When Susan Faludi published BACKLASH in 1991, one of her chapters was devoted to the regressive representations of women in TV and film. There was even the hint of resignation that this was not a temporary blip, but perhaps a permanent or long term situation. Luckily and in part thanks to Faludi calling attention to the backlash, instead we saw in popular culture an explosion of images of strong women. In TV alone we have seen the emergence of such characters as Dana Scully, Xena, Buffy Summers, Aeryn Sun, Sydney Bristow, Max Guevera, Kathryn Janeway, and Veronica Mars, not to mention those Gilmore girls. Even shows not specifically centered on strong women have them as a matter of course, such as Kate Austen on LOST or Samantha Carter on STARGATE SG-1. Indeed, a chasm seems to separate our situation and Faludi's in 1991.
Given the richness of the subject, it is simply shocking how weak this collection of essays is. All anthologies are uneven, but this one contains a higher proportion of weak or simply awful essays than most. I don't have a confident explanation for why these essays are on the whole so weak, though they do share some common characteristics. Let me highlight a couple of these. I do want to add, however, that there are a couple of very good essays, in particular Renny Christopher's marvelously insightful essay on Aeryn Sun in FARSCAPE as well as the essay by the volume's editor on female action figures. But most of the essays are deeply flawed. Let me explain my problems with them.
One very obvious problem with several of the essays is that they either misread the shows that they discuss or almost intentionally misrepresent their content. For instance, one essay guilty of this is Sharon Ross's essay about female friendship in BUFFY and XENA. Most of what she says is unquestionably true about XENA and if the essay had been merely about that show would have been one of the stronger additions to the collection. But it is a terrible reading of BUFFY. She reads BUFFY as largely concerned with the kind of discussion and reevaluation of matters that she views as uniquely true of female friendship. If you read the essay without having seen the show, you would imagine that Willow was nearly the co-lead character of the show, instead of a member of an ensemble cast. In point of fact, BUFFY is most decidedly not a show about female friendship. In fact, excluding Willow, Buffy is actually more heterosocial in her relationships. In fact, Willow aside, Buffy relates more easily to men than to women. Apart from Willow, all her closest friends and confidantes are men, including Giles, Xander, Angel, and Spike. Her relations with women are almost always uneasy and conflicted, including her mother, Faith, Dawn, Cordelia, and Anya. Moreover, even including Willow there is never a point in the series where she primarily or exclusively goes to Willow for advice instead of Xander or Giles. To read BUFFY as primarily as a show about female friendship is a travesty. Ross also states that the show is at its "most effective when" it "offer[s] stories of the primary female friends resisting men's attempts to keep them apart." She then cites several shows as examples, including "I Robot, You Jane," "The 'I' in Team," and "Yoko." These are not bad episodes, but they are far, far from the show at its most effective and none would make any reasonable list of, say, the top twenty-five or thirty episodes of the show's 144. In other words, only by distorting BUFFY to a remarkable and untenable degree can it be made to be a show about female friendship. There is no question that there is a strong female friendship as one of many major constituent parts of the show, but it is hardly privileged in the way that Ross states.
Another example is Sara Crosby's essay on three supposed instances of suicidal self-sacrifice among TV action heroines due to the forceful suppression of strong female heroes by structures of patriarchy: Max at the end of Season One of DARK ANGEL, Buffy at the end of Season Five of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, and Xena in her show's series finale. I won't argue with the Xena part, because that is fairly accurate, but the characterization of Max and Buffy's deaths is utterly baffling. First, Crosby characterizes Max's death as a suicide, which is absurd, unless being shot by one's clone, over which one maintains utterly no control and therefore no agency, counts as a suicide. Agency and not similar DNA (and the DNA is only similar and not exact, since one of the themes of the show in Season Two--and it would have been THE theme of Season Three had it not been canceled--was Max's genetic uniqueness, which would have enabled her to save the world from annihilation) is acknowledged in every day language as determinative of suicide. But Crosby barely hints at the radical departure from normal language use she is making. It also isn't clear what structures of patriarchy she is talking about in DARK ANGEL. In fact, Manticore, which is the entity that kills Max, is totalitarian, not patriarchal. Unless one can generate a convincing essentialist definition of totalitarian as patriarchal this is not at all the same thing. There is in fact a remarkable disregard for gender at Manticore and one of Max's more striking traits, despite being played by a very beautiful woman, is that she has never been feminized. We could debate the fact that Jessica Alba is beautiful, but the brute fact of prime time television is that we will never, ever have an unlovely young person playing a lead role in such a show. Similarly, in talking of Buffy's death at the end of Season Five, it is impossible to identify the structures of patriarchy. Interestingly she never mentions the fact that the Big Bad of Season Five is a goddess except in passing. Buffy sacrifices herself to close the hell portal to save her sister and her friends because of some supernatural rules. Are the rules patriarchal? If not, it is difficult to see how her death becomes gendered. In other words, the entire essay is a colossal stretch.
