Not Really Necessary vs. Seriously, It’s Annoying: The Nature of Comparing

During a very brief period of my formative teen years I was a fan of World Wrestling Entertainment. At the time it was known as WWF, or World Wrestling Foundation. Full disclosure: I was thirteen and my interest stemmed from a desire to appear cool to boys (Oh, Teen Shannon, you foolish dove…). As I watched, it was hard to remain unengaged. The drama! The costumes! Fire and decade-long grudges! THE ROCK! What started as a poorly designed boy trap of sorts turned into a genuine obsession fraught with theories, preferred outcomes, and memorized catchphrases. (“I thoroughly smell what The Rock is cooking, my precious, confident angel!”) . I had become so taken with professional wrestling that I asked my mother to purchase the $30 Pay Per View pass for WrestleMania in order to watch The Rock fight Triple H in a steel cage match. “Two men enter! Only one exits the victor! I have to see it live!”

Her response, bless her, was “You’ve completely lost your damn mind. No, I will never do such a thing.” It was probably for the best.

Let’s fast forward to 2015. These days I leave the wrestling to my husband while my viewing schedule includes the likes of Scandal and Empire. They have the same pull that wrestling possessed for me all those years ago – no shortage of drama, gorgeous costuming, grudges galore, and each episode leaves me with more quote-worthy moments than a productive person needs.

That, however, is where the similarities – between wrestling and each other – end. Within minutes of watching either show you quickly gather that these are two entirely different productions, each with their own scene-stealing black female lead. When I watch one show I am in no way thinking of the other, mainly because each show requires a different frame of mind and little downtime for your thoughts to wander elsewhere. I sympathize with Cookie Lyon and Olivia Pope in very unique ways. From my experience, the same could be said about most who identify as both Gladiators and…I’m not sure if a name has been determined for Empire fans yet. Chart Toppers? Lyonhearts? I’d honestly like to know.

I digress. Despite Cookie and Olivia establishing themselves as two distinctive powerhouses, that still doesn’t stop articles like this one from imposing the title of “stronger female character.” Though these shows air on different networks (FOX brings us Empire while ABC has been the home of Scandal since 2012), they air on entirely different days, so they really aren’t in any foreseeable competition with each other.

And yet, I can’t help but read comparisons like these while picturing Cookie and Olivia, dressed to the nines and circling at each other in a steel cage high above the crowd. Two fabulous women enter. Only one can escape the victor. Who’s the strongest?

That’s the problem with these unsolicited comparisons: it creates a competition that is in no way necessary. It reduces an entire world of entertainment to this limited space where only one can represent comfortably – whether that “one” is a black female lead, or a gay protagonist, or a female showrunner. You see this often with the portrayal of marginalized groups – this need to determine which is a better representation or to find some understanding as to how two can simply exist at the same time.  Some would argue that it’s innocent pondering, but you can’t ignore the deeper implications that exist underneath…and there are, whether the asker is cognizant of them or not.

This habit of wondering “who does it better” may not be harmful to group that already dominates the media, but to us individuals still struggling to be properly represented, it’s a very toxic notion. Why must one be “better” and who is actually qualified to make that sort of determination? Why should the arrival of one devalue the existence of the other? If we are finally given something as great as two prominent black women featured in prime time or multiple women manning the helm of their own shows or more examples of LGBTQ love in media, shouldn’t the question be “Why aren’t there more,” not “Who did it better?” They shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive entities.

Another thing that I find incredibly problematic with this line of thought, in regards to critiquing characters through comparison: in a time when many of us are seeking representation that is closer to our true narrative – characters who are layered, flawed, complex, have a multitude of interests and emotions – do we really want to be so dismissive of roles that are different, even if their traits may fall outside of what we consider desirable or virtuous? At the risk of coming across as repetitive, as I covered this sentiment in my last post: we are mistaken if we automatically equate “likable” with “good.” Sometimes it’s the ugly that links us. When we use those flaws against a character and compare it to another while saying “See? This is how it should be done!”…it’s almost like rejecting humanity. No group should be treated as a monolith with only one acceptable image. It’s okay to look at someone and recognize things that we’d like to see in ourselves, but that shouldn’t discredit what makes someone multi-dimensional. Olivia’s indecisiveness regarding her future doesn’t make her any less of a bad ass nor does Cookie’s take-the-reins persona distract from her weakness for Lucious. Both of these women are exposing their layers to us one at a time and that should be celebrated, not shallowly compared to make it somehow easier for the masses to digest.

