Television

Moving away from the “strong female” trope and just writing good characters

Over the course of television and film history we’ve watched as generations of women lobbied for female representation. Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman in the 70s has been iconic, as well as the ladies that made up Charlie’s Angels leading into the 80s and Lucy Lawless’ Xena in the 90s. The badass women who were beautiful and beat the hell out of the bad guys were important to lots of girls growing up, but The Powers That Be take these characters as a base for building not so great characters with traits that became a tiring trope – a disservice to the audience, let alone the women behind these characters.  While female characters who dress scantily, are excellent marksmen, and punch assholes in the face are awesome, when the characterization stops there the importance of creating a female role in the first place is lost.

Important steps forward have been seen in characters like Buffy Summers who was feminine, wore makeup, and loved pink while also being exceptionally skilled, allowing girls to see that just because you like things that are typically associated with girls doesn’t make you weak – and that you don’t have to discard femininity or look down on girls who drew hearts in pink glitter pen on their notebooks to be powerful.

Michonne, Danai Gurira, The Walking Dead

Danai Gurira as Michonne [from TWD Wikia]

The Walking Dead‘s Michonne has been a touching example of a fascinating female character as we watch her slice through zombies and enemies alike with a cold and quiet demeanor, only to be shown how vulnerable and nurturing she really was. Her strength was displayed in putting down her weapon when she had the opportunity to and picking it back up again when she was needed. Meanwhile, Bella Crawford on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal was stubborn and desired to die with dignity and Orphan Black‘s clones display a mixture of science mastery, ability for manipulation, and suburban motherhood among their strengths. Creating female characters with depth that didn’t bust in people’s faces on the regular was also important, redefining “strong women” and broadening the characters we were seeing on screen, both big and small. Showing emotions doesn’t always make you weak, wielding a weapon doesn’t always make you strong, and giving a diverse display of what it means to be a woman reaches and resonates with a broader audience.

We’re seeing a beautiful change in female representation in media overall, but within the shows themselves that are providing this representation, it’s better than expected. While the film industry is still trying to catch up, television (network, cable, and instant streaming) is sprinting away with characters that are dynamic and fully fleshed out with strengths and faults in all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnic groups, and sexualities in shows like The 100, The Walking Dead, Agent Carter, How To Get Away With Murder, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Vikings, and so many more. More than that, we’re getting relationships between women and platonic relationships between women and menI have to pause for a moment in disbelief and joy because those two things make me so incredibly happy. Women are not only being written with characteristics like fierce loyalty, cleverness, ruthlessness, and nurturing love, but we’re also being shown why the pretentions of previous decades are absolutely ridiculous. Recently in an episode of Agent Carter, already noted for doing at excellent job in representation (especially for the time period in which it is set), the male characters scoff at the idea of a larger woman – despite being a trained member of the agency – being able to take on an integral part of a mission that required her to be physical.

Lesley Boone, Rose Roberts, Agent Carter

Lesley Boone as Rose Roberts in Season 2 of Agent Carter

This attitude is similar to what the men did to Peggy Carter herself, and while no longer doubting Peggy’s prowess, Sousa doubted this woman’s ability to do her job while scapegoating it on him being able to focus and not be worried about her. Of course she accomplishes her task with a satisfied grin. Reinforcing the same point that Agent Carter made in its first season, this moment added appearances into the mix, giving bigger women such as myself (who had to experience disheartening looks of shock when I told people I did 5ks for fun and was training for a half-marathon) representation and a boost of confidence.

The true heart of these shows is character, and it seems as if creators are realizing just how important these things are to their audiences. Some are understanding better than others by giving us a wide range of female characters that are representative of not just their audience, but the world we live in. What we’re seeing more and more of is a move away from creators struggling to write a “strong female character” in an original way that avoids the cookie cutter trope and just creating female characters – and writing good story lines for them. What an intriguing concept.

