Representations of Women in Television: A Feminist’s Dilemma
I am in a spot of bother, the midst of an ideological dilemma the likes of which I have not experienced since having to choose between Coco Pops and Fruit Loops.
You see, I self identify as a feminist. The rights and representations of women in everyday life as well as in popular culture are concepts that live very close to my heart (heart adjacent, if you will). I am often on the receiving end of backlash from both friends and strangers, arguing that feminism is unnecessary, that equality has been achieved, that burning my bra in a public setting is a fire hazard. However, as much as that is unsettling to me, that isn’t the problem I am facing at the moment.
As an amateur television critic and academic, I focus heavily on the representations of women in popular culture, as well as how feminist concepts are worked-through in the televisual sphere. As such, I am the Queen of Nitpicking; I see things that others don’t, and then I overanalyse them. It is, I have on fair authority, extremely annoying. However, it has a purpose. Nitpickers find trends, gaps, or silences within the media and shine a spotlight on them so that any imbalances or ideological discrimination can be fixed or eliminated. My eyes and ears are fine-tuned to perk up like a meerkat, particularly when confronted with misogynistic portrayals of femininity.
A particularly egregious example was the last series of Masterchef Australia, creatively titled Boys vs. Girls. One need not go past the advertisements to see the outrageous stereotypes. In one thirty-second spot, you have women claiming to be ‘the perfect 1950’s housewife’ and arguing that ‘women are just naturally better at cooking and multitasking’. Don’t even get me started on the pseudo-sexual imagery of the boys-with-baguettes/women-with-oven-mitts. This, though, isn’t my problem. Well, not the big one anyway. This is the sort of outlandish sexism that is noticed by the press and by the general public, and so its negative effects are reduced through exposition.
My problem, my unsolvable problem, lies with shows such as Game of Thrones, Xena, The Pillars of the Earth and Robin Hood. Starting with the first two, I want to focus on the characters of Xena (Lucy Lawless) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). These characters are remarkably similar, with both being strong, independent women who live within a fantastic, pseudo-historical realm that is hostile to female power. Both are valorised as heroes (in Thrones that is a dangerous place to be) and earn the grudging respect of many of the men that they encounter on their journeys. They are, however, privileged predominantly because of their masculine traits. They stand out because of their ability to fight, drink and (in Xena’s case) sleep around like men. This is a distinctive aspect of second-wave feminism, where femininity was often demonised as a socially constructed oppressor of women. While Xena retains the beauty that Brienne is denied, even that is compromised.
Somehow, I don’t think a leather netball skirt will protect her from sword to the thigh (or an arrow to the knee), and thus her armour serves not as a reminder of femininity so much as an indicator of her status as a sexual object. Basically, these women are valorised and popularised because they act like men. This, in turn, suggests that femininity itself is weak.
What’s my problem then? If I don’t like the characters, I can just turn the television off. Is it that I can’t watch television anymore because of this phenomenon? Is it because I get so angry I throw things and break the screen? No. It’s because I love these characters. When I watch those shows, any thoughts of feminism tend to fly out of my head in favour of watching Brienne go full American Psycho on three Stark soldiers. I can’t focus on how Xena is a sexualised object while she is PUNCHING SEXISM IN THE FACE. These women represent an outdated form of empowerment that, in actuality, demonises and minimises the importance of femininity; and yet, I can’t stop adoring them. That is, however, only half of my problem.
The Pillars of the Earth is a miniseries set in early medieval England; based on the Ken Follett novel of the same name. I want to talk about the main female character, the Lady Aliena. She begins life rich and comfortable, but a series of unfortunate circumstances leave her, and her brother, all but penniless. Her brother is useless (pretty, but useless), and thus she takes it upon herself to start what will become a thriving wool business. She is representative of the feminist spirit, in that she transcends the stifling bonds of patriarchy and becomes a success in her own right, supporting her brother and winning the hearts and minds of the once-sceptical township.
Robin Hood‘s Marian is of similar fare, as she defies her father’s wishes and masquerades about town as the vigilante Night Watchman. Marian is also feisty, often questioning why her status as a female precludes her from participating in the escapades of Robin Hood. Both Marian and Aliena are beautiful and powerful, as well as resourceful; they are near-perfect characters. I thoroughly dislike them.
I’m not going to mention the historical anachronism; the fact that this level of post-feminist discourse was hardly evident in the Middle Ages is neither here nor there. The problem is, Aliena and Marian were designed specifically with the post-feminist in mind. They have the exact right balance of femininity and feminism in order to be palatable to a large female audience; in truth, they are outstanding role models. Unfortunately, they don’t feel real. The problem with many post-feminist representations of women is that they look and feel constructed. In fan-fiction, this is termed a Mary-Sue, when a character is introduced into the narrative (usually as a love-interest) that somehow ‘solves’ the main narrative plot through her perfection. How am I supposed to relate to the perfect woman? I’m female; I’m sociologically positioned to see other women as a threat! In addition to this constructed nature, the audience is positioned to side with the women on feminist grounds regardless of whether the argument has substance. For example, Robin Hood privileges Marian’s wish to be more involved in political affairs and outlaw escapades, yet her inexperience in either field would inevitably make her an inefficient inclusion. My main gripe here is that the show asserts that she should be included because she is a woman, not because she has the experience or knowledge to be useful.
So, there is my problem. The characters I am supposed to be offended by are remarkable; while the ones made specifically to please me are boring at best and offensive at worst. I can’t even blame television- the ‘perfect woman’ represented by Marian and Aliena was born from feminist resentment of the masculinity of Xena and Brienne. Effectively, people like me have created my problems. What is a girl to do?
I know what you are thinking: turn off the sexism Spidey-senses when it comes to television. If I am not thinking about the effect that negative or unattainable female representations have on society, then I won’t have a problem, right? Unfortunately, I can’t just turn it off; it’s a part of who I am. I’ve trained for years to spot misogyny; I am unable to stop now. It’s like telling a leopard to change its spots, or a Lannister to not pay a debt. Impossible.
I said at the beginning of the article that there was no answer to be found, and I was telling the truth. There can never be a perfect representation of women, because she would be imperfect due to her perfection. In addition, even if I thought a character was exactly how I wanted a female to be portrayed, there would be a thousand others who would disagree. However, one positive we can take from this is that representations are always changing. The producers and writers of television are, at least some of the time, thinking about how they are portraying women. There will be no right answer; there is no final copy of women- we just have to keep marking the drafts.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go watch Brienne of Tarth fight a bear.
What do you think? Leave a comment.