, and carry the shows on that basis.  We like these men because we believe in them, but we also like them because we're afraid of them.  Where are the female equivalents?  

What disappointed me so much about The Good Wife and Damages is that we saw women cast in pivotal, leading roles who were still playing the part of the "perfect" woman - or the perfect "modern" woman, at least.  The characters have it all - looks, carriage, money, great careers, power and influence, but tellingly, active and rewarding personal lives and families which they seem to maintain with ease.  They are shown in moments of domestic harmony and social and romantic bliss, and they never have an angry or impatient word for anyone, despite carrying what would be incredibly demanding workloads and working long hours.  These are women who have broken the glass ceiling perhaps a little more easily than you would expect.  We already know how difficult that is, but witness the other elements of their stories - the facile way that they're both employed, the responsibilities that are handed to them so early in their tenures, the Cinderella-story rises to influence so soon after being hired.  Answer me seriously - do women actually believe this crap?  

Maybe I'm being over-critical, though - we all like a bit of fantasy after all.  I have more concerns, though.  What frustrates me most about both of these shows is that they masquerade as feminist pieces about powerful strong women, when the opposite couldn't be more true.  Both our protagnonists are passengers, if not actual victims.  The storylines happen to them, not the other way around.  The Good Wife is forced to return to professional life after her husband publicly misbehaves, and has to deal with his rival trying to trip her up every step of the way.  She also only seems to represent women, who are also vicitims, invariably of male bad behaviour, who often seek solace from her on the basis that "she knows what it feels like".  The character in Damages is flung head-long into a maelstrom of greed, ambition, organised crime and violence when all she wanted was to augment her already already perfect life with a cushy job in a law firm.  At no stage that I have seen do either of either of these characters ever really take charge - the entire premise of the shows are that they are victims of circumstance, and inevitably, male lust and greed.  By contrast, television audiences all over the world can't get enough of chemistry teachers leading criminal double-lives, wildly hedonistic advertising executives, drug-addicted, sociopathic doctors holding entire hospitals to ransom, and forensic scientists who are vigilante serial killers in their spare time, all of whom make life-changing, devil-may-care decisions at every turn, because that's what men do.   

I don't know about you, but I know what I'd rather watch!  

As far I'm concerned, this raises some interesting thoughts about the perception of men and women within the broader community.  In the past few years, discussions on topics such as wage inequality, rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, sexism and mysogyny, fat-shaming, revenge-porn, and cat-calling have become more and more common.  You could throw in the continued criticisms of male-dominated religious institutions as well.  This has also been conducted to the backdrop of an economic crisis that (certainly if you're European) just doesn't seem to want to go away, which has affected everyone's lives on the basis of the banking sector's greed and mis-management.  It has become more and more apparent that when the world closes its eyes and thinks of the face of evil, the image that is brought to mind is one of a man, and a white man at that - something all these characters have in common.       
Is this why we're making television about male characters who are all bastards?  Who knows.  If so, it does seem rather ironic that the image of man has taken a beating, and what has transpired is some really good telly, and maybe even a pop-culture inspired carte blanche for men to behave even worse because that's what Don Draper would do.  Life does imitate art afer all.  It seems a shame however that the humble television show, one of our most ubiquitous and culturally influential art forms, continues to show women as largely cardboard cut-outs by comparison, even when it's clear that someone's making an effort.  Maybe we will only truly grow up when we are prepared to portray their flaws as well.  

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