Saturday, 9 November 2013

Strong Female Characters

          I've just been reading an article in The Guardian, on Joss 
Whedon being commended for creating 'strong female characters' in his TV shows. The article points out that he was honoured for the same thing seven years ago, and that nothing, really, has changed. That he could have re-used his acceptance speech from the previous occasion, and no one would have known.
          This made me sigh a bit. One of my favourite TV programmes is 'Scott and Bailey.' It's also a favourite with my (male) partner. Recently we've been watching the repeats, because it's often still the best thing on, even when we've seen it twice before. Excellent scripts, excellent acting.
          But every time we watch it - every time - my partner says something like, 'It's good, but it's hard on men.'

          Or, 'It's good, but it isn't fair to men at all.'
          And, 'You can grind your teeth all you like, Susie, but it isn't fair to men, it really isn't. All the men in it are incompetent or stupid. It's really hard on the men just to make the women look good.'
          Every time.
       I'm getting tired of re-stating the argument that follows, so let's set my answer down here. Then, instead of repeating myself, I can email him a link. In fact, I can schedule the link to be sent to him after each episode.
          Scott and Bailey - a series based around three women detectives in a Major Incident Team - is not, let me repeat that, NOT, unfair to men.
          All it does - and this is important - is treat the women characters as central instead of peripheral.
          In other words, it tells the story from the women's side, and sees the world through the women's eyes. That's all. But it seems that some men can't tolerate this. Despite the fact that women have had to put up with the world being shown through men's eyes, as a norm, for centuries.
          It does not - NOT - portray all the male characters as 'stupid or incompetent.' It shows them as less than perfect - as human, in other words. But that's all.
          And - let it be noted - the female characters aren't perfect, either.Few characters in fiction are, because perfection tends to be boring.
          There are several male characters in the show who are sympathetic, intelligent, and good at their jobs. But they are not - and this makes all the difference - central to the stories. They are secondary characters. They sit in on interviews. They exchange a bit of banter with our heroines. But they don't carry the show.
          Another show could be written around any one of them, but not Scott and Bailey.
          One of the story-lines in the repeated series we've been watching concerns the marriage problems of DC Janet Scott, who has a fling with fellow DC, Andy. She soon regrets it, but Andy mistakes their affair for something much more serious. He is hurt and reacts badly, causing trouble for Janet both at work and home.
       "See?" says my partner. "They're making out he's a shit. It's always written so the men look bad."
        But imagine, for a moment, that the story was written from Andy's point of view. This intelligent, hard-working DC falls hard for an attractive female colleague. She leads him on and gives him the impression that she's going to leave her husband for him -  but instead she dumps him and returns to her husband.
          Andy, disappointed and dreadfully hurt, can't keep himself from lashing out - though he knows he shouldn't - and behaves in a less than professional manner despite being, at heart, a decent man and a good officer.
          Sound familiar? How many angst-ridden, troubled male police officers - flawed, struggling to do the right thing, but still good men - have we seen on our screens?
          Suppose my partner and I had been watching this programme - 'Andy'. Somehow, even when I'm trying, I can't imagine my partner saying, 'This programme is really unfair to women characters. This programme is written so that all the female characters are made to look incompetent, flighty and stupid. The way they have that female detective cheat on her husband makes out that all women are shits. It's really unfair.'
          In fact, as we've watched programmes where women are characterised as nags, whores, air-heads, feckless child-abandoners, manipulaters, gossips, or simply pretty objects, I've never once heard him say, 'This is really unfair and makes women look bad/shallow/one-dimensional.'
          When women are the secondary, shallow characters, with unexplored motivations - when it's women who are merely there as set-dressing, sitting in on interviews or listening to the hero's soul-searching, without creating the action - well, that's not worth comment, it seems. That's the norm.

        But if, in just one or two programmes, male characters are given the same treatment, that's uncomfortable viewing. Unnatural. Can't be allowed to pass. Ever.
          From the very first episode we watched of Scott and Bailey to the most recent, my partner has complained that it is biased, that it makes men look bad, that it's written 'as if women can do no wrong.'
          (For God's sake.)
           In fact, Rachel Bailey drinks too much, sleeps around and has terrible taste in men. She sometimes fails to do her job properly because of her car-crash of a private life. Does that sound like 'making out that women can do no wrong?'
          Janet Scott, although a good officer, is stuck in a dreary marriage, and admits that she and her husband have put up with this state of affairs for far to long 'for the sake of the kids.' It's this boredom and unhappiness which lead her into an affair - but she soon realises it was a big mistake. She ends the affair and tries to patch up her marriage. (It's not the originality of the story-line which makes me admire this series: it's the writing and acting.)
          By beginning and ending this affair, she deeply hurts both her lover and her husband. At no point (in my opinion) are these men portrayed unfairly. The failure of the marriage is not blamed entirely on the husband, and he only gives up on it when he discovers that his wife was seeing her colleague before they separated. So, it seems to me, that the woman is shown behaving as badly, or even worse than, the men. But since the story is told from her point of view, we are given far more insight into her motivations and reasons.
          Scott and Bailey belongs firmly to the genre of shows about flawed police officers, struggling to cope with their own natures and the demands of a difficult job. But instead of being named John Rebus or Endeavor Morse, they're named Rachel Bailey and Janet
Suranne Jones
Scott. That's very refreshing - and I take my hat off to Suranne Jones, for not only playing Bailey brilliantly but, it seems, coming up with the idea for the programme too, because there should be more roles for women that weren't "wife of, sidekick-to, mother-of, mistress-to."

          I'd like to think that there are some men out there, somewhere, who have the imagination and fairness to grasp this. And not chuck all their toys out of the pram just because - Whoah! The world is turning upside-down! -  it isn't a man taking centre-stage. This time.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for saying this stuff, Sue - it still needs saying! I liked Joss Whedon's Equality Now speech so much - - from about 3:00 in.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I can't think of anything to say except how very right you are and many many thanks for saying it. I saw that Joss Whedon interview and applauded him. But nothing has changed. In fact it seems to have got worse. Instead of brilliant kick-ass Buffy who mostly needed no help to do what she did, even from Angel, we now have Twilight for heavens sake.

madwippitt said...

Ditto and ditto!

Anonymous said...

Until we can start talking about persons without even needing to classify male or female, there will never be an equal ground. Unfortunately our perseption of roles are embedded into us at an early age, so it's going to take a while.:o(

Let's start the equality with the young ones and democratic literacy.

See Reading for Life :


Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm not familiar with this show. Maybe next time you see a show in which the female characters are stereotyped you should complain to your partner about how unfair the shw is to women. ;-)

I do miss Buffy! It has been off for some time now, so there's a new generation growing up who haven't seen it. A couple of years ago I bought a t shirt that read," And then Buffy staked Edward. The End." I wore it largely to tease a Twilight-loving student, whose lip trembled with sorrow when she saw it, but now I can wear it without anyone having a clue what I'm on about.

Joss Whedon is very much about strong female characters. Even in the early days of Buffy, when Willow was the gentlest of the Scooby Gang, she was a genius Internet researcher, so was valuable. And there are Whedon's other shows ad the fact that hs first Shakespeare movie was Much Ado About Nothing, with Shakespeare's lovely, wisecracking Beatrice.

Susan Price said...

Sue - I like your student baiting! And I do, vigourously complain about female characters being stereotyped. Doesn't do me a bit of good. Somehow, his views are reality, mine are a fantasy.

madwippitt said...

Wasn't it Anne McCaffrey who complained that there weren't enough strong female characters in fantasy so she set out to write them herself? :-)