Female characters in television are an entirely different kettle of fish so to speak. There are a lot more of them and there are a lot more spaces for different roles in television. A movie is one to two hours, three if you’re Peter Jackson. That isn’t a lot of time to develop a role. Television is at least thirteen hours, well, thirteen minus 260 minutes for commercials. That’s a much larger span of time to develop a role, to have a character that is more fleshed out and developed. There are also a lot more television shows than there are movies in production at any given time. So, there are a lot more chances when going after a role, you might get something that is actually worth the time of day.
That being said, there are a lot of television shows out there and I can only keep up with so many of them. What I watch in TV is probably going to say a lot about my taste. You aren’t going to find Breaking Bad, Mad Men or Orange is the New Black on my ‘to watch’ list. (Sons of Anarchy I need to finish, I’ve got Vikings, Dracula and Game of Thrones, though Game of Thrones I’m waiting for them to finish.)
The thing about television is that there is a great variety of characters. If you want to see a female detective, you can probably find it. If you want a female medical examiner or a doctor or a forensic anthropologist, it is probably somewhere on television. There are female lawyers and female high school students and female cheerleaders that kill vampires. There are female astronauts and aliens. There are a lot of different roles where parents can point to their daughters and say “yes, you can do that, even if it is difficult.” They also come in all flavors of personality from the sarcastic take charge types, to the motherly types, to those who just don’t understand these things called human emotions. They like more things than shopping or manicures. Some, even, gasp, like to read. Just, you aren’t going to find all of them in the same show (that might be asking too much. So sad.)
Let’s get Joss Whedon out of the way first. Everyone loves him or everyone hates him. He is a self proclaimed feminist ally. He isn’t a perfect feminist ally. I don’t think there is any such thing as the perfect feminist ally. A lot of his ‘feminist ideals’ are years out of date. At least, barring a few glaring examples, Joss Whedon at least tries to not only have strong female characters in his works, but to have multiples of them so that there isn’t just one female to stand in for the female viewer. (I’m talking the MCU and Dr. Horrible’s Sing A Long Blog here as examples of gross failures. The MCU isn’t entirely his fault, but he could do better. See Natasha Romanoff.) Joss almost always has at least half of his main character ensembles be female characters. When a lot of times in major television shows with large ensembles, there are still only one or two female characters this is highly refreshing.
Joss gives characters ranging from spunky cheerleader who kills vampires to evil lawyer villainesses and everything in between. There are moms, bratty teenage sisters and awkward nerdy girls, there are crazy genius girls, sweet mechanics and sexual healers. I wouldn’t call all of his female characters good role models. And I wouldn’t call all of his storylines expressly empowering, because they aren’t. But the women are there, for good or for ill, making their presence known. Despite Buffy’s flaws as a person and a character, I can admire her for standing up to the council and being “I am the only slayer you have, we will do things my way.” Sure, the situations are blown out of proportion, there is still something to be said about having a female on television who is willing to stick up for herself and what she believes in even in the face of terrible monsters. I appreciate Inara Serra’s role in Shindig when her client tried to offer her a place on Persephone. She didn’t want or need his offer. She had a life of her own and she turned him down because she had a life whether or not he liked or approved of it. She didn’t need his approval. That is a powerful message. (Dollhouse is just one of those travesties that might have sounded good on paper, but didn’t work well in execution.)
Another show that was airing at the same time as Buffy and Angel (and before Firefly) was Dark Angel. Dark Angel, along with Firefly, was the type of science fiction show that should have been on the Sci Fi channel but somehow ended up on Fox in a prime time slot. Fortunately, the cast of Dark Angel was limited with the main focus being on the female protagonist, Max. The show had a strong first season and took a turn off into Timbuktu in the second season and had plans for the third season that were ridiculous. Max becomes the savior of humanity by way of the common cold. (Let’s not talk about how this isn’t scientifically feasible.) It was cancelled in favor of Firefly and then later Firefly was cancelled as well. At least, Joss Whedon’s ideas for further Firefly seasons were in bad taste not outright crazy. For the time, Max was pretty outspoken and very cynical for a main character. What impressed me the most about Max and still does, was that she wasn’t just the ‘love interest’ and she didn’t have a role defined by her job. She was the ‘female doctor’ or the ‘vampire slayer’ or ‘police detective.’ She was Max who happened to be a bike messenger and a genetic experimentation fugitive. She had goals she was pursuing that she didn’t need the main male character’s help for, but he was sure convenient and cute. That type of role is difficult to find.
We can compare this to a more recent scifi show, Killjoys. I watched the first season of Killjoys. I liked the concept, bounty hunters in space. The leader is a sexy kick butt female stereotype. The concept had merit and there were places where it was genuinely funny and female forward. (I really liked the episode with the pregnant surrogate mother.) However, despite the fact that a huge part of the ongoing story (which doesn’t really fit the concept as first presented) is centered around the female lead, she still feels downgraded to a love interest about two thirds of the way through. The first two episodes made me groan and I knew the relationship between the female lead and the military brother was going to be made into a romantic relationship. It wasn’t well done. It was contrived and forced. (The first episode opened with a ‘threaten to rape the girl’ sequence that turned my stomach.) And left me with a bad taste in my mouth that while the female could be sexy, smart and fight savvy, she was still in the end, just the love interest. (Which is really sad because Killjoys was created by a female writer.)
See, to me the plot of Killjoys doesn’t actually revolve around the female character. It revolves around her mentor. He could have chosen any girl in the harem that the female lead grew up in to be his special assassin. The fact he chose her was rather incidental to the entire affair. So far, as the story is given to us, I could replace the female lead with just about any other female and it wouldn’t change the story much it feels like, because it is the mentor who is important and pulling the strings, not her.
It’s not to say that romance is a bad plot line. However, when all a female character brings to the plot is to be the love interest, then there is a problem. It doesn’t matter what type of stereotype she is. If there were more female characters in these stories, they wouldn’t have to be the ‘love interest’ or the ‘damsel in distress.’ It would open up more story lines for women. Of course, this isn’t a clear cut solution either, since many of the background female characters in television shows also end up being little more than love interests to the main characters even when they have vital roles like medical doctor. Though, I am talking about more female leads rather than background characters. So, I’m waiting for the female character in Killjoys to actually take a step forward and take control over her story.
So between them, to me, Dark Angel was a better show, at least for its first season. We’ll see if Killjoys improves and the main lead becomes an independent character in her own right (more like Max.)
To be continued…