"You know I wouldn't want it any other way..."
|Title:||"You know I wouldn't want it any other way..."|
|Date(s):||January 16, 2007|
|Topic:||female characters and misogyny in fandom|
|External Links:||here, Archived version|
|Click here for related articles on Fanlore.|
It was written in response to current fannish discussion on some other LiveJournal accounts, particularly one on this journal (now deleted) and On narrow genre tastes, female characters, and a wider variety of books.
It focuses on female characters in popular culture, and has an emphasis on The X-Files.
So there I was, reading away through the comments, ticking off all the boxes and mentally nodding my head, when I came across this comment by rachel_martin64:
It seems to me that in TV Land, the shorthand for "strong woman" is "bitch." That's the shortcut that male writers take. Want to have a "strong female character" on your show? Write her as an unpleasant, mouthy, insolent, know-it-all, castrating bitch. No, I didn't like Scully on X-Files. I didn't like Sam on SG-1. I didn't like Buffy. I don't like most TV heroines. I find it a lot easier to identify with the males, who are written as 3-D human beings.
It's no exaggeration to say that I was stopped dead in my tracks and sat blinking at the computer screen in amazement. Scully? Scully, not a three-dimensional human being? Surely you didn't mean... Scully?Too much of my reaction to this statement was emotionally driven. It still is now. I like Scully, and it surprises me to realise that other people don't see her the way that I do. Yet I think it's a statement that's worth analyzing, because it's been said before, and it's been said about other female characters. Do male writers actually cast strong women in this mold, or is it something about the way that we as the viewers perceive them? And is Scully a bitch... really?
Now we come down to the real heart of the matter: the question of whether Scully can accurately be described as a "castrating bitch". Now, I myself have sometimes thought of her as bitching at Mulder. From time to time she ends up following him around, tagging at his heels and complaining somewhat querulously: "MUL-der, where are you going? Mulder, what are you doing now? Mulder, you don't believe that, do you?" If I wanted to be uncharitable, I could say that she nags Mulder, quite a bit. This is something that people, and particularly women, end up doing when they're in a one-down position. If you hold the authority in a relationship, you can just say "Mulder, stick with me," or "This is the avenue of inquiry we're going to pursue," or "Mulder, enough". If you don't hold the authority, then all you can do if you want someone to listen to you is to follow them around, and keep complaining. Which Scully does, but this is a symbol of her weakness in the partnership rather than her strength.
Everyone sees something different in a character, especially one as well-developed as Scully. The television screen is a mirror in which we see ourselves, and our perceptions of gender, reflected back at us. Sexism on television exists, and male screenwriters have played their part in contributing to it. (For one thing, very few female characters on television have realistic or meaningful female friendships. This is something that male screenwriters just don't seem to be able to portray.) Yet it is important to recognise that we, as viewers and as women, also have expectations of how women *ought* to act, and that our expectations about depictions of femininity are just as important as what is portrayed on screen.
Excerpts from Comments
- [hadjie]: Well done! I particularly enjoyed your comments about "characters as mirrors." I, too, would like to see more realistic female friendships on the screen. One that comes to mind is the friendship between the two leading female characters in "Thirty Something" from the 80's, but that was a bit before your time. My recollections are a bit fuzzy, but I seem to remember them having rushed and interrupted, but also intimate conversations leaning against kitchen counters with babies or toddlers balanced on their hips. But perhaps I am hallucinating.
- [emily shore]: One of the most interesting interactions in the X-Files comes in the fifth episode of the first season, when Scully's characterisation hadn't yet quite solidified. She turns down an alien-chasing weekend with Mulder in order to go back to DC to help out with her godson's sixth birthday party. While little boys are wreaking havoc in the dining room, we see Scully and her best friend Ellen in the kitchen, washing dishes and discussing men (more specifically, Mulder). A rather predictable topic, but a refreshing vignette in the light of the next nine years of the series. Do we ever seen Ellen or the godson again? Of course not. Scully would be a bit better-balanced, both as a person and as a character, if they had. And then they had to go and kill off her sister too. I'll never forgive Krycek.
