TV’s Strongest Female Characters Share One Stupid Flaw

Supposedly empowered women are making terrible decisions because of men

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Female protagonists on TV today are stronger and more capable than ever before, but they have one kind of Kryptonite: men. It’s an emerging TV trope — a woman who excels at her job but for some inexplicable reason makes terrible choices when the man of her affection enters the picture. And chaos ensues.

[Minor spoilers from past seasons of Scandal, Homeland, Revenge, Game of Thrones, The Newsroom, Friday Night Lights and Lost, in that order]

Take Olivia Pope on Scandal. Based on the recent season premiere, it appears that Olivia will be spending the rest of this season (and certainly tonight’s episode) trying to fix her own scandal — her affair with the President. For those unfamiliar with this hour-long ABC political thriller, Olivia (played by Kerry Washington) is a former White House communications director who now runs her own crisis-management firm. She can usually solve her clients’ calamities in a single episode; we are told again and again that she is “the best” at what she does. But I expect it will take at least a whole season for Olivia to resolve this situation because when it comes to her beloved Fitz (that’s POTUS to you), Olivia doesn’t make the smartest decisions.

And Olivia isn’t alone. On the Showtime spy series Homeland, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is the best operative the CIA has got. Yes, she’s bipolar, but she uses her obsessive tendencies to her advantage to see what others cannot: she, alone among her peers, figured out Nick Brody — a decorated war hero held captive by al Qaeda for eight years — was “turned” by his captors.

But her obsession with Brody (both as a lover and as a target) gets her fired and placed in a psych ward in season one. In season two’s finale, she helps Brody escape even though all evidence points towards him bombing the CIA. Her instincts about Brody being a good guy could be right. But maybe not. Sleeping with him certainly hasn’t given her a clearer perspective.

On Revenge — an ABC primetime drama — Emily Thorne can beat up and outsmart any bad guy: on her quest for vengeance, she’s merciless and emotionless, sacrificing just about anyone who might get in her way…except for her long-lost childhood crush, Jack. At the end of last season, Emily revealed her true identity to Jack in order to save his life, despite the risk such a disclosure poses to her plans. Now, he’s leveraging the information against her and threatening to expose her.

Such anti-feminist depictions of women have even infiltrated the rarified programming of HBO. On Veep, Selena’s staff panics every time her ex-husband reappears because the VP loses her mind around him. The otherwise unflappable Daenerys on Game of Thrones mistakenly trusts a witch in order to try to save her husband’s life, ultimately killing both her husband and her baby in the process. Both reporter Maggie and producer MacKenzie on The Newsroom undergo life crises and travel away from New York (one to Africa, the other to the Middle East) when they have romantic problems, even though the latter was supposed to have deftly handled reporting from a warzone.

I love all these shows and will continue to watch them even if the romantic plot lines conflict with my notion about how these strong female characters ought to act. But as a feminist, I bristle under the notion that women’s judgment can be so easily derailed by men.

Sure, this plot device isn’t unique to women. Landry murders Tyra’s attacker on Friday Night Lights (in a horrible plot line produced during the writers’ strike that the writers later pretended never happened). Jin on Lost chooses to die with his wife instead of escaping, orphaning their infant daughter in the process. Every superhero in history walks directly into an ambush (even though they know it’s a trap) in order to save his beloved.

But these men usually make “sacrifices” in order to “protect” their girlfriends or wives. Their seemingly idiotic actions are meant to be heartwarming and heroic. Not so for the women. Characters surrounding Olivia and Carrie tell the two women over and over again that they’re making destructive, selfish decisions. And they are. There’s nothing heartwarming about Olivia hiding from kidnappers and murderers or Carrie getting electro-shock therapy.

