Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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Body Bag Blondes: Why I Break Up With Stories.

This is a topic that's been sitting in my rolling note file for a while, waiting both for the sting of the event that triggered it to fade, and for the actual event to recede far enough into the past that even a vague description wouldn't trigger a big red SPOILERS sign. So you know, it took more than two years. That's a long time, even for me.

I watch a lot of television, read a lot of books, and buy a lot of comics. I am a huge consumer of media of all types. And, like many consumers of media, I'm looking for characters I can relate to. For me, yes, that usually means the females* (although not always). And yeah, it bothers me that in a narrative with eight males and one female, it's frequently the female who will be the target of violence or killed off to make a point.

Now, I'm not saying that female characters should have a "get out of mortal injury free" card, nor that they should be immortal. But there's "everyone in this story gets the crap kicked out of them on a regular basis, it was Karen's turn," and then there's "mysteriously, every male character survives the explosion unscathed, again, but Karen is in the hospital, again." Or, even worse, "all the guys are fine, Karen's dead, meet Katie." Karen, in this scenario, was probably a replacement for Kelly, who replaced Kendra back in season one. And the beat rolls on.

I am not saying that all things must have absolute gender equality. Big Bang Theory was a primarily male cast for the first several seasons, and that was fine. H2O: Just Add Water was a primarily female cast for its entire run, and that was fine, too. Sometimes, there are situations where it makes sense for it to be mostly one gender or the other. But this is a "sometimes" thing, not a "four times out of five" thing. If there's no pressing reason for a character to be one gender or the other, why not try striking a balance? One of the only things that's ever disappointed me about Leverage is the way that the "evil doubles" of all the main characters have been male. Male thief, male hitter, male hacker, male mastermind. When your core cast is so well-balanced, why not make your Mirror Universe equally well-balanced?

(Yes, we have seen another female grifter, but as she was brought in to essentially be a replacement Sophie while Gina Bellman was pregnant, she's a bit of a different duck, and she wasn't brought in when they needed an alternate team. Which is too bad, because she's awesome.)

And now to the event that caused me to start thinking these things so critically:

Once upon a time there was a show, and it was made for me. It could not have been better tailored to my tastes if the producers had been bugging my phone. I loved it without reservation, even though the cast was almost purely male, and I defended it from accusations of misogyny. It was my show.

Time passed, and more female characters were introduced. They didn't become core cast, but that was okay; there were natural limits on the number of core cast members, and I was happy with the expanded universe. It made things more realistic. And then things started getting bad in that expanded universe. How could they make us, the viewers, understand how bad things were?

By killing all the female characters who had appeared in more than one episode, naturally. And by doing it in a way that was meant to be "heroic," but involved them failing to navigate a scenario that left the male characters entirely untouched.

I cried until I was sick after that episode. I turned off the show. I never went back. Literally never; I haven't watched so much as a preview since that narrative decision was made. Was I overreacting? Maybe. But there is so much media out there these days, so many stories, that once you make me cry for reasons that are not "this is so moving and tragic," but are instead, "this is so unfair and infuriating," we're over, you and I.

And that, right there, is when a story loses me. When they use the female characters as a shortcut to emotional anguish; when they kill or maim the women because that's easier than setting up a genuinely and realistically painful scenario. Especially since we almost always start out with a severe gender imbalance in genre or action shows, and that means that killing the token woman can leave us with an all-male cast.

Bones, which I adore, has a rotating cast of interns, only one of whom is female. When they had to kill an intern last season, it wasn't her. I cried like a baby over the death they chose; the intern they killed was my second favorite among the available choices. But it didn't make me angry the way it would have if they'd chosen Daisy. Why? Because killing the woman is so often viewed as the "cheap and easy" choice that I wouldn't have been able to focus on the tragedy through my anger.

Again, I am not saying "never kill the woman." Veronica Mars is one of my favorite shows ever, and they started off by killing Lilly Kane. NCIS, which I also adore, killed off a central female character very early in their run. But both shows killed their characters in a way that made sense for the show, and did not reduce her to an emotional red stamp. "We need this to hurt, so kill the girl." You need to kill the character, not "kill the girl." If you can do that, you'll keep me. If you can't, you'll lose me. And I am not the only one you'll lose.

I find it a little fascinating that women make up such a large percentage of the audience for these stories, but we're still the ones who die when the monster comes, to prove that the threat is real. I'd like to see it change.

And I still miss Lilly.

(*I don't say "women" because I watch a lot of science fiction, and a lot of cartoons and teen dramas. So "girls" is often accurate, as is "blue lizard people of the egg-laying gender.")
Tags: contemplation, cranky blonde is cranky, too much tv

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