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Women on top

A new wave of television programmes is putting women in charge, says Pete Smith.

The recent ending of the long-running Xena Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (actually the shows will, no doubt, be endlessly recycled on cable and satellite) might need us to take a look at the way that television in general and American television in particular deals with women.

Many commentators on women and the media jump to the easy conclusion that the mainstream media stereotypes images of women, who are presented as passive and helpless. The trend in many television shows is now rather different. Alias has been one of the most successful programmes on American television and has catapulted Jennifer Garner to stardom in the film Daredevil, where she played opposite Ben Affleck. The series was critically acclaimed and featured a young woman who confronts the duplicity of the American government in the kind of ‘trust no-one’ and ‘the truth is out there’ type of theme which we are familiar with from series such as X Files, Roswell High and Dark Skies - conspiracies within conspiracies, like the wooden Russian dolls nesting one inside another.

American network television has a real problem with sex and race. Sam Raimi, as producer of Xena, was able to say to a network executive who complained about the scene where Lucy Lawless kissed a black actor, “well don’t buy it then”, in circumstances where the show was the second most widely distributed and watched programme on the planet. Xena also had the lesbian subtext in terms of the relationship between the chief protagonist and Gabrielle, her sidekick, which generated enormous interest on the internet and the fan sites of ‘slash fiction’, where fans write their own imagined episodes, taking the storyline in some unexpected directions.

Buffy is a different story: she is a troubled character who does not want to be anybody’s hero. The whole basis of the tale is that she is called to be someone she does not want to be. She wants to wear stupid clothes, date and hang out at the mall, not save the earth from the dark forces of the Hellmouth. But some have greatness thrust upon them, even when they also have an unfortunate sexual attraction to vampires.

At their best, Xena and Buffy were classic television, in particular the episode of Buffy, The Body, which dealt with the death of Buffy’s mother, Joyce. This is probably one of the bleakest episodes in television’s recent history.

A whole host of television series which feature powerful female leading characters will no doubt continue to turn up on cable and satellite in the years to come. Relic Hunter has Tia Carrere as Sydney Fox, a female mixed race version of Indiana Jones, able to kick butt and at the same time know which kingdoms are which in the development of Egyptian civilisation, and of course has a naive English assistant. Why is it that in American films or television series English people are almost always either thick or evil?

Witchblade, which has an incidental connection with arch conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone, features Yancy Butler as Sara Pezzini as the daughter of a murdered New York cop who acquires an ancient and magical weapon which enables her to battle the bad guys led by a sinister representative of multinational corporate greed. He is blonde and German, almost a caricature of the will to power of the would-be master race. She, like many of the female heroes mentioned so far, is dark and of ambiguous racial or ethnic origin. She also manages to have a close relationship with her former partner who is dead.

In some ways, Dark Angel is the most interesting of the women on top recent crop of American television shows. Set in the near future in a Seattle that has been disrupted by a not very clearly explained disaster. James Cameron, of Terminator and Titanic fame, conceived the series and helmed the first few episodes. It stars Jessica Alba as Max, a motorcycle courier who ekes out a living in the kind of no-brainer occupation that many of America’s generation X are condemned to – no security, no benefits and no prospects. She is also a mixed race (though this is never explained) genetically engineered warrior who is at odds with a sinister establishment. Transgenic humans combine elements of humanity with the qualities of other creatures. Themes of the persecution of minorities, hostility to people who are different and a suspicion of the powerful are never far from the surface of the show. Max also has the problem that her lover, who at one stage is confined to a wheelchair, has been infected with a retrovirus which means that they cannot have any physical contact without disastrous consequences.

The Raven breaks with the pattern in having a female protagonist who is blonde (though obviously not really) and also an immortal and a thief. There is almost an anarchistic quality to the series as she not only breaks the rules but does not seem to recognise that there are any.

Is there any way of explaining this surge in the production of action orientated dramas which have powerful females centre stage? Some of it is obviously the market: programmes which feature young attractive women are likely to be popular, but it is also a statement about the orientation of the American television industry. American conservatives often complain about what they see as the liberal bias of the media. In this case, they may be right. Hollywood provides one of the largest cash reservoirs for the Democratic Party and although some Republican actors, such as Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, have high profiles, they are the exception not the rule. Despite the domination of the industry by corporate institutions such as Fox and Time Warner AOL, Hollywood remains a fundamentally liberal – in the most expansive use of that term – set of institutions. Producers, directors, writers and actors tend to be on the left, not the right.

We should not be surprised that series have emerged which have been heavily influenced by feminism. This is not just true of the action genre, but also comedy and mainstream drama, for example Ellen or Sybil. Themes such as anti-racism have now become part of the mainstream and even Bruce Willis (Die Hard 2) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Terminator films) find themselves acting in what are very much anti-establishment and liberal films which reflect the continuing importance in cultural terms of the values of the 1960s. The misogyny and male chauvinism which was unquestioned in much of the media in the 1950s just would not be tolerated today; for example, who could watch an episode of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners today?

The rise of this new ‘feminist’ television gives the lie to the simplistic readings of the impact of the mass media. Far from being a passive tool for the dissemination and reproduction of dominant ideas, images and conceptions, the mass media is as ever an arena of struggle. Different points of view, different values and different assumptions are actually in conflict with each other. Reactionary forces are of course at work. Reality TV in particular justifies selfishness, cruelty and all sorts of stereotyping. But other types of television are very different indeed, for example The Simpsons raises all sorts of issues on a regular basis which critique the assumptions of conservative middle America. Republican politicians have not been slow in voicing precisely this point. George Bush senior was outspoken in saying that he wanted the American family to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.

My assumption is that the likes of Dark Angel and Relic Hunter do reflect some trends in the wider society. Action films and television series are popular: people find them exciting and they lock into many other aspects of leisure pursuits, in particular things like computer games and even paintballing. The opportunities for leisure and the varieties available have never been greater and the focus of people’s lives has tended to turn away from the world of work which increasing numbers of people, not just in manual working class occupations but also in professional and semi-professional middle class occupations, find increasingly unrewarding and unsatisfying. This is the market which these series are appealing to: excitement, glamour, thrills and spills and with the added twist that women play a central role, not in the old fashioned way of Baywatch, where the women are simply wallpaper for a plot that is outside their control, but where women really are in charge, and it is men who get confined to a secondary role.

I suspect that women make up a sizeable proportion of the viewing figures for these shows and that they rather like what they see in terms of the slant that the plots and characterisation take. It might be argued that these series are simply candyfloss, presenting images of women which are at variance with the reality of drudgery, low pay, poor job prospects and the glass ceiling which are the reality of most women’s lives. So maybe all that a Witchblade or a Xena can ever be is a fantasy, a dream, that most women’s lives can never match. I am not against dreaming myself because after all dreams are powerful things.

September 2003