I’ve noticed a common dynamic in male-female partnerships in media, mostly television, which is a little bit troubling. It wouldn’t be troubling on its own, but the sheer ubiquity of it, as well as the scarcity of its opposite, is what makes it part of an unfortunate trend.
And that is the fact that in most male-female partnerships (that are “unusual”), the male is the interesting and dynamic one, and the female is the normal one.
To be fair, more and more the woman is empowered and strong, capable and intelligent. She may be a cop or agent, and she will sometimes do the rescuing. Though there are still moments of being a damsel in distress (which, I have to admit, I can’t help but enjoy), she often rises above those moments, rescues herself, or balances it out by sometimes rescuing him. It’s an improvement, definitely.
And again, none of this would be ‘bad’—if it weren’t a trend.
Case in point (and some of these I haven’t seen, so they may have dynamics or details I’m not aware of):
- Doctor Who: male = immortal alien; female = human
- Sleepy Hollow: male = time-traveling (ish) professor; female = human cop
- Forever: male = immortal; female = human cop
- The Blacklist: male = notorious criminal; female = agent
- Intelligence: male = cyber-enhanced intellect; female = agent/bodyguard
- Elementary: male = genius detective; female = caretaker -> partner-in-training
Then, of course, there are all the superhero movies where the love interest is “normal,” although for the most part they have to be since the main hero is the only non-normal around (at least in the beginning… I made this post on Tumblr about how close we came to giving the ladies some awesome powers in the Marvel movies).
[I believe that one of the reasons a female superhero movie* is so slow in arriving, in this era of reboot after remake after sequel when they should be desperate for anything with a whiff of superhero, is that it’s difficult to give a lone female superhero a love interest who feels “equal” to her. The romantic element could be left out, but that is a fun part of these movies, and yet there’s a very subtle brand of sexism which can’t imagine (or ‘respect’) a man who would be okay with such a powerful woman in the same way that we expect women to want to be with more powerful men. ]
There is one pair that I can think of that subverts the dynamic above:
- Bones: male = FBI agent; female = genius forensic anthropologist
And, of course, there are numerous partnerships where they are both fairly normal (such as Law and Order: SVU, The X-Files). And there are examples where a powerful woman or group of women is surrounded by less powerful men, but it’s not meant to be a partnership dynamic so I’m not including it on the subversion list (Buffy, Charmed). So it’s not an absolute rule by any means, but from what I can remember (and if I’m missing obvious examples, please let me know), this is the overall trend.
What does this mean? Well, the innocent explanation is that it’s simple coincidence, that these are the stories the creators wanted to tell, or that these characters just sort of need to be this way.
But I think there is a more insidious explanation for this trend—as a society, we are trained not to find women as interesting or compelling as men. We may not even be aware of it, but men especially are taught that they shouldn’t be interested in reading or watching things about women, that women can’t be funny, that powerful women are bitchy and man-hating, and that men should never want to be like a woman (Heaven forbid they’re girly, or a pussy, or gay and thus feminine).
So why would creators want to tell a story about an interesting and powerful woman followed around by a normal guy who might inspire women but will turn off male viewers, when a story about an interesting man (with a normal female ‘partner’) would result in a character men want to be and women want to be with?
Now, the fact remains that I like a lot of the shows I listed above, and I like the partnership dynamics therein. The female partners are getting a lot stronger and more capable, and they are great characters in their own right; I’m truly not trying to diminish them or their badassery. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that sort of dynamic. And there are moments when contemplating my own stories where I’m tempted by a similar set-up, and I may one day succumb to that temptation and contribute to the “problem.”
All I want is a longer list on the subversion side, not necessarily to take away from the other list. I want powerful and complex female characters that everyone looks up to and wants to be—especially the normal guys following them around, desperately in love with them. 🙂
[*Anyone looking to write a female superhero should take a look at the show Alias–a powerful, kick-ass, complex heroine respected and admired by the men around her while saving the world? AWESOME. It occasionally objectifies its beautiful lead actress, Jennifer Garner, with slow panning shots of her in lingerie or bikinis, and it could use a few more badass ladies around her, but it’s still a great example of how competent and almost supernaturally amazing women can be great heroines.]