The trend among female characters is so prevalent that I’m hard pressed to think of a strong female protagonist on a popular TV shows who doesn’t make a stupid decision because of a man at one point or another. Ironically, Joan and Peggy on Mad Men are the two of the only women not completely flustered by the opposite sex. And these women live in the 1960s where a doctor tries to shame Joan out of using birth control and Peggy gets locked out of copywriter meetings simply because she’s a woman. That’s not to say that Joan and Peggy are not flawed; both characters have major pitfalls. It’s just that their flaws are not men-centric.

And let’s be honest: the men these otherwise-empowered women fawn over are, quite frankly, lame. Sorry, Fitz, Brody and Jack. You are not worth these women’s time. You’re always getting them into trouble, and they’re always fixing your problems. Your would-be girlfriends are stronger and better than you are. Please stop bothering them.

I have no problem with already weak women making poor decisions because of men on TV. That’s in character. But let the DC fixers, CIA operatives, revenge-seeking killers, vice presidents, princess-warriors and news show producers be the empowered, independent women they ought to be.

21 comments
RickFictus
RickFictus

Lol - this is about the dumbest article I've ever read. Newsflash: this happens all the time in real life, WHICH IS WHY IT'S ALSO PORTRAYED IN FICTION. Consider what Bill Clinton did with Monica, and he was the freaking president and had good judgment overall. Not everything is an exercise in oppression by the evil patriarchal conspirators (eye roll)

LauraJ.Richardson
LauraJ.Richardson

Men write the story lines to suit their temperament and predilection, women are the vehicle they use.

DianaWolfess
DianaWolfess

Regarding Daenerys on GoT -- read the books.  She's not flummoxed by Drago, but she wants him to survive because of what usually happens to the Khaleesi of a dead Khal. Her best chance of survival at the time that she knew of was to keep him alive and Mazzi convinces her to allow her to treat Drago. 

algebeth
algebeth

Strong men who lose their s*** around women:


Ron Swanson on Parks and Rec. Total badass, but turns into bumbling idiot as soon as a woman he's is (or has been) attracted to is around. Admittedly this is played for laughs, but it doesn't diminish the argument.

Odo from Star Trek: DS9. The second he meets a "female" of his species, he starts to completely neglect his duties as CHIEF OF SECURITY. Naturally, the entire station is soon conquered, and his friends slated for execution. Even then, he barely registers the problem.

Nathan Petrelli on Heroes. Cheats on his wife with a total stranger in the middle of a congressional campaign, which (predictably) leads to a blackmail attempt.

Strong women who don't lose their s*** around men:

Aeryn Sun from Farscape. She'll occasionally go the "stupid sacrifice" route that the author attributes to male characters, but not the "just plain stupid" route.

Audrey Parker from Haven. Shrugs off her male admirers through 80-90% of the series, and when she doesn't, it doesn't affect her decision-making process in the least (unless you consider not shooting the person you love - just because people want you to - a bad decision).

Emma Swan from Once Upon a Time. Even with two men vying for her charms, all she cares about is keeping her kid safe.


The author is clearly watching the wrong shows - and/or is waaaaaay too sensitive about this issue to be objective about it.

MattWest1
MattWest1

This just in: love makes fools of us all.

w1hit1der
w1hit1der

Carrie doesn't get electroshock for Brody, she does it to get the bankers who are secretly financing terrorism.

Raptor2u
Raptor2u

Personally, I like a woman who does not mind gettin her hands a little dirty; a woman who might have a little roughness around the edge to her nature but knows the difference that without a doubt, she is woman and not man. OTOH, I can't stand confused people. I hate the plethora of movies and TV shows where the female character is portrayed as somehow having more heart and more testosterone than the male characters. Not just against some of the male characters - but ALL of the male characters. The men on these fictional shows always come across as weak or helplessly confused. That is when their female sidekick, or the wife or the pre-teen kid comes along to pull-his-headout-his-aszh for him. It's usually in the script. But this is the goal of Hollywood. To shape a new perception in hopes that it becomes the new reality. And while I'm all in favor of strong female characters who are quick on their feet and can think and chew gum simultaneously, please leave the testosterone loaded action back to the men.

