The depiction of women in television tends to be problematic, to say the least. This is true from ensemble shows to one-character shows, from comedy to science-fiction. For purposes of brevity, I’m going to focus on three particular shows, each with a different format, topic, and genre: Stargate: Atlantis, House, and Fringe. These shows demonstrate not only the continued dominance of male characters but also the limits of gender presentation in television, especially as it relates to women.
For those of us who don’t frequent the SyFy Channel, Stargate: Atlantis (SGA) is a fairly good example of how science-fiction shows tend to treat women. An ensemble show about an expedition team from modern-day Earth that sets up base in a distant galaxy, SGA focuses on Atlantis’s primary exploratory team: John Sheppard, the sharp-witted team leader; Teyla, an alien warrior and eventual mother; Ronon, an alien warrior; and Rodney McKay, the brilliant yet socially awkward scientist. Interestingly, of the three leaders of the Atlantis expedition, two are women, and so is the second head of Atlantis’s infirmary, Dr. Jennifer Keller. In other words, despite the majority male cast, both men and women hold important positions of power within the show. As tempting as it is to watch Teyla kick serious amounts of butt, however, significant issues exist surrounding how exactly these characters are used.
In SGA, it is easy to see that the show does not give every character equal attention, or even close to equal attention. In general, the show is about John and Rodney—their friendship, their personal struggles, their love lives, and all the times they save the day. Furthermore, Rodney is by far the quirkiest, most flawed, and most interesting character of the show, and while the male characters pale in comparison, the women become flatter than paper; for example, when Stargate SG-1's Samantha Carter joins SGA, her character is simplified down into a rather boring archetype: the Leader. Teyla, one of the main characters and a key player in Atlantis’s struggles against the Big Bad, falls into a similar trap. After seasons of being the Meditative Warrior, her final and most significant story arc centers around pregnancy, kidnapping, rescue at the hands of her (all male) team, and motherhood, after which her character receives even less screen time. Granted, the character’s pregnancy was the result of a real-life pregnancy, but this does not change the very particular “woman’s story” depicted onscreen.
The portrayal of women becomes even more problematic when one looks at the characters of the week—or, in the case of women, John’s love-interest of the week, a pattern often found within episodic works. John Sheppard is to Captain Kirk as CSI is to Law and Order: not exactly a carbon copy, but the idea’s the same. Even during the rare times when that week’s woman is not in love or lust with John, she is in love or lust with another male character or her characterization relies on stereotypes. Take, for instance, the fifth season episode “Whispers,” in which John and Dr. Carson Beckett meet an all-female Atlantis team. This team’s characters are, respectively: an uncharacterized background character, another uncharacterized background character, the mindless soldier, and Beckett’s love interest. Unlike most fictional men, these characters are not people first but, rather, women first, with stock characters imposed on them.
By the end of the show, only two female cast members remain: Teyla, the mother, and Jennifer Keller, Rodney’s love interest. By this point, their storylines have been reduced to that which is “feminine,” rather than that which is Teyla or Jennifer.
A more mainstream example is Fox’s House, which follows the misanthropic antics of Dr. Gregory House and his associates. Once again, the show focuses on a male character; once again, the most original and flawed character is male. And, once again, the presentation and storylines of women rely on romance and motherhood. To demonstrate, let’s take a look at the women who have played the most significant roles in House: Allison Cameron, Thirteen, and Lisa Cuddy.
Although her character certainly develops, Cameron is nevertheless the “heart” of House’s team, just as you would expect from the main female character of a television show (or movie, or book, or comic…). At every point, she is also someone’s love interest, moving from House to Chase and, at several points, both at once; after all, it is not as if a single woman can be happy or have other principal interests.
Then we come to Thirteen, whose story initially revolves around being mysterious and slowly dying. Finally, it seems we have found a female character who has a life, concerns, and desires of her own, rather than that of some generic woman. Of course Thirteen and Foreman then become an item, and the issues surrounding this relationship become the impetus behind many of her decisions and even her storyline. In contrast, although this relationship forms an important part of Foreman’s character arc, most of his years on the show focus on his struggles to emulate and avoid becoming House. In other words, Foreman has had, and continues to have, a life outside his love interests; Thirteen’s storyline has become about the men in her life.