The fundamental problem with these two and several other essays is that the writers do not seem to understand the different from actual society and a television series. A TV series may reflect society in the way it is conceived, but it does not actually contain that society. In fact, most of the TV series of the past fifteen years with strong female leads actually imagine a society that is different from the actual one. In our real society, there truly are systems of patriarchy that repress women and attempt to relegate them in lessened roles. But that system may not be replicated in a TV series. In fact, there is a gender utopianism in many of these shows. If one watches BUFFY or FARSCAPE or VERONICA MARS one will be struck by how rarely the ability of these women to take care of themselves is questioned by the males around them. As Renny Christopher points out in her brilliant final essay of the volume on FARSCAPE (an essay that alone justifies the purchase price), FARSCAPE is a representation of a world in which patriarchy does not exist. The Peacekeepers may be ruthless and totalitarian and authoritarian, but he makes no distinctions based on gender. But what is true of FARSCAPE is largely true of these other shows. The writers try to make the shows about issues that are really excluded by the show. Now, one might argue with how realistic the shows are by excluding or minimizing patriarchal structures (they aren't realistic, but that is because they are utopian: they are trying to show us a world that ought to be, a world in which women are allowed to be as strong as men), but you can't escape the fact that they are fictional worlds. In BUFFY a man does not react with shock if Buffy kills a demon with her bare hands in front of a male as in "The Prom." I haven't rewatched all of BUFFY in a year, but the only moment I can recall when someone was shocked that she could do what she did despite being female was the beginning of "The Gift," when a boy she has saved from a vampire asks her how she "did that." "It's what I do," she replies. "But you're just a girl." But even here the point is that an unrealistic burden has been placed upon her, causing her to feel the weight of the world on her shoulders, leading her to answer, "That's what I keep telling myself." But this is the exception. Normally no one acts shocked if she clears the Bronze of vampires in "Welcome to the Hellmouth, Pt. 2" or overcomes a large gang of demons in "Anne."
I guess what I'm objecting to is an overall intellectual clumsiness in these essays. As a grad student I read countless bad essays along the lines of the ones here and I think at least many of them are a result of the "publish or perish" mentality dominating American higher education. And there is a push if you are in gender studies to take some of the central assumptions and apply them to a wide range of subject matter. It is as if they strive to understand their discipline first, and then only half-heartedly study that towards which they apply it. One example of intellectual sloppiness can be found throughout the first essay in the collection, Claudia Herbst's essay on Lara Croft. Throughout she makes one generalization after another about the actual mental or psychological states of gamers that could only actually be validated by statistical analyses of actual gamers. A large number of her "proofs" are actually anecdotes from postings on boards on the Internet. A good example can be found in this passage: Writing of Lara she says, "Men may interpret her toughness and her tiny waist as sexy. Many women find her figure disturbing and respond negatively to the nature-defying design of her body. Perhaps what women are responding to . . . " (p. 35). These are incredibly loose hinges upon which to build an argument. "Men may." Do they are do they not? And where is the polling data that indicates which. "Many women find . . . " Again, how many women, and where is the polling data. Two very dubious suppositions, but then after constructing these straw men and women she goes on to speculate "Perhaps what women are responding to . . . " She hasn't established any real women do so respond, let alone that women in general do. Yet the entire essay is built up on weak links such as that.
Not all the essays are bad. Though I question whether Sherrie Inness has done a good job as an editor, her introduction and her essay are both good. Jeffrey Brown's essay on BARB WIRE was interesting, though he hasn't made me want to see it. Charlene Tung's essay on LA FEMME NIKITA did, however, make me want to give that series a shot. So also with David Greven's essay on WITCHBLADE (currently unavailable on DVD), though I am suspicious of his depiction of the lead as a lesbian hero (it doesn't quite pass the smell test, though perhaps I am wrong). Dawn Henecken's essay on Chyna might be OK. I just have less than no interest in either Chyna or the world of fake wrestling, so it was a tough essay for me to get through. Marilyn Yaquinto's essay on women in gangster films was fun.
All in all, however, I cannot recommend the collection. Apart from Renny Christopher's very fine essay, I don't think there is much that one interested in the subject can't live without.