Here’s the bottom line: when you’re in the minority, you’re already in a competition. You’re competing with the status quo. You’re fighting against preconceived expectations. You’re struggling against an environment with a default setting that truly does not work in your favor. That, in and of itself, is already more competition than should be fairly imposed upon a single person. When it comes to each other, let us just be great without succumbing to that need to see us duke it out.

We live in a world that will soon have four Expendables films. FOUR. If there’s room for all of them, then there’s certainly room for the rest of us.

Cage matches don’t carry the same luster when the two contenders have no interest in fighting each other. For once, let’s just leave that cage gloriously empty.

Unlikable Female Character: I Love You.

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Left to right: Grace Adler, Mindy Lahiri, Maxine Shaw, and Gemma Teller Morrow

One day I will write a very detailed account of my love of Will & Grace and Living Single.

I’m in desperate need of something resembling a Bat Signal whenever a network is airing a marathon of either of these shows. It doesn’t matter that I can recite almost every episode by heart, nor is it a concern of mine that I own every season of Will & Grace on DVD. I will watch every episode like it’s the first time and laugh obnoxiously as if the jokes are fresh. I’m tempted to present these shows as sort of a litmus test for new potential friends.

I remember gushing about Grace Adler to a friend during my Freshman year of college and he kind of blanched at the idea of me considering her a favorite. “How can you honestly like her?” he asked. To strengthen his argument against her, he listed a few of her qualities that he found most unsavory: she was selfish, a little obnoxious, kind of a slob, and uncompromising about the things she wanted in her life, even at the inconvenience of others. She also had a tongue of acid at times.

My rebuttal: “I know! That’s why I love her!”

For kicks, I asked him who his favorite character was. His response (which came so quickly that I’m not entirely certain that I actually finished the question): Michael Scott. Famously inappropriate, culturally clueless, dopishly racist/sexist Michael Scott.

I didn’t have the time back then to dissect the clear double standard here (even though I’ve always quite enjoyed Michael Scott myself) and to be honest, I’m not positive that it would have mattered all that much to my friend back then. His outlook – where forgiveness of character flaws is provided much more liberally for our favorite fictional men than women – was widely shared just as much then as it is now. When it comes to women in television (hell, women in general) there is more of an emphasis placed on overall likability than any other character trait. Is she smart? Is she strong? Loyal? Kind? Generous? Reliable? Polite? Affable? Does she always look her best? Is she great at her job? Is she an attentive mother/wife/friend/daughter/coworker/neighbor/newspaper delivery woman with energy to spare? And if she is the ideal picture of benevolence…is it credible? When you really explore the commonly touted expectations of female characters in entertainment, there is just not much room for error. They (and we) are expected to be impossible and possible all at once. And while I try to abstain from the concept of fairness…dammit, it’s not fair.

My general likability is far from my greatest concern, therefore I tend not to place the same expectations on the characters that entertain me each week. It’s actually the ones that are labeled unlikable that I gravitate towards the most not because I’m a horrible person, but because I see more of myself in them than anyone else. When you look at some of the reasons women in television might be deemed unfavorable – whether they’re stubborn, demanding, occasionally offensive, sarcastic, etc. – you’ll find that they’re characteristics that exist in everybody at our most genuine.

I don’t want anyone to assumed that I don’t also love likable characters or find them wholly inaccessible. Jane the Virgin‘s Jane Villanueva, for example is a figure whom I will treasure always and strikes me as the perfect example of the Likable Female Lead who is also nuanced, charismatic, sharp, flawed, and hilarious. It’s quite difficult, I feel, not to fall for her once you meet her. I find her relatable in many ways, between her love of sweeping romance and her proclivity to dive into things heart first. I see those aspects in her and find some solidarity.