Although Cuddy is the youngest and first ever female Dean of Medicine, her storyline is similarly overshadowed by a will they/won’t they, did they/didn’t they relationship with House. Despite the fact that House is typically cruel and un-PC, one cannot help but be disturbed at the way half of Cuddy’s scenes involve being sexually harassed or ignored by House, often for humorous purposes. After all, it is one thing to depict a romance; it is quite another to depict love as harassment, and to depict a (female) character desiring the purveyor of such abuse. Similarly, although the audience is told Cuddy holds power due to her position, the show instead depicts Cuddy giving in to House or being summarily dismissed by him time and time again. Cuddy’s plotline predictably devolves into a desire to be a mother and her relationship with someone who is Not House, reinforcing this stereotypical female role.
Does it really surprise anyone that the last shot of the latest season was the clasped hands of Cuddy and House?
Unlike, yet similar to, the aforementioned shows is Fringe. Another of Fox’s primetime dramas, Fringe is an effective blend of procedural and science-fiction elements, following the investigations of a Department of Defense unit looking into bizarre, or “fringe,” phenomena. The main characters of this show, the unit’s point team, are: FBI agent Olivia Dunham, a half-mad scientist named Walter Bishop, and Walter’s genius yet lifetime failure of a son, Peter Bishop. Also of note is Nina Sharp, the CFO of the mega-corporation Massive Dynamic.
Unlike in most science-fiction or investigative dramas, the primary investigative agent of Fringe is a woman. As in many shows in general, there is a man (Peter), and a woman (Olivia), and the unresolved sexual tension between the two of them could break down the barriers between alternate universes—which, if you’ve seen Fringe, it sort of does.
Did I mention Olivia strips down to her undergarments in the very first episode?
The feminization of Olivia’s character does not stop at titillation or love, however. During the first season, Olivia’s sister and niece move in, thus humanizing (or womanizing) Olivia without actually limiting the show by giving Olivia a child of her own. The viewer gets to see Olivia reading bedtime stories and skipping trips to the amusement park for work, but she can still go on dangerous assignments without the guilt of (or the audience’s judgment for) leaving a child motherless. As far as female representation goes, it’s a clever way to make sure we remember that this character is not a heartless automaton a la common perceptions of Hilary Clinton, even as she solves case after case after case.
Most of the women in Fringe are subjected to this feminization. Astrid Farnsworth, for instance, is theoretically an FBI agent and Olivia’s assistant. In practice, she is Walter’s lab assistant/babysitter. Not only does Astrid exist in the background for most episodes, but she also spends most of her time playing secretary, a role women are often confined to so that a show can increase female representation without actually having female characters do anything. Even Nina Sharp, the Fringe unit’s continuous nemesis/ally, is implied to have romantic feelings for William Bell, the head of Massive Dynamic. Depending on interpretation, many of her actions can be traced back to this bond.
Nevertheless, Fringe is progressive in a number of ways. Despite the issues in her presentation, Olivia, the show’s main character, is the one who carries a gun and makes discoveries. When a body is found under strange circumstances, Olivia Dunham is the first agent called, and typically the one to save the day. When kidnapped, Olivia saves herself.
Then there is Nina Sharp. Although William Bell is the puppeteer behind many strings, Nina controls nearly all of Massive Dynamics’ current actions and is the person the Fringe unit negotiates with, the person the Fringe unit threatens, the person the Fringe unit actually communicates with. Many confrontations occur between Olivia and Nina, and most men they discuss are the bad guys of the week, rather than one of Nina or Olivia’s love interests.
Nina Sharp is not simply a villain or a lackey who can be dismissed. Rather, she is a power in and of herself—a depiction of women difficult to find on contemporary television.
So, what can we learn from these three shows, which, while certainly not representative of television as a whole, do demonstrate much of the breadth of female characters? For one, while still underrepresented, women do have a substantial presence on television. Slowly but surely, their interests and positions in structures of power seem to be increasing beyond loving, caring, and mothering.
That said, women’s characters remain anchored by “feminine” characteristics. Women remain love interests, nurturers, mothers first. And while there is nothing wrong with any particular woman having such characterization, the problem comes in when that is the extent of women’s representation. When men are always more interesting. When men have a greater breadth of things they can do, do do, are allowed to do.
Such inequality not only reinforces outdated stereotypes but it is also stale and boring. It leads to predictable plotlines, predictable television. And with the amount of television out there, who really wants to sit down and watch the same old thing over and over again?