06 October 2010

Connecting with female characters in geek television

Cross-posted at Geek Feminism.

s. e. smith wrote this amazing post a while back at Bitch's Push(back) at the Intersections: "I Just Don't Like That Many Female Characters." And I read it and was like, "OMG GEEK CULTURE." Because, really:
'I just don't really like many female characters, you know?'

I see this coming up again and again in discussions about pop culture; this is an attitude I myself once embraced and espoused, like it was a badge of honor to dislike most female characters. I thought I was being oh-so-edgy and critiquing female characters when really I was engaging in an age-old form of misogyny, where people prove how progressive they are by saying they hate women.

I know, it sounds weird. But there is a thing that happens where some feminists declare themselves firmly to be 'one of the guys.' I'm not sure if it's a defensive tactic, designed to flip some attitudes about feminism and feminists, or if there is a genuine belief that being feminist means 'being one of the guys.' Once you are 'one of the guys,' you of course need to prove it by bashing on women, because this is what 'guys' do, yes? So you say that you don't really 'connect with' or 'like' female characters you encounter in pop culture.
If feminists feel pressure to be accepted as "one of the guys," imagine how geek women feel, particularly early in their lives, when they often feel isolated from one another.
This tendency to dislike female character reminds me of another "being one of the guys" strategy: I often meet women who tell me proudly, "I just don't get along with women.* All of my best friends have been guys." These women also often think that this fact actually makes them progressive (because nothing's more radical than failing to create female-centric relationships!). And most of the women I've known who say this are geeks. It's actually one of the reasons it took so long for me to become friends with geeks, because "I don't get along with women" is dealbreaker for me. Any woman who says this is either a) telling me that I can never expect more than perfunctory friendship with them or b) inviting me to denigrate women as well, as the basis of our friendship. And no thank you.

Which is not, of course, to say that these ladies are horrible people. Women who refuse to connect with other women, fictional or real, are not causing the problem, but perpetuating it, because they've bought patriarchal narratives about women hook, line, and sinker. They seek connections with men, because men are the rational, smarter set, and by doing so they feel required to malign their own genders, because, as smith points out, "bashing on women" is just what dudes do. But loving other women, connecting with other women, is one of the most radical feminist act one can perform. And I think that goes for fictional characters, too, especially since I know that my personal path to feminism would have been greatly hindered if it weren't for Xena and Buffy.

So it hurts my heart when geeks inexplicably "hate" female characters on geek shows. Indeed, the two examples smith uses are actually from geeky/fantasy/SF shows: True Blood and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It seems like misogynist write-offs of female characters are disturbingly prevalent in allegedly progressive fan cultures (like the overtly feminist Buffy), and the ones that have been pissing me off lately are, of course, Doctor Who-related. A sizeable part of DW and Torchwood fandoms has a lot of ire for female characters from these series. The two I want to focus on, in part because hatred of these characters is well-represented in both fan communitities, are Gwen Cooper (from Torchwood) and River Song (from Doctor Who).

[Spoilers for season 5 of Doctor Who and Torchwood: Children of Earth (season 3) below the fold.]

[Trigger warning for imagined violence against female characters, slut-shaming, and other misogynistic language.]

Gwen Cooper

Now, Gwen is not perfect on this show. For that matter, neither is anyone else. Everyone on this show is flawed, most of them quite seriously. Under the stress and weirdness of working for Torchwood, Gwen is dismissive of her partner, Rhys, and then cheats on him with a fellow Torchwood employee, Owen. And, throughout the entire series, she's in love with Jack (who the fuck isn't), but marries Rhys anyway. So, Gwen has some personal failings. Compared with the failings of the other major characters, in particular Owen's unfeeling libertine ways and Jack's stringing along Ianto and sacrificing his own grandson, however, Gwen is about right in the middle of the Torchwood-employees-are-bad-people bell curve. However, unlike most of the other characters, a sizeable minority of fans violently hate her, to the extent that there is an Anti-Gwen Alliance on LJ, complete with youtube video. People call her things like "a selfish stupid slutty little gap toothed bitch who should die a very painfull death." So what the fuck is up?

She's ugly. If you think this, and also think that it is a legitimate reason to hate a (female) character, you're a douche. I mean, not only are you wrong, judging female characters solely on whether you want to fuck them or whether they live up to unrealistic standards of beauty makes you a misogynist, even if you're a lady. (More on this with River Song.)