But it’s important that I see the rest of me reflected in my entertainment, too – the flaws that were deemed unbecoming long ago. Roxane Gay wrote this incredible essay over a year ago about the importance of unlikable female protagonists in literature. As she brilliantly noted, the ability for these women to exist without the pressures of being liked allowed us to see them at their most authentic. We get the opportunity to make more of a connection based on something more tangible than perfection: humanity. When a character in a book, movie or show is shamelessly honest, for example, more often than not they’re saying something that I’d probably never have the guts to say. In female protagonists, however, they’re more likely to be considered harsh or bitches rather than “straight shooters” like their male counterparts.

I recently had a discussion with a friend on Twitter regarding the importance of the Unlikable Female Character where I mentioned that she’s vital to the visibility of women in television and other media. It’s not just about having an interesting character to argue about by the water cooler; it’s also about having a character that serves a versatile purpose outside of being just the voice of reason or as a foil for the protagonist. It’s these layered characters that you get to take the journey with and the ones who become household names. You’re more likely to hear someone recall a variety of memorable Walter White moments than those of Skyler White. The flawed are the ones that get the character development, the side adventures, and the occasional redemption. They monopolize the discussion. Let us be a part of the discussion.

Some might argue that these women aren’t necessarily “unlikable,” but instead “complex.” I agree with that, but I also think that we shouldn’t shy away from the term “unlikable.” Avoiding the term insinuates a fear of not being liked which, again, I’m not sure should be our primary concern. Also, erasing the idea of unlikability has a way of sugar-coating what some of these characteristic truly are. Let’s face it: being selfish, withholding, judgmental, or cutthroat can be shitty things to be (certainly not always!). And that’s fine. They’re also human components that most of us have experienced within the last hour. We should be able to see this side of humanity without automatically villainizing it, and women should be just as entitled to these flaws as men, both on and off the screen.

I’m always going to defend the Unlikable Female Character because just as I should be allowed my flaws, so should the women on my TV. Should we all aim to be the best version of ourselves? Absolutely. But “best” does not equate to “perfection” and since entertainment should reflect certain aspects of real life, it’s crucial for me to see that the sources of my entertainment understand this concept. It’s why I cheer when Grace Adler is unabashedly selfish. I root for Maxine Shaw when she uses her razor-sharp tongue to defend herself. I feel better about my own potty mouth when I hear Dee Reynolds being utterly crass. I understood Gemma Teller-Morrow’s desperation to keep her family together, even if she felt that manipulation was her only tool in achieving that. I get Drita D’avanzo’s fierce promise to protect her family “at all costs.” Mindy Lahiri’s almost scholarly knowledge of celebrity gossip over current events matches my own, at times (though, in my defense, I was quite aware of Osama Bin Laden’s death, unlike her). It was difficult to not be moved by Rosa Cisneros’ passionate back story, even if it did include robbing banks. And while I strive to one day be as put-together as Olivia Pope, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel Mellie Grant on a deep level, from her ruthless approach to establishing her own power to her desire to knock the mistress in her husband’s life down a few pegs. They’re allowed to have messy hands and beating hearts. That’s as important as it is entertaining.

Finding some level of solidarity with these women does not mean that I agree with them at all times, nor does it cloud my ability to recognize when they’re problematic. But I’m grateful for their existence and I’m anxious to see a future inhabited with more beautiful, layered, slightly messy women.

To the Women Gracing My Screen: My Mission Statement

Shannon the TV Consumer of 2005 is almost entirely different from the one going into 2015.

I couldn’t tell you with complete confidence what I was even watching back then. It probably wasn’t much: I was a college freshman trying to balance getting passable grades (but if my daughter asks…I really aimed for stars. Like…just try to make me sound as studious as possible here) and a blossoming social life. I remember only having time for the barest of standards when it came to my entertainment. Did The Such-and-Such Show make me laugh? Did it make sense? Were the characters somewhat smart? If they weren’t smart, were they hot? My only major campaign that I can truly recall was that I hoped against hope that Dave Chappelle would consider coming back and doing a decent season of the Chappelle Show. Other than that, I had no hard opinions regarding my television viewing experience that stick out as I type this. Strangely out of character for me; I have hard opinions about everything. Ask me one day how I feel about raisins in my food. I could go on for hours about this. Opinions on how my entertainment should look? I was fairly easy to please.