- [wychwood]: It seems to me that in TV Land, the shorthand for "strong woman" is "bitch." That's the shortcut that male writers take. Want to have a "strong female character" on your show? Write her as an unpleasant, mouthy, insolent, know-it-all, castrating bitch. I've heard people say things like that before. Or criticism of the trope of "kick-ass heroine" (which I think is mentioned in the original post you link to). Some women feel that there are too many female characters who are portrayed as physically and sexually aggressive, perhaps apeing their male counterparts, and not enough who are strong in a traditionally feminine way. While to some extent I can see their point, I do feel that it's somewhat fraught because of the social weight that's attached - a woman who is quiet, meek and retiring will be generally seen as being weak. And if she's not capable of standing up or fighting back against the people (men) around her, then I think I'd say she was weak, to be honest. If you write a character who is generally quiet but can also fight back, then you run the risk of catching it from both sides - she's a wuss one minute and a ball-buster the next, you know? But there's this ongoing conflict between trying to become a strong / powerful woman by emulating the strong / powerful men around, being confrontational, tough, aggressive, pushy (bitchy, loud-mouthed, castrating man-hater) and either sexually chaste in order to be "one of the boys" (codes as "frigid") or following the same sexual rules as the men around her (codes as "slutty") - and trying to become a strong / powerful woman while remaining genuinely feminine, when so many of those characteristics are seen as weakness - quietness, willingness to negotiate, either reigning in the sexual nature (prim, frigid, needs a good fuck) or using it (cock-tease, slept her way to the top, slut). Also open versus passive aggression. There's so many double-jeopardy situations there, you know? And while that's true for all of us in real life, how much more of a problem is it for fictional characters? Buffy is a bitchy aggressive slut, Willow is a geeky wimpish loser. You can't win. Particularly while, as you discuss neatly above, the same behaviour is read totally differently in a man and a woman.
- [carmarthen]: See, personally--I like the woman warrior archetype, but I do not see it as "aping the men around them," nor no I see it as "unfeminine" or those traditionally feminine traits of quietness, negotiating, etc. as intrinsically feminine--compassion and negotiation are seen as male traits in some societies. I like quiet characters and characters who negotiate and characters who kick ass and characters who are geeky. I want them all to be there in both men and women, because those are human traits. There's certainly a role for genuinely weak characters, too--some people are, and they can be interesting. Not all characters have to be admirable. But as you say, female characters can't win because of viewer perception.
- [wychwood]: Yes; I agree with you [Carmarthen]. And I like women warriors myself. I don't think those assorted values / traits / qualities are necessarily intrinsicly male or female, but I believe that's how they're perceived; and clearly there are trends and tendencies for different genders to have different strengths and weaknesses. The extent to which those trends are the results of socialisation or biological / neurological differences are harder to trace, however. My problem is mostly that I don't know how you distinguish between what someone is genuinely happiest doing and what they have been taught by society that they should be happiest doing. None of us exist in isolation, and there's no such thing as a controlled experiment. But, yes, I'd like to see a wide range of characters of all types and combinations. It doesn't help that with women being such a minority in film and television, there tends to be much more weight on them to be "representative"; if there's only one female character, then she has to be The Woman. If there's half-a-dozen, she can be a person much more readily.
- [erinya]: Exactly. Damned if we do, damned if we don't. Perhaps it's "better" for the women to be boring because then they can be ignored. But you can't ignore Buffy Summers, or Dana Scully, or Elizabeth Swann, because they have the nerve to be central to the storyline, so they are dismissed as bitches. I really think the bitchy/boring dichotomy is subconscious justification, rather than the real reasoning behind, dislike of these characters.
- [dknightshade]: Wow. I would never have read Scully as a bitch. She had bitchy moments, to be sure, but everyone does. Like you said, sometimes she's a nag, but it keeps Mulder honest. I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. And all of this is even more clear cut if you look at Sam. She respects authority, she's often shown as being good with children, she almost always follows orders, most of the time without argument. And the few times she has disagreed with an order and brought it up, she does so very carefully because she accepts that she's not in charge. And the ironic thing is that to her left is O'Neill who is unpleasant, mouthy, and insolent. And his character is adored for it. Which just shows that a lot of it is just a double standard. I don't think that any of this means that anyone has to like particular characters. Just because I don't think that Sam would fit any reasonable person's definition of a ball buster, doesn't mean that everyone has to love or buy into her character (she's not a character that I would consider a favorite). But I think that lumping her and Scully into a 'castrating bitch' group says more about the poster then the characters.