She's whiny. From smith:
People who claim not to like female characters often have difficulty explaining why exactly. Take a character like Buffy, who is called 'whiny' for having opinions and not being shy about them, for occasionally being vulnerable and frightened and sad. It couldn't possibly be because her friends repeatedly fuck her over, she was yanked out of heaven to save her friends' butts, she's been burdened with huge responsibility, and she's constantly taken for granted, right? She couldn't possibly have any reason to be angry and to speak up about it, just like Tara has no reason to be angry either. Nope, they're both just whiny women. Write off, move on.
THIS. People who call Gwen whiny don't feel the need to explain why. And if they do, they hate Gwen because she acts like a woman (because, ew, who would want that?). From a Facebook thread about hating Gwen:
Yeah, I don't really watch Dr. Who, but I got the impression that Rose was a lot like Gwen, and I can't for the life of me understand why the writers like characters like this. I just find them so irritating. I don't get why women have to be all sappy in shows. Why can't there be more women like Xena or Ellen from Supernatural, strong without the sappy. I tend to like women characters better when writers don't feel like they have to make them all soft and whiney, because I just don't think that's really embracing feminism. It's keeping girls in the whiney category and keeping guys as the strong ones who don't whine a lot.
In other words, if producers would make female characters MORE LIKE MEN, then they would be less annoying. That, apparently, is feminism. Women who have feelings and express them are "all sappy" and "soft." Because, gross, right?  smith again:
Much of this baseless hatred of women characters seems to be a reflection of internalized self-hatred. Being 'emotional,' for example, is a trait that society says is not acceptable for women, and thus expressions of emotion on the part of women characters are condemned. People will sometimes hide behind claims of 'stereotyping' to criticize women characters, arguing that the characters reinforce problematic ideas about women while little realizing that they themselves are reinforcing those ideas; people who claim that characters like Tara [from Buffy] are 'too emotional' and that this feeds ideas about 'hysteria' and women don't seem to recognize that they are reflecting a commonly held social attitude, that women should not be emotional. They ignore the very real reasons for Tara to be upset; seeing your lover shot and lying in a pool of his own blood, for example, is a very emotional experience.
Calling women who express their emotions sappy and whiny doesn't make you a feminist. Capitulating to sexist stereotypes about proper behavior, painting everything "feminine," like having emotions, as "soft" and "sappy," as not legitimate, is exactly the opposite of feminism, and doesn't do women any favors.

She's a slut. This one is particularly precious, because most Gwen-haters love Jack, the sluttiest** of all DW-related characters. People seem personally offended that Gwen is a threat to Jack and Ianto's relationship (obviously, before Ianto died in CoE), as if that particular flirtation is all about Gwen being a home-wrecker. We see that Jack both initiates and encourages their flirtations, as well as his tendency to rather unfeelingly brush off Ianto whenever Ianto tries to define their relationship or ask for committment from Jack. The image that Gwen-haters seem to have, of a happy, committed gay couple and a bitch trying to wreck it, is a constructed fantasy, one created for the sole purpose of maligning Gwen. 

She's smug. Don't women know they should never act like they know anything? Gwen is often accused of acting too much like a know-it-all:
Can they kill Gwen in episode one? Please? I promise I'll watch all 10 episodes live if they do.

I just can't stand the smug bitch. Oh, look at me. I never get hurt, am loved by everybody, and have an adorable caring husband who loves me unconditionally even though I'm a raging knowitall bitch. Fuck. I'd prefer Ianto's sister coming back to join the force over more Gwen.
Anyone want to play a guessing game? Who else can we think of that never gets hurt, is loved by everybody, and has an adorable caring partner who loves hir despite hir serious committment issues? Oh RIGHT. Jack fucking Harkness. And while he certainly gets his share of being called "smug" on the internet, it's not by people who call Gwen smug. It's cool for him to act like he knows everything (and, of course, he does act like that), presumably because his penis gives him magical not-annoying powers. This is the real problem with hating Gwen: she and Jack are quite alike, and not by accident. But behaviors we find acceptable in men are simply not okay in women. And even if Gwen doesn't act like Jack, and goes around acting like a lady with her lady-feelings, she's still considered whiny and annoying by the fans. There is no winning this game.
River Song

