A good post from Nikki, in response to some of my writing, saying that it’s not enough to want more women writing and directing television episodes. She writes:
If we suggest that increasing the number of women ON television might increase the number of women BEHIND television, thereby effecting a change in how sexist or feminist television shows might be, we excuse men from the process entirely, except as Upholders of the Status Quo. Set aside the question about women behind the scenes and focus on the men behind the scenes, who are definitely still in power in the media and it’s that power structure that should be held accountable for the current portrayal of women on TV.
Amen. I’m a pretty firm believer in the carrot-and-stick thing, though, because it’s relatively easy for male creators to clap their hands over their ears when they’re being criticized for not giving us wonderful, developed female characters and just not listen. And it’s much easier to get people to listen when you’re praising, and for other people to see that praise and think “I want that!” So without further ado and in no particular order, 10 fantastic female characters on television who were created by men.
1. Trixie, Deadwood, David Milch: I know this list isn’t in order, but if it was, I’d still put it at the top. Milch’s prostitute-turned-accountant, pimp’s-trick-turned-Jewish-businessman’s-girlfriend would still be at the top. We meet Trixie at the beginning of the show when she’s been accused of murder, and watch her help another woman beat a drug addiction even when it means defying her employer’s orders; seek out an education no one ever gave her so she can have more options in life; stand up for her friends when they get married and grieve for them when they bury their children; and develop a new relationship. She’s always making choices. And when she takes steps backwards, we understand why, at the gut level. She’s empowered, but the show doesn’t fall prey to the trap that strong female characters created by men often do — that women’s liberation is purely a matter of will, not circumstance.
2. Alice Morgan, Luther, Neil Cross: Alice, who enters the scene when she murders her parents, melts down the gun, and feeds the remaining parts to her dog, is a certified crazy person, but she’s not a victim. Her attraction to John Luther doesn’t make her a nymphomaniac. And her decision to work cases comes out of a clearly defined alternate morality and worldview. Rather than setting her up to be judged by the audience, she’s a compelling — and sometimes very scary — way to see the universe.
3. Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica, Glen A. Larson and Ronald D. Moore: Smart people can disagree about how Battlestar Galactica went down, and where Starbuck’s character went. But Katee Sackhoff’s agonized, religious, sometimes drunk fighter pilot was tremendously real. “Scar” remains one of my favorite television episodes in the narrow but important category of “incredibly hard to watch, incredibly good performance.” And watching her fight back against assault, whether she’s being kept under and used for reproductive experiments in “The Farm” or killing Leoben over and over again in “Occupation” is both difficult and inspiring.
4. Diane Chambers, Cheers, James Burrows, Glen Charles, and Les Charles: Diane’s perhaps the most conventionally female of the characters I’ll put on this list, and in some ways, she’s an easy character to dismiss: insecure, self-centered, intellectually pretentious. But Diane’s is also in development, and the writers on Cheers were careful to make sure that she had a point often enough not to be entirely insufferable. It’s of a piece with Cheers‘ ongoing conversation about class and gender, none of which exists without Diane as a counterpoint. She gets some help with Frasier’s arrival on the show, but for a long time, Diane’s essentially alone in a cast where there are many more representations of working-class experience. And she carries it off.
5. Buffy Summers, Willow Rosenberg, and Cordelia Chase, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Joss Whedon: The first two are no duh entries in the list. We all know Buffy and my secret cousin Willow are awesome. But I’ve always been impressed by how Whedon treated Cordy, particularly in the early seasons of Angel. She’s the kind of character it would be really easy for a creator with a nerd constituency to tear down. After the way she treats Willow and Xander early in their relationship, it’d be a pretty typical revenge of the nerds arc. But Whedon never humiliates her. Instead, he helps her course-correct and find another way to a meaningful life that doesn’t simply rely on her beauty.
6. Temperance Brennan, Bones, Hart Hanson: Bones may increasingly be a soap opera with uninteresting week-by-week cases, but Brennan is a shining star for nerdy little girls who want to grow up, have jobs that are grounded in their interests, and have great apartments (and hunky FBI boyfriends). She’s an argument that the arc of the universe can bend towards you, rather than you remaking yourself to suit the universe.
7. Ruth Evershed, Spooks, David Wolstencroft: Continuing the nerd-love, I’ve always believed that the real heroes of this great-if-slightly-overdone British spy show aren’t the gorgeous spies in the field, they’re the nerds on the grid, like boss Harry Pearce and analyst Ruth Evershed. Ruth can be shy and awkward, but she’s stalwart, brave, and smart. She and Harry have one of the great romances, which is brought to a climax by a plot where she does into hiding rather than let him save her by giving in and declaring his support for torture.
8. Skyler White, Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan: Skyler may be the least likable character on this list. Not because, as she complains to her husband, meth cook Walter, she’s put in the position of being the “bitch mom” who shuts things, like Walt’s purchase of an extremely expensive car for their son. But because she’s sort of willfully self-deluding, because she sees the smallest, most comfortable part of the picture, whether she’s imagining Walt as a victim, or his income as launderable, or Ted as pliant. But there’s something compelling about Skyler’s despair, about the way she’s built a labyrinth from which there’s no escape, the way she keeps nudging the quarter back over the New Mexico border. In our age of super-empowered female heroine, Skyler’s a reminder that it’s still possible to get trapped, and that figuring out how to get out remains an important topic of exploration.
9. Katara, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko: I’ve written before about the way that Avatar manages to root female characters’ strength in their femininity rather than trying to make them more like men. But it’s worth reiterating that the show gets Katara through adolescence and the permanent loss of her mother and never judges her for being angry or making mistakes. She doesn’t shrink, or change her look, or freak out about boys. There are bigger battles, and she waterbends her way straight through them.
10. Rose Tyler, Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies: Lots of Doctors, lots of companions. But Rose Tyler’s my favorite. She’s a perfect example of how British shows aren’t afraid to have working-class heroines, and watching her leave her boyfriend behind to race joyfully back to the TARDIS was a beautiful illustration of the joys of exploration and adventure.