The Rules of Television Feminism

Generally, I’m a big fan of dialog – although I may disagree with a position, and vociferously so, there’s not a lot that someone can say that will cause me to shut down listening to that person altogether, particularly if they’ve already proven themselves to be a fairly rigid and compassionate thinker on the whole.  But this week, a feminist blogger who I had followed regularly committed the highest act of intellectual abuse in my world, and has been banished forever from my Google Reader.  What could she possibly have done, you might wonder?


It’s my own personal version of an Unforgivable Curse, and it’s called the Feminist Dismissal of Dana Scully.


You see, what this blogger was particularly upset about was that during a PBS series about archetypes on television, Scully was chosen as the only female profiled in-depth for the “Crusader” episode.  Other notable Crusaders included the racist alcoholic Sipowycz (from “NYPD Blue”); Jack Bauer, “24”’s war criminal of a protagonist; Omar, the street vigilante of “The Wire”; and Dexter.  The serial killer.  From “Dexter.”  Amongst such company you might have thought Scully the single unequivocal hero, but not to the feminist blogger in question, who dismissed her as a “baby-obsessed killjoy,” a description which only makes sense if you are talking about the way Scully was written in MacSpooky fanfic.  (That is the probably the nerdiest reference I will ever make on this blog, and also the most obscure.  If you really want to encounter fanfic at all of its most awful cliches, google it.  Preferably while drunk.)


In the actual show, Scully did make occasional reference to a vague desire for a family and a “normal” adult life, in season 4’s “Home” and season 6’s “Dreamland”; she stated explicitly in season 5’s “Christmas Carol” that she wanted a child, in the context of expressing her resentment that the choice had been taken from her as a result of her abduction (and medical experimentation upon) by a cabal of old white dudes.  Saying once in seven years that she wanted a kid – CLEARLY THE WOMAN CAN THINK OF NOTHING BUT THE BABIES!  As for the “killjoy” charge, well, if being a rational, intelligent, highly competent professional who demands proof from one’s (possibly) clinically insane partner before leaping to belief about aliens – and if expressing that sentiment most commonly with big words and sarcasm – if that’s being a killjoy, well, then I have no idea what words even mean anymore.


Here’s the thing: there are problematic elements of “The X-Files”’s treatment of its female characters.  Scully was awesome, but we might wonder why she had to be the secondary lead; why there were so few female regulars relative to the number of dudes; and why so many of the women we met in individual episodes were victims.  We might even ask of the show’s fans why the second movie, which places Scully’s psychological journey at the forefront (ahead of Mulder’s), was so roundly panned – OH WAIT I ALREADY HAVE A MULTI-PAGE ESSAY EXPLORING THAT SAME QUESTION, written last year, as-yet unpublished by any of the feminist publications to which it has been submitted because apparently, they like things like this better:

“8 Obnoxious Cliches About Men, Women, & Sex in Otherwise Good TV Shows”


This piece asks some good questions, particularly about abortion – no primetime American series has shown a character having an abortion on television in something like thirty years (Ruthie, I trust you can fact-check me here, and/or excerpt your thesis at any length below), and that just doesn’t pass the smell test.  But chiding “Parks & Recreation” for April and Andy’s wedding?  Claiming that “the climax of the show centers around Leslie giving up her cherished feminist beliefs about delaying marriage until maturity and joining in a sentimental celebration of two very immature people making an important decision they’re clearly not ready for”?


What Leslie gives up on is the idea that she can prevent two young people from living their own lives.  Whether she still considers the marriage to be a mistake or not isn’t really the issue – the issue is that Leslie finally recognizes that however much she scolds, April and Andy are going to get married regardless, and that while their decision might be stupid it isn’t dangerous, and people need to make their own mistakes.  (The essay also bizarrely claims that this season “doesn’t allow that the characters could ever be really wrong in their decisions,” even though the two biggest story arcs have both been about complete failure – Leslie’s failure to end her relationship with Ben, and the total implosion of Tom Haverford’s entrepreneurial dreams with Entertainment 720.)


Similarly, the essay’s discussion of Britta declaring her love for Jeff on “Community” is odd, in that the moment itself is excoriated, but the resolution is praised – even though one of Britta’s key character traits is her awkwardness and compulsive need to have an opinion about everything, making her ill-advised declaration well in keeping with things the character would actually do.


The final element of the essay which really chapped my hide came in its discussion of “Veronica Mars”, where some very, very valid points are raised, but only after this introduction:

“The first two seasons of “Veronica Mars” nicely helped feminist TV fans minimize the withdrawal symptoms from the end of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The show followed a teenage girl who chooses to live a life of a private investigator instead of simply being content with high school and college. Sure, Veronica could never fully compete with Buffy in a one-on-one competition of witty, badass ladies with surprising vulnerabilities, but as a 21st-century Nancy Drew, she still provided the audience with mysteries to solve and a fun and clever heroine to root for.”

I haven’t posted about “Buffy” in a while, because Season 7 is SO horrifically bad that it is taking me forever to get through (seriously, the last episode I saw had me wishing I could pull a Xander and get my eye stabbed out, just so I could stop watching), but: can we stop with the feminist fellating of “Buffy” already?  (The cunnilinguing?  Does that word even have a gerund form?)  Buffy was a cool character, and the universe of “Buffy” was populated with other cool lady characters, but the story went to great, contortionist lengths to show that Buffy was Better Than Everyone even when that meant punishing the other cool lady characters for precisely the traits which made them cool – and that, my friends, is not cool.  Buffy also operated in a nearly all-white landscape (Leslie Knope is very white, but every other regular female character on “Parks & Recreation” is a woman of color), dominated by rigid beauty standards (how many of Buffy’s witty quips are predicated on physical judgments?  A lot.), and she had her power – her much-celebrated feminist superpower – handed to her by a group of old white dudes.


In the PBS episode which prompted the Feminist Dismissal of Dana Scully discussed above, the blogger initially expressed her contempt at the idea of Scully-as-Crusader with anger that Buffy hadn’t been chosen instead.  But Buffy is problematic too, not the least because the entire series is based on the idea that she requires (male-gifted) mystical superpowers to be a badass.  Veronica Mars?  Dana Scully?  Leslie Knope?  These characters are awesome without any magical assistance.  Take away Buffy’s divine right, and she’d get her ass handed to her by any one of them.  Plus, all three could outsmart her in any conditions.


Here’s what I’m saying: I dig feminism.  I dig “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  But the idea that “Buffy” is the only correct feminist show or heroine seems disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst – making a size-00 blonde girl with mystical superpowers a feminist totem is like calling Superman a serious role model.  Yes, women have every right to be portrayed just as improbably as male superheroes, but making that some kind of standard – against which any other female character will fall short – is just as limiting as all the previous rules that have held for female characters throughout TV’s short history.


TV is awesome.  It can tell a lot of stories.  There is room for all kinds of awesome ladies on it.

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