Hibernia86
Hibernia86

As has been said below, men are commonly shown on TV making foolish choices in order to win the hearts of women and often failing. Yet we don't hear any protest against that from this author.

irrenmann
irrenmann

Do you get angry when male characters have their judgment derailed by women? That happens on TV, and in life, all the time. Or is it necessary that women be presented with no flaws so they appear superior?

chekhov
chekhov

Why do you consider love to be a flaw? Are 'strong, empowered' women not allowed to feel love/passion? 

You seem extremely biased, if you don't notice all the men (both in fiction and real life) that make stupid choices because of love, but for *them*, at that moment, those choices make sense. Emotions are nearly always stronger than intellect, whether you like it or not.

Also, do you consider yourself perfect? You've never made a stupid choice in your life? And since when do either fictional or real people need to be absolutely perfect and flawless?

And how much do you really know about fiction? Not much, it seems, which is disappointing since you apparently went to Yale. Did you ever take any literature classes while you were there? 


joyce1946
joyce1946

You obviously do not know many strong women--they are like strong men, for example Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, etc.--they may be be to run the world--but they are a mess with their love lives. 

onemind
onemind

First of all, it is ENTERTAINMENT!! No sex, no interest for most of the adult viewers. Second, strong men seem to have the same problem, both on TV and in real life. Finally, so do strong women in real life. This is a product of the narrow minded feminist world view that strong women have no need for romance or the love of  men. Some may not, but most do, because after all is said, they still are human.

redjacob12
redjacob12

Writers and producers cannot change the nature of a woman. Women are hardwired to long for a man. Effeminate men, and feminists think artistic and literary creativity and intellect will stop a woman or teenage girl from going gaga over guys.

 I was acquainted with 20-something yr old single mother who wrote a poem with a line that read "...If I went to heaven and you went to hell. I'd leave heaven to be in hell with you.." 

Nikki528
Nikki528

So only weak women are allowed to make poor decisions? Do you know how asinine and untrue to life that sounds? Strong women are not superheroes without flaw.

GwendolynHarshaw
GwendolynHarshaw

The shows would be boring if the characters made good decisions. And I don't think the President (POTUS) is a loser. He has flaws but he is not a loser. ..just married. :(

GwendolynHarshaw
GwendolynHarshaw

Daenerys in Game of Thrones grows into being a strong character. She started out quite passive & weak, however, the situation with Khal's death led to her independence. The drama within Scandal comes from the fact that Olivia is songood in her professional life & so bad in her personal. That is what makes her both gripping AND relatable! If she made good decisions all thevtime

RemixCity
RemixCity

I am sick of this as well Eliana. It is a stubborn and PREVALENT crutch that all these shows need to fix. I'd understand some complexity and random distribution but it's like there is a checklist they have to blindly adhere to. I watch all these shows and I wince when this CRAP happens!

Piacevole
Piacevole

The original material for  Game of Thrones was a series of books, in which Daenerys makes that mistake with the witch.  It's not quite fair to blame it on the TV scriptwriters.  It was necessary for a variety of dramatic reasons that Khal Drogo and his son die.  The witch was a lesson-teacher.  Had Khal Drogo lived, the Khaleesi would never have been able to come into her own as a leader: she would have been forever just the Khal's wife.

oliviamungal
oliviamungal

I'd say this doesn't just apply to women. Look at the male protagonists in shows like Justified, Sons of Anarchy, or Game of Thrones. These guys are badasses, except when it comes to their women and children. The entire plot of Red Wedding happened because Rob had to choose love over fulfilling his obligations to marry an ally's daughter. It's a human weakness, not a woman's weakness.

DwDunphy
DwDunphy

Men still play the dominant role in the business of Hollywood. Until that changes, women can save the world and shoot aliens and zombies, but they'll always crumble for their men.

BrittanyForbes
BrittanyForbes

@redjacob12 Um...lesbians? They are women who don't long for men. Or asexual women who don't long for anyone? 

And yeah, you read one women's poem, that must mean all women are the same.