Ma'am, Yes, Ma'am: Women and Institutionalized Authority on TV

8:01 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

There is really no argument that modern television screens are full to the brim with strong female characters. From the fiery antiheroines of Homeland, Revenge, The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones to the funny professional ladies on 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation, to the steely-tough heroines found throughout sci-fi from Buffy Summers up through Alias, Fringe, and the modern companions of Doctor Who, there’s no shortage of strong females, no matter what your tastes are. But no matter how amazingly fierce and capable they are, there’s still one thing missing from nearly every one of them: institutionalized authority. Why is it that nearly every female character must answer to an authority personified by men? This isn’t meant as a slam on capable, clever, worthy male authority figures. I have always been a pretty low-key, middle-of-the-road feminist who has no problem with men. The problem I see is when these things become a pattern.

Let’s break this down by a few genres: drama/procedural, comedy, and sci-fi.

Today’s dramas, particularly those with a procedural element, tend to have a high percentage of female protagonists. And what’s better, most of them do not face discrimination or plots revolving around someone underestimating them because of their gender. This is excellent, I can't stress that enough. But let’s take a closer look at a handful of the most popular dramatic series with female leads or at the very least, extremely strong and important (not to mention diverse) female characters: NCIS, Castle, Elementary, and The Good Wife. The first three feature(d) at least one complicated, independent woman in a central role (Agent Ziva David, Joan Watson and Detective Kate Beckett); the third has not only its titular heroine but two more remarkable women.

L-R: Ziva David ( (c) CBS/NCIS); Kate Beckett ( (c) ABC/Castle); Joan Watson ( (c) CBS/Elementary)
Only one out of these six women, however, holds a position of authority: The Good Wife’s Diane Lockhart, head of the show’s law firm. The others, though their strength as characters is never in doubt, work officially for a man; even the brilliant and pragmatic Diane shares power with her (male) partner. There is one exception: after three seasons of a male precinct captain, Castle introduced Captain Victoria Gates, aka “Iron Gates.” I was thrilled- until one of her first lines was to require her subordinates to address her not as “ma’am,” but “sir.” This is a woman deserving of her nickname, steely tough, no-nonsense, and exceptionally good at her difficult job. Yet in order to command respect, she feels she must require a male honorific? And from a writer’s perspective, was it really necessary to add this for the sake of a running gag or amusing “quirk”? Needless to say, this did not sit well with me.

Comedy seems to be one area where, oddly enough, female authority does not always have to be a joke. It may sound counterintuitive, but comedy’s willingness to allow women to be comically bad at their jobs (or just have some funny flubs) actually evens the playing field. Front and center here have to be Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knope and the titular Veep. Selina Meyer. Selina is often incompetent in a hilarious way, one that earned her portrayer Julia Louis-Dreyfus three consecutive Emmys. Over at Parks & Rec, Leslie Knope holds a low-level political office but has authority nonetheless. Her missteps and successes together form a picture of a well-intentioned, sharply funny, self-aware yet ridiculous, complex woman. The humor comes not from the fact that they are women, but from the same source of comedy that makes slipping on a banana peel a classic comedy bit: seeing people fall down is funny!
Image (c) NBC/Parks & Recreation
Perhaps this problem is most evident in the heightened realities of genre (or “geek”) TV. And this makes me, a proud geek girl, more than a little sad. Paradoxically, this is where we have women who are not only strong of character but literally have superpowers, often far beyond that of the men (and women) around them. Heroines like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Buffy Summers, Fringe’s Olivia Dunham, and Sleepy Hollow's Abbie Mills embraced the powers they didn’t ask for to save the world while the men stayed in the books and lab. The rebooted Doctor Who has included Rose Tyler, "defender of the earth," who fought tooth and nail for what she believed in, eventually becoming a god-like entity and breaking down the walls between universes to save her friends; Martha Jones, intelligent and self-assured, who spent a year literally walking the earth to set up a world-saving gambit; and Donna Noble, an ordinary temp who took no BS from anyone and called the Doctor out- even before becoming "the most important woman in all of creation." Take a look (another disclaimer: the following clips are the copyrighted property of BBC and Doctor Who, used here in solely in a commentary context)

"You don't just give up. You don't just let things happen, you make a stand, you say no. You have the guts to do what's right when everyone else just runs away." And Rose does just that.

"I just want you to know there are worlds out there, safe in the sky because of her. That there are people living in the light, and singing songs of Donna Noble, a thousand million light years away. They will never forget her, while she can never remember. And for one moment, one shining moment, she was the most important woman in the whole wide universe."

Women kicking butt, physically and intellectually, are thankfully commonplace on genre shows. But whenever there’s a hierarchy, which is often a feature of these shows, it’s almost always led by men, dating all the way back to Captain Kirk himself. We’ve got Firefly’s Capt. Mal Reynolds and his second, Zoe Washburn; Torchwood’s Capt. Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper, who alternates the role of “second” with Jack’s (male) partner, and the new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which includes three smart, articulate, and strong women- under the command of Agent Phil Coulson. 

Feminism argues for an equal seat at the table, which is why it bothers so many when equally-capable women are under the command of men. There are a few cases, however, in which this dynamic actually does serve a feminist purpose. As I said previously, I don’t feel any lowering of regard towards the male commanders simply for being male instead of female; that would be sexist in a different way. What are fascinating, however, are the cases in which the male authorities actually get in the way of the women doing their amazing deeds. I turn again to Buffy for an ideal example: the mostly-male Watchers’ Council, with the exception of one (later, two) members, does more to hinder the titular vampire slayer with their rules than to actually provide any help when it matters most. Does this express a more radical feminism, one in which women can never get an equal seat and equal power and so must start their own table? Maybe it does. Or maybe it’s just the recognizable plot of a hero striking out on his/her own.
Image (c) Warner Bros./Buffy the Vampire Slayer
So yes: I’m a low-key feminist who has no problem with occasional male authority. I will readily admit that nearly every show mentioned in this piece ranks among my favorites, and that some of the male authority figures also happen to be characters I adore. But when amazing, strong female characters are relegated constantly to supporting roles in the chain of institutionalized authority? That’s when I have a problem. That’s a power dynamic that bothers me. Would it really make a huge difference to the story if the commander/captain/CEO was a woman? Not at all. But would it make a difference to the millions of strong women hoping to see reflections of themselves achieving the powerful positions they hope to hold or already do hold? Yes, ma’am.