There’s a scene in Martin McDonagh’s film Seven Psychopaths where Christopher Walken’s character confronts Colin Farrell’s screenwriter on his terrible handling of female characters: “None of them have anything to say for themselves, and most of them get shot or stabbed to death within five minutes.” Farrell’s character (named “Marty-“ yes, we see what you did there, Mr. McDonagh) defends his creative choices by claiming that he’s trying to show how terribly the world treats women, but Walken scoffs “yeah, it’s a hard world for women, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together.” I found the placement of the scene to be a little eyebrow-raising- suffice to say that as a writer, Martin McDonagh shares more than a name with his character- but it’s funny, and it’s true. And it ties in to something I’ve been thinking about lately: the idea of “realism” and how often it seems to tie into “we’re going to beat the ever-loving SHIT out of our female characters.”
I’ve been watching AMC’s The Killing lately, because someone described the main characters’ dynamic as “Mulder/Scully-esque” and it piqued my interest. I really should have remembered that “Mulder/Scully-esque” generally implies “season upon season of unresolved sexual/romantic tension until it finally descends into weirdness with alien babies” and fled screaming into the night before watching the pilot, but hindsight is twenty/twenty, and I’m the kind of person who finishes every show she starts. (No, really; the only show that’s managed to break my streak is Hemlock Grove, because even I had to bail after the angel pregnancy started.) The Killing is- well, really not a good show, in terms of writing. A third of the screentime is taken up by a storyline that could be best described as “The West Wing: Municipal Politics Edition,” and another third is given over to watching the family of our main murdered girl slowly going to pieces. Sad, yes; compelling, not really. The remaining third is given to Scully and Mulder- er, Linden and Holder (look, it’s a tiny redheaded no-nonsense officer paired with a snarky, pop-culture-spouting partner; SOMEONE had to say it) trying to navigate the central question of “who killed Rosie Larsen?” And something this show really loves- something I didn’t notice until the latest season, but which was impossible to ignore when I DID notice it- is beating their female characters down. Over. And over. And over.
Now this is what you call a “hyper-realistic” show, which usually translates to “incredibly depressing,” because many writers (not me) think that the real world is dark man, dark, and the only way to show this is to make the most miserable shows possible. I may not agree, but hey, it’s their prerogative, just as it’s mine to take Craig Ferguson as a writing compass. Point is, this show glories in realism; despite my X-Files references, there are no aliens, nor any hint of them. Despite the obvious Twin Peaks comparison (teenaged girl is murdered; show revolves around reactions to and investigations into her death) there is no BOB or Black Lodge or Bookhouse Boys. The colour palette is drained nearly to the point of black and white (it’s set in Seattle, and filmed in Vancouver.) But the most salient issue is, everyone on this show is miserable. These people don’t have skeletons in the closet so much as they have entire mortuaries. Holder, the main character’s partner, is a recovering meth addict who is estranged from his only remaining family after stealing from his six-year-old nephew while on a bender. Our main, Linden, fares slightly better at first (although really, “no meth” is kind of a sad standard of “better”) but over the course of the show to date, she loses custody of her son- after being investigated by child services- gets dumped by her fiancé, gets tossed in a mental ward (under false pretenses, of course, because it’s that kind of show) loses her job, loses ANOTHER boyfriend, gets kidnapped by a gun-wielding street preacher, has an affair with a married man, discovers that- spoilers!- said married man, another police officer, is actually the serial killer she’s been chasing and is driven to murder him in cold blood, after his coverup leads to an innocent man (who she arrested) being executed.