Another major difference: at the time, I didn’t identify myself as a feminist. As a matter of fact, I had some fairly misguided views regarding feminism, which I will try my damnedest not to blame entirely on the media…though it played a significant role. When I saw what I now understand was the Feminist Caricature, she looked nothing like me: she was white, had a slightly muscular build, cropped hair, donned a pretty killer scowl, and wore her hatred of men like a suit of armor. Understand this: she was (and is) beautiful. I just couldn’t relate. Therefore, without taking the time actually research and develop a clue, I just assumed that feminism wasn’t something that I was meant to be a part of. So I absorbed what my blessed television presented to me and took it as gospel (because when has TV ever lied to me?!), deciding that a proper representation of feminism in my viewing experience was just not that vital. My main concern: when is Chappelle coming back?

Things change in a decade, obviously. I’m 29, I hold a job in Corporate America, I’m the co-head of a household with my cool-as-hell husband and the mother of the most magnificent two-year-old girl. Also, I’m way more invested in my television than I was when I was 19. Though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that my “list of concerns” back then was necessarily flawed – there isn’t anything wrong with simply wanting a bunch of good looking people to make you laugh – I would say without hesitation that they have evolved greatly. I, like many, many others, look for my entertainment to serve as a form of escapism. From eight in the morning until five in the evening every weekday I have to deploy my Undercover Side Eye at a daily dose of sexism from certain coworkers and a select, very effective portion of upper management. More often than not I’m having to explain (patiently) to friends and family that yes, inequality of the sexes (especially for women of color and trans women) is still very much a thing. There isn’t enough time in the world to discuss the news’ documentation of our daily struggle as women. So yeah…I definitely looked to television to show that somebody gets it. Sometimes it does – like when Shonda Rhimes absolutely OWNS my screen on Thursday nights – and sometimes it doesn’t. Aside from my refusal to support problematic media and blaring my discontent/praise on any platform that’ll allow my very pointed voice, there isn’t much else I can do for now. I would love for that to change.

But I CAN make a solid promise to my beautiful women in television, as well as my fellow television enthusiasts. I’m calling it a mission statement, though I’m sure any business aficionado will be quick to let me know exactly why this isn’t an actual mission statement, but simply a list of promises. To them I say the same I say to my inner voice when it reminds me that listening to Sam Smith while I’m emotionally compromised is a bad idea: “Regardless of how right you clearly are, I’m still gonna do it.”

So, my many-faced TV Goddess, as a loving viewer and willing mouthpiece in these tweet-paved streets, I promise the following:

  • To continue to support you publicly and privately, as well as encouraging others to do the same.
  • To make my calls for widespread representation loud and unapologetic.
  • To understand that you, Lady of the Screen, are going to be problematic at times. That’s just something that comes with being human. As long as it’s not irreversibly messed up, I won’t treat it as a deal-breaker (even as I lovingly call you out on it).
  • To make any discussion that I host all-inclusive, voice-wise.
  • To know the difference between having favorites and creating a competition that isn’t necessary.
  • To try my best to not entirely snub reality television, as it can actually serve a great purpose when it uses its power for good instead of evil. Also, I can’t pretend that there aren’t episodes of Real Housewives of Atlanta and Mob Wives sitting in my DVR.
  • To understand that your cosmetic choices are yours to make and not really my business to comment on. But also…
  • To loudly celebrate when you look especially amazing.
  • To try to know what I’m talking about in my occasional analysis. And finally,
  • To continuously update this statement over time. Problems – and victories, hopefully – will arise and I will do what I can to keep up with all of it.

Now that we and our remotes have made it to 2015, what do you hope to see for our televised women in the new year?

My Lady of the Screen banner in all its glory: some of the biggest badasses in television.

My Lady of the Screen banner in all its glory: some of the biggest badasses in television.