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.