"TV’s Great Women Part II: Anti-Heroes, Pure Hearts, And Cordelia Chase"
By Ryan McGee
If you believe the economic realities on display in several of ABC’s recent comedic programming, then you think that current vocational trends predominately favor women. In terms of television, however, this “mancession” simply doesn’t exist, especially when it comes to developing strong three-dimensional women that can support a program’s narrative. Characters like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation and Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife are exceptions that prove the rule, to an extent. But even their arcs are based within an ensemble structure, a structure which has strengthened the shows even while decentralizing their female protagonists.
Should shows be built around a single character pillar, regardless of gender? That’s a perfectly good question to ask. Breaking Bad didn’t really gain power until Walter White stopped overshadowing his onscreen compatriots. And Parks started to flourish only after simultaneously toning Leslie down while expanding the world around her. But it’s infinitely more likely to launch a show based around a chemistry teacher gone to seed than an overly optimistic female government worker seeking to improve her community. We’re somehow more OK with the former than the latter, at least in our entertainments.
The problem isn’t just that there are so few females in the anti-hero position. It’s that the anti-hero position is such a default in television following The Shield that it’s limited the way in which stories can be told on the small screen. Leslie Knope’s optimism is downright revolutionary in comparison to her narcissistic, self-loathing, yet self-justifying counterparts in primetime. It’s not enough to simply be an ordinary person that strives to do good only to face obstacle after obstacle in achieving that goal. We have to watch shows give us walking talking figures that are grotesque, funhouse mirror versions of our own worst impulses in order to either work through our own issues or take heart in knowing our vices pale in comparison to the Tony Sopranos, Vic Mackeys, and Jax Tellers of the world.
When females do end up in this “anti-hero” slot, the shows don’t often know what do with them. A long string of semi-recent Showtime programs have dealt with complicated women, but often in uncomplicated ways. Other than The United States of Tara, which spent three seasons coming to grips with its own conceit, the network’s signature female-led shows demonstrate women behaving badly without true context for their actions. As such, their supposedly outlandish behavior exists in a curious vacuum in which Jackie Peyton, Cathy Jamison, and Nancy Botwin pantomime grief, rage, and illicit behavior in a relatively sterilized environment. They don’t get into the true moral muck of their male counterparts, often because the shows shy away from making these women into the monsters men are so often allowed to become.
All of which makes me wonder why we’ve decided that horrible people need to be at the center of shows, when simply having flawed ones will do. Enter Cordelia Chase, someone not high on the list of even Joss Whedon acolytes as the poster child for basing an ideal television lead upon. I’m not here to start a flame war over whether or not Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel was the overall better show. But I am here to say that I tend to prefer Angel by a slim margin, and Cordelia Chase helps tip the balance in that show’s scale. That may make many of you reach for your replica Mr. Stabbys and seek to stake me. But hear me out.
Cordelia Chase appeared in the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on March 10, 1997, and made her finale appearance on Angel in its 100th episode nearly seven years later. Like many characters on Buffy, she was initially written as a stereotype only to reveal hidden layers along the way. Big deal, you say: so did everyone else on that show. Which is fair, but what’s intriguing about Cordelia is that her story, like that of Xander’s, was initially one in which she was an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Buffy was the Slayer, Willow eventually turned into the world’s most powerful witch, and Giles was both a Watcher and an excellent performer of Who covers.
But Cordy? She didn’t have anything going for her except the nagging feeling that she should be doing more with her life. Her original status as the Mean Girl stemmed from economic and social superiority, but like many pop culture figures in that position, it was a façade more than a reality, a role that she played because she saw no other way. It’s interesting that what inspires her trip to Los Angeles (and, by extension, over to Angel) after graduation from Sunnydale isn’t anything demonic, but rather mundane: tax fraud. Stripped bare of both economic comfort and psychological comfort post-graduation, she moves to LA to become an actress. Of course, what she finally finds is purpose.
What’s most striking about Cordelia, and something that should be applied more broadly when trying to conceive more television characters based on her, is her constant and consistent ability to consciously choose to do more with her life. At nearly every point, she has the opportunity (and often the inclination) to run away. But she doesn’t. She’s a character for whom it would be easy to shut her eyes to the more horrible aspects of life. Instead, she faces them head-on. Getting Doyle’s visions wasn’t something she planned, but turned into something she used to help Angel Investigations. Getting a momentary glimpse into the pain of humanity at once should have driven her mad. Instead, it drives her to help more people. She had an opportunity in Pylea to pass on her visions to the Groosalugg, but chose to maintain control over them. When the visions became too much to bear, she agreed to become half-demon to shoulder the load.
But here’s the key: turning half-demon didn’t make her half-human. Angel as a show later tried to argue that everything that happened to Cordelia was part of some evil, four-season master plan meant to bring about the existence of the supernatural being Jasmine. But that robs the ways in which Cordelia makes choices at every step that enable her to make the world around her a slightly better place. Her goals may be modest, but they are incredible important. They are goals not unlike those of Leslie Knope, who employs a similar “think globally, act locally” mentality. Except, you know, with fewer hellmouths. None of those in Pawnee. (That we know of, at least.)
It’s the modest aims of Cordelia’s worldview that strike me as paramount, because over the course of her character’s run those modest aims turn into a seismic character shift. The joy of watching a character develop over a number of years is the single most powerful thing that television can induce in a viewer. To watch Cordelia change from someone as clueless and selfish as her to someone to whom The Powers That Be themselves owed a favor for services rendered is simply breathtaking to behold. She didn’t get to Point A to Point B without many challenges along the way. But she went through them without viewing the world through cold, cynical, self-serving eyes, either. She saw the world at its worst, but never stopped trying to make it be its best.
Angel wasn’t about Cordelia Chase, but by every meaningful metric she embodied the spirit and ethos of that program: that you never, ever stop fighting for what you believe in. When I call her achievements modest, I don’t mean to dismiss them as unimportant. I simply mean that there’s an artistic need for shows that feature the struggles of Cordelia Chase at the center of their fictional universe. Plenty of shows build their worlds around people we’re meant to loathe. It’s about time we had more shows built around people we’re meant to love. Cordelia Chase fills that role thanks to a seven-year journey that was less about fighting vampires and much, much more about discovering her inner strength. Watching people behaving badly will probably always have a place in the primetime schedule. But me? I’ll take Cordelia Chase trying hard to act nobly any day.