I’m switching up the usual Danger Gal installment this week for some excellent conversation about women in television dramas in general and Burn Notice’s Fiona Glenanne in particular.
Earlier this week, I tweeted an article by Amanda Marcotte for The Good Men Project called “How to Make a Critically Acclaimed TV Show About Masculinity.” The Good Men Project endeavors to show us “a glimpse of what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century” and analyze “what does it mean to be a good man in these modern times?”
I wish more of us were having these types of discussions about how in flux and often confusing gender roles can be in today’s world. While we have an unprecedented opportunity to redefine how women and men relate to one another and to the world at large, many people are scared silly not knowing what are “the rules.” The old rules might have been draconian, but at least everyone was on the same page. Still, I’m optimistic that all we need to do is keep sorting through it all with endeavors like The Good Men Project because we’re all re-evaluating each other and ourselves regardless of gender. Oh yeah, and Feminism isn’t just about women, it’s about all of us.
Now that I’ve gotten that soapbox moment out of my system, Marcotte’s post on television and masculinity made one particularly interesting point regarding the perceived lack of strong female protagonists in television dramas:
But for all the feminism on TV, high quality dramas about women haven’t taken off. Women get plenty of meaty, complex roles in these top tier shows, but only as supporting characters in shows centered around men’s gender drama. . . I blame the nation’s inability to deal directly with women engaged in complex, dramatic struggles that call gender roles into question. . . perhaps the absurdities of being female in this modern era don’t lend themselves well to drama, but have to be approached sideways, through comedy. Women do very well heading up some of the best comedy on TV: 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Show.
Hmmm. While Marcotte makes great a point about comedy, she misses the boat on strong heroines in television. I commented with this:
“I’m glad someone mentioned Buffy, Veronica Mars, The Good Wife, and Battlestar Galactica. While Battlestar Galactica was an ensemble cast, it definitely offered some fantastic female characters whose arcs were fundemental to the overall plot of the show. Starbuck, Boomer, and President Roslin were more than just water-carriers for the male characters.
“The point about women in comedy holds true also for female characters in genre television, but aside from True Blood no other genre shows were mentioned. Here are a few that were overlooked:
- Myka Bering from Syfy’s WAREHOUSE 13
- Dr. Helen Magnus from Syfy’s SANCTUARY(and also Amanda Tapping’s other role as Col. Samantha Carter in Stargate)
- Audrey Parker from Syfy’s HAVEN
- Echo from Joss Whedon’s THE DOLLHOUSE
- FRINGE’S Olivia Dunham
“ven if genre TV isn’t your cuppa joe, several non-genre characters weren’t mentioned either: Annie Walker from COVERT AFFAIRS (and also her boss Joan Campbell — although I wish someone would give that woman some sleeves once in a while) and Mary Shannon on IN PLAIN SIGHT. I write a weekly blog highlighting strong female characters in movies, TV, and books and have been wondering if I should keep doing it. This article just convinced me that, yes I should, because clearly people aren’t hearing about some great female characters out there.”
Despite the ongoing angst in science fiction circles over the lack of women writers being included in various anthologies and the treatment of heroines in general, overall I do think that science fiction and fantasy provide an avenue toward creating great strong heroines because, like comedy, genre fiction comes at the issue “sideways.” Genre fiction elicits readers to imagine a world with women filling roles they might currently not have access to today and by doing so chips away at the roadblocks to those paths for women right now. The list I provided shows that genre fiction definitely doesn’t share Marcotte’s idea of mainstream television’s seeming issue with strong female protagonists.
One of the other commenters brought up the character of Burn Notice’s Fiona Glenanne portrayed by Gabrielle Anwar. On the one hand, Fiona is an “explosives expert, precision marksman, and arguably the team’s most skilled precision driver,” but she doesn’t seem to have the confidence to do more than sit around and wait for Michael to commit. I’m not looking for a perfect character — that would create a whole slew of other problems — but really, I said:
“Much like Sam Axe, Fiona is simply a foil for Michael, while his mother has a much more developed backstory. We also get a better sense that Madeline has a life outside of her relationship with her son. [While] Fiona, on the other hand, is one mean fighting machine, she’s also the stereotypical woman waiting around for Michael to get his romantic act together. I’m tired of her being tired of Michael’s inability to commit. When Jesse joined the cast, I thought she might move on from Michael, which would actually teach him a lesson and create an opportunity for character growth instead of simply rehashing the same Michael-Fiona commitment conflict over and over again.”
I’m not saying Fiona should jump from one romantic interest to another, but rather, have the confidence to walk away from Michael if he can’t meet her emotional needs. Back in 2009, Ginia Bellafante made a similar point about Fiona in a piece for the New York Times:
“Fiona is a character with no memorable precedent: a genius joke-take on girls with gun lust, the joke being that above all else she is every woman who needs to be sent a copy of “He’s Just Not That Into You,” next-day delivery. . . Fiona has never been able to get over Michael despite his persistent and explicit reminders that he is not made of the ordinary stuff of human need. Still, she keeps pushing for the dream, dating other people solely to try to make Michael jealous, interrupting stakeouts and shooting sprees and manhunts to ask for a key to his apartment or to tell him that what she would really like for her birthday is a teddy.”
And then excuses her behavior because Fiona is unapologetic about the whole thing:
“Ms. Anwar gamely carries herself as a goofball who has never passed a mirror and had a look. And she locks right into the real source of Fiona’s masculinity, which has less to do with her Glock fetish, than her refusal to regard her romantic pursuit as a pitiable behavior in need of reform.”
Meh. I don’t get it. Sure, owning what you want — even, I suppose, if what you want is a man who can’t fulfill your emotional needs — is a good thing, but I’ve never quite been able to buy Fiona’s character because of this. Plus, it bugs me that nine times out of ten Fiona is dressed in daisy dukes, a tank top and sky-high heels while Michael is in a full-on suit and long sleeves. In Miami.
Then again, maybe it’s more about me, who’d much rather hang out by the pool with a cocktail, a massage, and Sam Axe than cracking Michael Weston’s stubborn emotional exoskeleton.
What do you think? Does Fiona Glenanne fulfill the definition of a Danger Gal despite my issues with her character? What do you think of the reality or perception of the lack of strong heroines in mainstream television dramas? Do you think science fiction and fantasy presents a unique opportunity to explore gender roles?
UPDATE: June Thomas elaborates on Bellafante’s point:
Fiona has no time for the “He’s Just Not That Into You” meme. She has always been the boy in the relationship with Michael. She’s prone to violence while Michael is the gentling, moderating influence who makes sure that no one gets hurt when she shoots and bombs. He’s the home body who wants to keep his loft and his yogurts (the only thing he eats) to himself. She’s the more sexually aggressive of the pair.
I can see this, sure, but it’s negated by how Fiona seems to always be pointing out how emotionally unavailable Michael is. If this is the direction that Fiona is headed, then the writing has been uneven.