People that hate River Song confuse me sometimes more than people who hate Gwen. Which isn't to say that Gwen-hate makes more sense, because if you hate severely flawed characters, WHY ARE YOU WATCHING TORCHWOOD, but River gives them a lot less to work with. Not that it matters, because it appears that folks draw from the same store of justifications when it comes to hating lady-characters. From Amplicate:
she is just so fuckin smug! she looks about 50 (especially in the weeping angels episodes) and shes still teasing the poor doctor about what they used her handcuffs for *shudder* i wouldnt mind seeing david tennant or matt smith use them but with her!! *shudder of disgust*. and she always calls him pretty boy and sweetie. it makes me sick, seriously. and i ABSOLUTELY HATE it when she says 'spoilers' in that smug voice of hers. and in dr who confidential she had to thow herself right ontop of poor matt, i bet she loved that, especially when she put her knee into matts groin continuously, which even matt admitted she did. and she was giggling away, probably fantasizing about using her handcuffs with matt.

sorry, this might be a bit harsh, but i just had to say how i much i hate the pig.
Even though River is a very different character than Gwen, we get the same string of reasons to hate her: she's ugly, she's a slut, and she's smug. Let's deal with the ugly thing first. Because, again, it makes you a douchebag, particularly when you only think someone's ugly because she "looks about 50"*** and especially when she's clearly gorgeous. I keep pointing this out, not because conventional beauty actually matters to liking a character, but because these characters are, for the most part, conventionally beautiful. So by arguing that these conventionally beautiful actresses are "ugly," fans capitulate to an unrealistic and problematic standard of beauty for women, one that insists that the great majority of women (including actresses and models!will never actually be beautiful, but must continually strive for it. One that causes real harm. One that is used to police women who presume to attain any power or agency. Which is all to say, it is not a legitimate complaint to say that you hate a female character because she doesn't match your definition of fuckable or beautiful. Period.
Sometimes River also gets called "whiny," but more often people seem to have a problem with her "smugness," because female characters are in a double bind, just like actual women, whether in positions of leadership or just on the street. Act like a woman (like you have gross lady-feelings), and you're a whiny twit. Act like a man (like you know things), and you're a smug bitch. Observe:
I already REALLY don't like River Song (and just why that is I still haven't figured out) but she has been the closest thing, personality-wise, to a female "Doctor" I've seen thus far, and she makes me want to punch her in the neck.
Because only a dude can get away with acting like the Doctor. It's violence-inducing when a woman does it. Like Gwen and Jack, River and the Doctor are judged differently for having the same characteristics. Acting like the leading men is not okay for female characters, but neither is it okay for them to "act like women," because then they're whiny and girly. They simply can't win, which is sort of the point. Hating female characters doesn't have anything to do with some magical combination of characteristics that make female characters likeable. Rather, it has to do with misogyny and capitulating to a sexist culture, in order to show one's credibility in that culture.

You may have noted the excessive imaginative violence in the hatred of these two characters. Fans often imagine the deaths of these characters (preferably painful) or imagine inflicting violence on them ("she makes me want to punch her in the neck"). This is disturbing, and can be explained by the ways in which geeks feel more pressure to over-act hypermasculinity. Geek boys are often picked on or bullied in school for being beta males, and geek men usually continue to feel undervalued because of their perceived lack of "manliness." Their reaction to this bullying is very often not to subvert the patriarchal masculinity standards that they fail to meet, but to overcompensate for this lack by participating more enthusiastically in misogynistic and homophobic behaviors and language. And women who exist in this culture, and want to be accepted by these geek men, will also often capitulate with misogyny as well, and show their credibility in part by refusing to connect with female characters in television.

smith asks us:
What is so frightening about women characters who display emotions? What is so terrifying about storylines that center women?
Indeed. So let's, as geeks, start to value women, in all their complexity and variety, instead of deciding prematurely that any woman is only worthy of our contempt. There's nothing scary about accepting that women, fictional and real, are human beings.

*Actually, they usually say "girls."

**I don't approve of the judgmental connotations the word "slut" carries with it. By using it, I'm just mimicking the language used by haters, not agreeing with the slut-shaming.

