What do those pesky feminists want from female characters?
This debate about seems to go on forever. Not among feminists, of course, but among people who want to roll their eyes about “those feminists” always demanding that every show have a strong lead female character. Which of course is not what most feminists want from their female characters. What we want, by and large, is fairly simple: we want female characters to be people.
People with independent, interesting lives and motivations and dreams and thoughts and philosophies. You know, like almost every other male character. It’s that misunderstanding that fuels a lot of the frustration that people feel when they hear “those feminists” complaining that, say, Fargo seriously dropped the ball by offering us only one female character who didn’t come off as two-dimensional and utterly defined by her relationships with men. And then, of course, by the end, that sole good female character was shoved into a corner anyway to provide some development for her husband anyway.
Meanwhile, examples like Buffy often come up as a “good” feminist show, but I suspect that they’re based around a misunderstanding of why so many people loved it. I can’t speak for everyone, but what was great about Buffy — the character — was that while she had to be “tough” physically, otherwise she was just a normal teenage girl, most of whose problems and feelings were fairly normal and relatable.
In short: feminists aren’t asking for “strong female characters.” I’m not even sure what those are. Just give us a female character. A real one. Whose development is as important as her male counterparts and whose inner life is as important as her family life. And if you are going to give us a “tough chick,” don’t effectively make her a hot robot with no real motivation or relatability.
That long diatribe over, I can happily recommend Channel 4’s Utopia as a show that gets it right. And with the second season about to debut tonight, I very much suggest that you catch up with it if you can. The quick and dirty synopsis is that it’s the story of a group of people — three men, a woman and a young boy — who meet in an online chat room dedicated to the graphic novel Utopia. Utopia has attained cult status by predicting the biggest disasters of the last century, but otherwise the group mostly uses the chat room for social purposes, each of their lives a little duller and lonelier than they’d like. When one member claims to have gotten his hands on the next volume, which will predict disasters to come, the group decides to meet up to read it, and quickly discovers that they’re being watched by an organization desperate to retrieve “the manuscript.”
If you think that sounds insane, you’re right. The show is completely nuts, which is part of its charm. It also adopts a near-Wes Anderson level of intricately detailed aesthetic which works here, as it’s often meant to add a comic book sheen to the characters and their surroundings. I won’t say that the show isn’t messy — somewhere around the middle of its 6-episode run it does drag a bit, and the plot is really hard to follow until you have all the pieces. I imagine it’s better viewing the second time around, but I haven’t given it a shot just yet.
But where I was impressed with the show, from a feminist perspective, was its treatment of the female characters. Though there aren’t many, each of them is presented and developed as a real person. It shouldn’t be impressive, but at this point, unfortunately, it is.
Becky (Alexandra Roach) serves as the only female member of the chat room group but is often presented as its reluctant leader, even while her timid love interest Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and third wheel Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) continually hatch and execute bad plans that get the group further into trouble. Becky isn’t “tough” per se — she’s just practical. She’s also given the kind of dialogue that in a lazier show might be described as “sassy,” but Utopia gives her enough room to breathe so that her actions seem motivated by genuine concern or self-preservation, not just the empty need to get out a quick one-liner.
Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), meanwhile, is initially painted as a kind of sexy robot figure: ruthless and seemingly heartless, an orphan on the run who grew up without any real guidance. Again, a stereotype — and the show doesn’t pretend that she isn’t one — and yet her character is developed to a point of genuine sympathy within the short 6-episode run. She isn’t diminished by that sympathy, instead your understanding of her simply grows.
It’s difficult to provide further examples without getting too deep into spoilers, but I will say that a small handful of other female characters are similarly developed — a young girl who could’ve been written off as a love interest is instead allowed a large amount of agency and intelligence, while an older female authority figure is “tough,” but complicated and smart and stern.
It would be a trap to argue that Utopia‘s progressiveness comes from its Britishness. There are still plenty of British TV shows that treat women like decorative curtains, and plenty of American TV that offers even more dynamic and interesting roles to women. But I will say that rumors of an American adaptation have me a little worried.
I like the fact that the female characters in Utopia are made to look like people who are actually on the run — a little dirty, a little messy. While I like David Fincher (who gave us Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla, after all), I get the feeling that it will be a lot harder to get this greenlit in the States without making Becky or Jessica more of a “babe.” Much as I like Agents of SHIELD, it took quite a bit for me to get over the idea that Chloe Bennet’s Skye had that hair while living out a van.
Now is when I should mention that this recommendation is a little mean of me. If you can’t get access to British TV, your only real recourse is buying the box set. But if you can get ahold of it, do try to watch it. Because, like the imminent Gracepoint disaster, it’s probably best that you just get your hands on the genuine article, lest they force another British star to do an awkward American accent in the remake and it’s uncomfortable for everyone.
Season 2 of Utopia starts tonight (in the UK). Here’s hoping for more of the same.
Originally written for Persephone Magazine.