Monday, May 30, 2016

The Vanishing Act of the Smug Female Character

seemed like the tofu of speculative television. To be fair, I’m slow on the uptake of any popular show, and even my true love, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, took a great deal of convincing before I could be forced to lay eyes on it.

I avoided Supernatural—a show about two brothers fighting… well, what you might expect—for years now. I never liked the character of “Dean” on Gilmore Girls, and this same actor in the new roll didn’t interest me much either. I was afraid I would watch it with high hopes and be disappointed. Also, the opposite, being that I was a speculative fiction purist, and it seemed to have all the makings of a formula.

But now I’ve succumb, at least in giving it a chance. So far it is what I expected—takes some dedication, but enjoying it for the most part.

I learned a few things watching it: all black guys are antagonists, Dean’s an asshole, and there are too many similarities between my Stories of the Wyrd series for comfort. Not that the similarities were that unique in the first place, but I can see some problems in the future. Have to think what I’ll do about it.

I’m on season three which apparently was victim to the Writers’ Strike, and when a strange episode that seemed to feature people outside of the protagonists came on, I went to the internet to be certain that it wasn’t going to be a bunch of non-plot related episodes and found that two characters introduced that season, Bela Talbot and a demon named Ruby, were not well received.

And the truth is, I understood it. They were exactly the kind of characters I’ve had a problem with in most fantasy fiction.

Supernatural is unique in that shows like it—Buffy, Charmed, True Blood, Lost Girl, and even The Brothers Grimm—all have lead females imperative to the plot. It’s hard to find character-based paranormal stories that are targeted predominantly to men. But Supernatural lacked a major female character for the majority of episodes. The women who do come in… well, they have so far been lacking on the likability scale.

Do women need to be likable? It’s a pretty hotly discussed topic. Personally, I am enamored with intentionally horrible females—or at least their stories—like Gone Girl and the musical, Chicago. Yet there’s a difference when you bring in a woman to play side by side with the boys and she comes off as more like a competitive buzz kill.

The problem with both Bela and Ruby is that they’re smug. They are friendless, goal driven, and meta-capable: the writer obviously has their back, endowing them with the ability to one up the boys at every turn, and yet we never get to see them lose or embarrassed.

Both are disliked by the boys, both prove the boys wrong. There is this false animosity between these women and the protagonists. With Bela, they play up her sexuality, giving her even more of an unfair advantage, one that doesn’t impress anyone.

Seeing a guy go gaga over a sexy lady isn’t appealing to people of either gender. Women don’t like to see some idiot fall for a beautiful girl with the personality of an omniscient mop. Superficial flaws—Hollywood “flaws” that are usually fairly cool—don’t count. Men don’t like to see their cool avatar become a blubbering moron at a girl who one-ups them every step of the way.

As I read it, Bela was cut from the show due to negative fan reaction. Makes sense.

Can women be smug and be successful characters?

I don’t think it’s a gender issue, really. If she abided by the rules of any other character, smug females would be an accurate representation of reality. But if we were to be true to the character-audience connection, she needed to follow the same fate of any smug character: an embarrassing, satisfying, schadenfreuden fall.

It was too obvious that the writers wanted us to like her and too obvious that she would never get her payback. She is expected to be Dean’s match, but she needs to suffer a few losses, needs that superiority wiped right off her face. She needs to be more sadistic or more empathetic. She needs to have real goals, not just money that she obviously doesn’t need. She needs a few weaknesses, not just one strong kryptonite that knocks her completely vulnerable. She needs to actual amuse the audience, scare us, bewilder us, or inspire us, something a character can never do as long as their entire existence in the story is to show off.

Can’t say I’m sorry for the loss of Bela or any of the other few females in the series so far, but I will say one thing I like about the show is that the bond of the brothers isn’t superseded or upstaged by anyone else. It really conveys the loneliness—intentionally or not—this kind of work might have.

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