***Fuck, what is wrong with people? Are we really okay with the idea that women are just utterly unfuckable past the age of 30 or 40 or 50? I mean, really?


Simon C. said...

Ugh. I love the idea of River Song -- her out-of-sync history with the Doctor is mysterious, sinister, and romantic, and I love the actor who plays her -- but the writers don't do her character justice at all. Instead of coming across as clever and competent, she's a Mary Sue: never fucks up, beloved by all (on screen, anyway), can kill a Dalek, fly the TARDIS, and outwit, outfight, and score with the Doctor. There's no conflict when she's on the screen, because if she's on the screen, she's going to win. (And then be weirdly condescending to everybody.)

Which sounds a lot like Jack, but Jack has vulnerability, compassion, and flaws: his occasional recklessness and callousness are shown as liabilities, not further proof that OMG HE'S SO BADASS.

I'd like to see River taken down a notch. I'd like to see her not be better than the Doctor at everything ever. I'd like to see someone say "uh, so we're hanging out with a murderer, here?" and have it be a source of tension. I'd like to see some depth to her character, basically, because a dangerously smart, morally ambiguous, and heavily-armed woman who can kick some ass while retaining any feminine traits whatsoever is something my TV needs more of, and as it stands she's kind of disappointingly one-note, and that one note is LOOK HOW PERFECT SHE IS ALL THE TIME.

Still, if being "anti-River" means joining a group who wants to "punch the pig in the neck" because she's so old and uppity and gross, I will table my reservations, STFU, and hope they bring her back as a goddamn regular.

Anne said...

I wish I could have read this some years ago.
I recently encountered geek feminism - and suddenly, a lot of things made sense. I study computer science, and see a lot of these attitudes at my university.

I have not considered the hate for female characters before (mostly because I don't read forums, I think) but I'm quite certain I'll notice those attitudes amongst my peers when we discuss TV-series. Sadly.

annajcook said...

Thanks so much for this post, Courtney! My girlfriend is a long-time DW and TW fan, and introduced me to the series. We both adore Gwen, in no small part because of her complicated, flawed, personhood, and were stunned to find out via your post that there's so much vitriol directed at her!

On a more general vein, I continue to be really surprised by the prevelance of misogyny that goes unchecked within feminist circles, precisely because the feminists themselves are still running so hard from "feminine" behaviors and associations. They haven't stopped to think that by being "one of the guys" and hating on "silly" women, they're reinforcing the kyriarchy by accepting the misogynist paradigm that accepts feminine-typed behaviors, affects, etc. as being of less value.

Gemma said...

Just once, I would like someone who says they hate female characters to name a few that are poorly written cliches of womanhood, instead of whining about the characters that are actually seen to do something with their (fictional!) lives. if the people who dislike female characters were asking for better writing or more realistic characters, I would get it, but no. It's all about the 'Amy Pond, what a whore' stuff for geeks, aparently.

Hutchy said...

"..."I don't get along with women" is dealbreaker for me. Any woman who says this is either a) telling me that I can never expect more than perfunctory friendship with them or b) inviting me to denigrate women as well, as the basis of our friendship. And no thank you."

What a fabulous point.

Adrienne said...


I agree your points to a certain extent- I totally agree that River is a bit of a shallow (in the literary sense) character. She isn't very flushed out. And I would love to know her better and see her flaws. And yet- you language still fits into what Courtney's great post is about... you want to see her "taken down a notch"? Can you see how that is EXACTLY the violent language that really does seem to suggest misogyny. Can't you see how your presentation is different than my presentation of seeing her flaws or seeing her character developed more... And the Mary Sue comments... gender/sex problems galore there.

Devinator said...

When I was younger I definitely fell into a similar attitude. However, I've found recently that what I actually hate, rather than the characters, is a stereotypical portrayal of women. Note: I have grown out of this, but I would get incredibly annoyed with female characters that were "slutty" or "whiny", much in the way you're describing above (though I don't have the character background because British television production value generally makes me want to vomit). What was really affecting me, however, was that I felt that the media couldn't get past writing a woman who is either emotional or promiscuous. Seriously, I felt like this was all I ever saw.
Now I focus my attention on how the South is portrayed in the media. Seriously, name a character from Texas on television that doesn't wear a cowboy hat.