The Audience Payout: Growing and nurturing an enthusiastic fan base loses out to over-monetizing network television

Sometimes networks can be shortsighted in considering their audiences when they’re trying to look at the bigger picture. Business decisions are currently being made that don’t take into account the fan bases that drive the success of their shows – at least not from the fan perspective. Media companies are in the business of making money, and with the popularity of streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime continuing to rise while original content on those sites are gaining traction, this might nudge a network into considering its own streaming as a for-pay service while pulling their shows from the popular sites to cash in on the market. The problem is, it’s not a question of when – it’s already happening.

BBC has already pulled shows from Netflix, and the CW is looking to follow suit. Normally the comings and goings of shows available on Netflix streaming don’t cause a fuss, but these two networks provide some pretty popular shows. Doctor Who has been removed from Netflix, which I’m afraid to tell my kids since they recently talked about going back and watching some of the tenth doctor’s episodes. A heavily present network on Netflix, the CW has shows with large fanbases: The Vampire Diaries, iZombie, The 100, The Originals, The Flash, Arrow, and Supernatural.

If you look at the fans that are most active on social media, promoting the shows they love through these outlets and in other ways such as buying merchandise, the fans of the CW especially are known for urging family and friends to watch the shows either as their weekly ritual or as guilty pleasures. These fans attend conventions frequently, an experience which I wrote about earlier this year. The shows are important to them, and across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Tumblr, the shows are discussed in detail and even academically.

With Netflix, getting new people to watch these shows was easy, especially ones like Doctor Who and Supernatural that have been on for over a decade. Having heard a little about them or being pressured by a friend to give a show a try, someone could click Season 1, Episode 1 and be on their way. An entire audience that returns to the shows again and again to rewatch either alone or with friends they’re bringing in as new viewers should be enough to realize how important presence on a popular streaming site is; add to that the potential for growing an audience that wasn’t old enough to get into the show when it first aired, but has since taken an interest in it, and it makes sense to keep this platform available. Being able to stream from the beginning to catch up to the new shows is how many have moved to watching the shows live, helping ratings of shows that may have fallen by the wayside years ago.

Again taking the fans into consideration, the active audience demographics for these shows are on the younger side, and if they or their parents are already paying for cable, internet, and Netflix, does the network think that they will pay long term for an additional streaming service? I’ve left behind shows that I had to pay by the episode for or gone to torrent if I really wanted to watch them. Promising people that something won’t be available for Netflix streaming may boost sales of DVDs temporarily, but DVDs are no longer the viewing platform of choice. NBC, ABC, and CBS following suit would completely complicate the viewing experience with too many subscription services and drastically reduce the amount of households that purchase cable subscriptions, something they already know as CBS is inviting you to try an All Access on demand pass – your first week is free. Asking viewers to buy access to shows through a new site when they’ve been paying to access television and movies for years through a cable company or a site they’re comfortable with is taking a gamble on a sector of the audience that will question just how much they want to watch these shows – you can only act like a crack dealer with television for so long before the audience moves on or finds other ways to access the shows. Plus, there are always other shows available to get hooked on and that can provide meta writers fodder – you’re not the only drug on the street.

Attention spans for media can be short and viewers can be fickle, and if the accessibility to shows become too costly or complicated, the audience will walk – maybe not everyone, but enough to make a network like the CW take pause. Obviously a way to make money for the network instead of connect to the fans that support their shows, this venture is sure to alienate the audience more than connect with them. The number of shows I’m interested in watching has lessened the more restricted the access to them gets. If it’s a pain in the ass to watch, I’ll just write, draw, or read a book and watch something on my DVR. I was a more enthusiastic fan because the shows were available on a streaming platform that I was already using, and with Doctor Who gone and the threat of the CW leaving, I can already feel my interest in watching the shows waning. Who wants to try to get into Arrow if they don’t have time to catch up before past episodes of the show vanish? In the meantime, I’ll be over here waiting for the next seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.