Sunday, September 30, 2012

Favorite Female Figure: Sameness or Difference

The documentary Miss Representation explores the portrayal of women in the media. One of the main messages of the film is that women cannot be what they cannot see. It demonstrates that women are portrayed as shallow characters in the media with little ambition or thoughts of their own. As a result, young girls don't have female role models in popular culture and this drastically affects their goals in life and notions of gender.

The discussion of women in the media begs the question: who do we want as role models for young women? In determining the answer to this question, I am quickly confronted with the classic debate of difference and sameness between the sexes. Should the media embrace the inherent "women's voice," as described by difference feminists such as Carol Gilligan in her book In a Different Voice, and portray women excelling within the framework of relationship based thinking and emotional intelligence? Or should the media embrace sameness between the sexes, embraced by Joan Williams in Deconstructing Gender [1989]?

Determining which of these theories is correct would take much more than a blog post. Instead, I'd like to think of it slightly backwards. First, I'd like to start by describing which female figures I admire and why I am attracted to them. Then I would like to see where they fit on the spectrum of difference or sameness theory.

Although a completely subjective inquiry, it will shed light on which theory is more persuasive in portraying complex and appealing female characters, at least to me. It will also expose me as an avid TV watcher, as all of my favorite female figures are from TV shows.

My Favorite Female Figures

Arya Stark, on Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones is a fantasy show depicting a power struggle for the Iron Throne that includes dragons, mythical "white walkers," and some magic. Arya is a young daughter of a claimant to the throne, who always seems to be getting into trouble and then getting out of it. I relate to her in that we both like to try to chase cats because "[t]hey're as quiet as shadows and as light as feathers. You have to be quick to catch them." (episode: Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things (2011)) . She is states that getting married and having children is "not her" and she would prefer to be a lord herself. She has quick wit, such as when she called a man a liar. He said she shouldn't insult people that are bigger than her. She responded, "Then I wouldn't get to insult anyone." (episode: Game of Thrones: The Night Lands (2012)).

Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, on The Wire.
Snoop is a ruthless killer in a drug dealing gang. In a review of the show, Steven King described Snoop as "the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series." In part, because she is smart. Although she is loyally follows orders as a solider in the gang, she is witty and distinctively independent. She is androgynous, dressing in unisex clothing and speaking in low drawn together slang.

Leslie Knope, on Parks and Recreation.
My favorite network female character is Leslie Knope (there are few to choose from). Knope is the Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department and then elected City Councillor. She is deeply loyal to her hometown of Pawnee, a small town in Indiana. She is optimistic to a fault. She is has a string of hilarious and awkward relationships, and she is currently with the supportive and loyal Ben Wyatt.

Sameness or Difference Spectrum

In reflecting on my favorite characters it is obvious that they fall much closer in line to with the theory of sameness between the genders. Each character contains a multitude of emotions: confidence, vulnerability, wit, emotion, and loyality. In short, none of these characters' essential traits are tied to the fact that they are female. Instead they are each personalities defined outside of their femaleness. They are Arya, Snoop and Leslie, before they are "female."

So now that I have determined that the "women's voice" doesn't appeal to me on the TV screen, what does that mean? In short, I want to reject these essential differences between male and female. I want to move past defining 'women's voice' and whether it's nature or nurture and what to do about it. I find it much more interesting and compelling to discuss the entire system. The entire system is made up of individuals. It's made up of good stories, friends, enemies, villains, and heroes. Let's talk about these things instead.

Having females in roles that do not focus on their femaleness is the best way to provide young women with complicated and multifaceted role models.

I'd be curious to know what other female figures in TV fellow feminists call their favorites.


Charlene said...

I like your observations about your own viewing preferences Heather. I agree - I reject the woman's voice too. My favorite TV female character is Temperance "Bones" Brennan - who is characterized as logical, extremely intelligent, loyal, strong, with a slight bent towards asbergers. I think we need to see each other as individuals. To get rid of our unconscious gender biases, we need to completely overturn what a "man's voice" or a "woman's voice" means.

KRB said...

Heather- I really enjoyed this post. I am also a huge fan of Arya Stark. Another part of her story that I really enjoy is when she disguises herself as a boy to escape King's Landing- which arguably saves her life.

I think I also lean towards rejecting the female voice when it comes to my favorite television characters. Another one of my favorite female characters is Olivia Benson of Law and Order: SVU. She is not only depicted as strong and brave, but also frequently rejects the idea of getting married and having children.

KB said...

I have to echo the sentiments of KRB and Heather- Arya Stark is one of my favorite TV/literary characters that I have encountered. What draws me to characters like Arya and Leslie Knope is their strength and the way they push gender norms. I admire these types of characters and want to emulate them.

Another character on TV whom I admire is the protagonist on Revenge. Emily is a woman in her 20s who masterminds a plan to avenge her father, whom his friends framed for a crime he did not commit. Yes, it sounds like a soap opera (and I call it my guilty pleasure), but Emily’s character is so strong and dynamic that I cannot stop watching. Emily seeks revenge through creative ploys that ruin the reputations of those who framed her father. Her plans succeed because of her fierce intelligence, determination, talent for deception, and kick-butt skills in martial arts. Emily’s moments of intensity are counterbalanced by her tenderness for those whom she cares about. Watching Emily empowers me because it makes me believe that if I ever was in a situation where I needed to kick some butt, I could.

KSergent said...

My favorite female T.V. character is Robin Scherbatsky from the CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother.” Robin is associated with many activities traditionally considered masculine. She likes smoking cigars, drinking scotch and watching hockey. At the beginning of the series, Robin had five dogs (as opposed to cats!)

Robin ends her relationship with Ted, the show's main character, after learning that he wants to have children someday. She does not want to have kids. She is also highly driven to become a serious news anchor, but her male boss constantly assigns her to “fluff” pieces.

Robin struggles with gender identity issues throughout the series. Viewers learn that, growing up, Robin’s father made it clear to her that he wanted a son, not a daughter. She always felt the need to prove to him that she was just as good as any son he might have had.

Robin’s character highlights the adversity women often face when they do not conform to traditional gender roles. Yet in some ways, her character plays into the perception that a woman who is not traditionally “female” is motivated by some type of childhood baggage. Still, I relate to her character and believe she is a positive role model for young women because she isn't the typical "women's voice."

Attisaurus said...

My immediate inquiry after reading your post: how many of these beloved female characters are the result of having a female lead writer for these TV programs?

"Miss Representation" focuses not only on the biased and stereotypical portrayal of women in the media, but also on how few women are in control of media/news outlets. People who are in control of mass media control our social consciousness. I find strong female characters conceived by strong female writers in real life to be much more compelling than the sexy aggressive-but-also-kind-of-wounded-lolita-with-a-vendetta that male writers like to focus on.

Also, your list is sorely missing Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) from "30 Rock," a woman studio exec who runs her own gaggle of misfit writers in NYC for a fictional NBC improv show. Just sayin'.

tzey said...

I love Leslie Knope. I think her idealism and hard work are really something to strive for.

I think my favorite female character is Kara "Starbuck" Thrace from Battlestar Galactica. In the original 1970s show Starbuck was a male character. I find it interesting that although now the character is a female almost all the character traits are the same. She is the best fighter pilot and there is never any question regarding her skills.