- [miss cris]: You're not being at all oversensitive. It is absolutely a slight against women. It brings us back to Aristotle's view that a woman is nothing more than a deformed man; therefore, a man who is failing to 'act like a man' (whatever that means for a particulat time and place) is acting like a woman and a man cannot do worse for himself than to act like a woman. My point was that both sexes get criticized for trangressing traditional notions of gender. Of course, I do think (hope) that masculinity is recieving an overhaul in media and think that this comes easier because, as you pointed out, most of the writers, directors, producers are men so they're better able to sensitively portray issues with masculinity in a way that they have rarely yet done so with women. Also, from a fandom perspective, I think that women are more willing to accept alternative portrayals of men than women because there are, as wychwood said, usually more men to choose from so it becomes less of an issue of this is 'The Man' on the show put here to represent all men that exist in the world and it feels less personal to us to deconstruct masculinity and maleness. We did not go through that gender process therefore when it's poked fun of or examined like discussing codes of behavior in the men's room women might be amused, bemused, or interested at this look at something we don't get to see, but we don't have any gut reactions about it. However, when you start discussing how all female characters (or people, in all honesty) have to go through the gauntlet of prettiness, you get some strong reactions because this is a process that we've undergone and felt as a prescence in our lives. So, if we were all men, I'm not certain that we wouldn't be discussing the pressures related to masculinity and the problems with portrayals of masculinity in media. And, I'm sorry to have hijacked your lj with my rambling comments, but it just seems incomplete, to me, to discuss issues with femininity without addressing masculinity because they are a system that works together.
- [riveroceansea]: As someone who watched The X-Files from the very beginning, I never saw her as a bitch. I, certainly, as the series went on, I never saw her as anything less than three dimensional from the first season ep 'Beyond the Sea' onward. There's a vast difference between being aggressive and assertive. Aggressive is stomping over other people's rights to get your own way or expressing your opinion. Done with the following argument: I'm right; you're wrong. Here's why, illogically usually, you're wrong. End of story. Add in lots of name-calling. Think WANK. While assertive calls for handling a disagreement with diplomacy, reaching a compromise, respecting the other person's right to their opinion even if you don't agree. Scully was hardly ever aggressive. You have to consider the reasons she had every reason to be. Her father disapproved of her career choice as an FBI agent. A woman with brilliance in not just one, but two sciences which is frightening for some men. Family members who actively disliked Mulder. Her mere presence is complicated with the fact that she lives in a world where segments of the population still believe women should be barefoot, pregnant and staying in the confines of the home seeing her man's and children's needs. There's also the confines women are placed under in religion. I get Scully's faith, I truly do. It's hard to step away from that upbringing when you've been exposed to it your entire life.
- [veronica rich]: First of all, if only women can write good female characters, I'm in trouble because I prefer writing male characters. Does that mean my male characters are badly written? I hope not. Second ... Mulder did plenty of his own bitching at Scully. It wasn't a one-way street. Bitching occasionally is human, and it's a damn sight better than never complaining and then blowing up at someone and saying something of such magnitude you'll REALLY regret. You mention female characters specifically on television. I think the medium has an unfair advantage over movies in that you can get to know a character over the course of 100-200 episodes (or, hell, even over 13 if it's a canceled series). Thirteen hours is still better than the two you get with a movie. (It's interesting personally to note that the "bitches" I find in TV, I can like perfectly well, whereas it's the ones in movies - not all movies, just a few - I have a harder time reconciling. I'm sure that's because there's limited time to understand their motives and reasoning, and that often, no explanation is even GIVEN - the audience is simply expected to empathize, sometimes based on shoddy evidence.)
- [ wendelah1 ]: I am really late reading this. (I am so glad you posted your complete list of essays. I will be reading it all weekend, I think.) I agree with every word. I even agreed with nearly everything every person who commented wrote. This occasion should be marked. It may never happen again. (I had to keep stopping myself from being irritable today with some of the incomprehensible commenters on your latest meta post. I was good, though. I took deep breaths and just_let_it_go.) I agree! I often feel like the folks who dislike female characters are *looking* for reasons to dislike them, rather than responding to something that's inherent in the texts. . . I feel the same way. I don't know what to make of it, but it frustrates me to no end in fandom. I encounter women who just casually assert their dislike of all female characters on TV and my jaw just drops open in disbelief. They identify with the "more interesting" male characters. Oh well. I hope you are right, this will get better as people stop needing to slot characters into such stereotypical roles. I think we have a long way to go. Laura Roslin is a great character: strong yet feminine and middle-aged. How rare is that? I must go watch the rest of BSG season three before the fourth season starts next week. And hadjie is right: thirtysomething rocked. There were four great women characters on that show, all of whom were complex, real people, with strengths and weaknesses. I hope that series comes out on DVD sometime before I die. I want to write fan fiction for the show but it has been so long since I've seen it, I can't hear the characters in my head. You win my award for Best Meta Ever!
- [emily shore]: You win my award for Best Meta Ever! Thank you so much. Hopefully the topic will become old-fashioned and irrelevant before too long! We'll see...