Now I’m not going to argue that nothing bad should happen to Linden, ever; this show is called The Killing, not My Little Pony: Murder Is Magic. I’ll allow the kidnapping, and even the psychiatric commitment (though in general I am sick to death of the “BUT THEY’RE NOT REALLY CRAZY” trope, seeing as how rarely actual people with actual mental illnesses are seen on TV.) Hell, I’ll even allow for the lost custody; the character had to be gotten off the show SOMEHOW. What bothers me in all this is that she’s so rarely given something good to counterbalance the bad. I didn’t mention, by the way, that all of this is preceded by her frequently alluded-to miserable childhood in foster care, which is implied to have damaged her ability to hold functional relationships; thanks for that, show. But let’s tally it up- three (3) lost love interests, two of who were lost in fairly traumatic ways (the fiancé dumped her after the false commitment incident, literally taking off so that she could come out of her room and find that she'd been abandoned), a lost child, a lost childhood, murder, more murder, and frequent abuse at the hands of her suspects. Shit, if I were her, I would have crawled into a blanket fort and refused to come out by this point. I suppose it’s arguable that bad shit happens to Holder, too- see the aforementioned methhead backstory. (By the way, has anyone ever seen a meth addict who looked like this guy? Yeah. Yeah, no. Check out what meth does to a person's face sometime; I garuntee you will be scared straight for life.) But the thing about Holder’s story that’s so lacking in Linden’s is that he gets actual happy endings to balance out all the crap. As of the end of season three, he has a girlfriend who knows about and accepts his status as a recovering addict; he’s on the road to reconciling with his sister and nephew; he’s edging towards a promotion to police sergeant. God knows there’s still plenty for him to angst about, but there’s also an incentive to get out of bed in the morning. Linden’s long since lost that; the fact that she’s still functioning at all is not much short of a miracle.
|"I have a good luck charm. It's called 'being a cismale.' You |
can't have it, sorry."
Realistic? Well, maybe. Plenty of crap DOES happen to people who don’t deserve it, and they DO keep on dragging themselves through the day, because what the hell else can they do? Watching the narrative constantly heap abuse on Linden isn’t fun, but I can’t argue that it couldn’t possibly happen in real life. But then there’s the way the rest of the female characters on the show get treated: we have poor dead Rosie Larsen, her aunt the unwitting murderer (as the result of a chain of events that severely stretches this show’s claim of realism), her mother the bereaved parent, the political campaign aide who, it’s revealed, was molested as a teenager . . . it goes on and on. And that’s just the first two seasons. The third and latest season, which revolves around the disappearance of a series of (female) street children, features Kallie, our primary victim who doesn’t even get the dignity of a confirmed death or a proper burial; Bullet, Kallie’s friend who is tragically in love with a straight girl and is eventually fridged to give Holder manpain; Kallie’s mother, whose name I don’t remember, who is condemned repeatedly (and not entirely unfairly) as a Bad Mother and is last seen still desperately searching for her lost child; multiple nameless victims who suffer the added indignity of being mutilated pre-mortem (“he took my left finger,” one surviving victim says pitifully, “what if someone wants to marry me? Will it matter?”); the past victim who had her throat slit “so deep he nearly cut her head off;” and, of course, Linden, who loses two boyfriends, one of whom ends up being The Killer. I have neither the inclination nor the patience to count down the female versus male body count of this show, but I can tell you right damn now, the former outweighs the latter. Because . . . realism?
Look. Women face a lot of violence. Women face constant questioning regarding their parenting skills. Women are vulnerable to sexual assault, especially when homeless and queer. (Oh, I forgot to mention; Bullet, Kallie’s friend, is also raped early on in the season for reasons that remain a total narrative mystery to me.) And yeah, sometimes cops and other authority figures turn out to be bad guys; remember Russell Williams? But if you try to tell me that a serial killer cop AND a secret web of political corruption that lead to a teenager being unwittingly murdered by her own aunt AND an evil Native American chief colluding with the corrupt City Hall politicians (did I mention this show is racist? Yeah, it’s really super racist) AND a guy getting mistaken for a murderer because he was trying to smuggle a potential female circumcision victim out of the country AND the primary investigating officer turns out to have been unknowingly schtupping the secret serial killer cop is totally realistic . . . but a woman having something nice happen to her for once is just out of the sphere of reality, I kind of have to wonder what version of reality you’ve been living in. Mostly so I can make sure to never, ever go there.
(Another repeat offender in this category is A Game of Thrones, which is so terrible to its women and in so many ways that I couldn’t even begin to list them here. “But it’s based on the Middle Ages! Things really were awful for women back then!” Yeah, you know what they didn’t have in the Middle Ages? FUCKING DRAGONS.)