As mentioned in my previous post, relentlessly hammering every show we watch with some tale of love and sex between ‘opposite sexes’ claims this as the natural way of things, and all of the baggage that carries with it, without ever examining the validity of the concept of heterosexuality or its power dynamics.
Heterosexuality as we know it today comes with built-in sexism. It comes in the form of societal expectations that pigeon-hole men and women into specific roles when in relationships with one another. Some examples include: the assumption that a man should be the one to buy a diamond and propose to a woman. It is the assumption that a woman will take a man’s last name when they marry. The idea that a man must be the primary breadwinner or he’s failed or been ’emasculated’. These, at least on the surface, are some of the more benign examples. The list is endless.
All of this is built into heterosexuality even if specific individuals eschew it. It’s a part of our collective agreement of how these relationships work. There are people who still vehemently defend this way of life. Although some may find that this works best for them, it’s the unquestioning acceptance of heterosexuality as ‘normal’ and ‘right’ that produces problems.
On television, this often results in female characters who are cast in roles where their sole purpose is ‘love interest’, even if they are initially presented otherwise. It seems like this used to be a largely acceptable role for women (or at the very least no one could hear anyone complain about it), but now that we expect a little more out of our female characters, we have to dress them up as if they are more. This means that characters who appear to be deep, powerful characters are really not. They lose their identity as soon as they enter a relationship with a male character.
Take Alice Quinn from The Magicians. (Spoilers ahead)
Alice begins the story as a student at Brakebills University: a school for studying magic. She’s the head of the class. She is legions ahead of her peers. She possesses a beautiful intellect, and she doesn’t even care about magic. She’s there to find out what happened to her deceased brother and bring him back if she can. If she were not destined to be a love interest, this would be a solid foundation for any character to progress.
Then the male lead, Quentin, arrives. It’s immediately obvious that Alice will be his love interest. She’s a nerd, like our hero, and despite her awkward wardrobe, she is gorgeous. It’s not hard to pick her out as Quentin’s objet d’amour.
After Alice and Quentin inevitably get together, she has no identity outside of her relationship with him. Her primary goal is resolved early on, leaving her without a driving force or room for growth. As the love interest, she is largely relegated to the role of hoping and wishing her boyfriend will be okay, helping him do what he needs to do, sexual scenes that are abundant and sometimes awkwardly contrived, and causing jealousies with other male characters.
Has anyone seen my storyline? I misplaced it somewhere.
This is the same character that was initially portrayed as the most badass magician in the entire school. They even make it a point to have her say that as good as they know she is – she’s actually holding back. Good thing she can channel all of that talent into ill-fated sexcapades.
Portraying women as love interests is part of a long-standing tradition of eclipsing women’s presences and noting their value only in the context of sex or romance. In order for better roles for women and better television to evolve, we need to be able to recognize how often this happens. Beyond robbing what should be good female characters of any depth, it’s also predictable and boring. Characters with stories independent of their love interests are more compelling and well-rounded.
Not only is this more engaging on screen, but actresses regularly lament the lack of good female roles. It’s about time they were given the same number of varied roles men have historically held. It’s about time women can see themselves on screen as multi-faceted and important characters independent of their relationship with any of the male characters. It is changing, but, as always, not unilaterally across the board, and not nearly fast enough.
The Magicians is by no means alone in this. It’s the rule, rather than the exception. It’s just a recent and clear example of it.
To be fair, other female characters like Julia Wicker do have meaningful storylines. However, it should be noted that Julia is not a love interest. Regardless, this doesn’t change anything about how Alice is portrayed.
I know this seems like I hate this show and this character, but Alice was my favorite. I kept hoping she would do something, anything, that would break her out of the mold. I wanted her to live up to the potential she supposedly has, even though I knew she wouldn’t. Here’s hoping this changes in season two.
Next Up: Science Fiction & Compulsory Heterosexuality
Anansi is the pseudonym of a writer who knows that if she uses her real name to talk about subjects like this he’ll get his head handed to him faster than Vito Corleone put the horse’s head in that idiot pervert producer’s bed.