Gender equality in TV shows

I recently watched the entire Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it struck me on completion that it’s one of the few shows to which I would give full marks on gender equality. I thought about other shows I love that get close-but-not-perfect marks, and the things that disqualified them, and I ended up working up a mental list of criteria for gender equality in popular fiction.

When I talk about gender equality in a show I’m talking about the number and quality of female roles vs. male roles. If sexism is a part of the show’s universe, that may affect which kinds of roles each gender can have, but a writer can still create interesting men and women within those constraints. That will become more clear as I go into the criteria further.

(A couple of notes: I’m only talking about plot-centric shows here: mystery, adventure, sci-fi/fantasy. Relationship-centric shows, like Gilmore Girls, tend to be even-handed or female-heavy. And I’m not even touching questions of heteronormativity or the gender binary, because pop culture is miles away from being even close to addressing these fairly.)

The first criterion is simply the ratio of male to female characters, within each tier of importance. You can’t just count up all the male characters and all the female characters and leave it at that: you have to separate the main characters, the supporting characters, and the background characters, and assess within each group. Babylon 5 is a good example here: this is the only category it falls down on. You have Sheridan/Sinclair, Garibaldi, G’Kar, Londo, Franklin, Veer, Lennier, and Marcus on the one hand, and on the other Delenn, Ivanova, and Lyta/Talia. (Conveniently, there’s a replacement character on each side, so I don’t have to decide whether to count them as one or two.) B5 crafts excellent, well-rounded, engaging female characters, but they’re heavily outnumbered. Since all the important characters are in positions of political or military power, you could argue that there’s in-universe sexism here, but that’s never mentioned to be the case (except maybe for the Centauri.)

I’m not asking that writers labor to balance their character sheets; that tends to lead to problems with my second criterion, and there are plenty of good stories that can be best told with a primarily male or primarily female cast. But it’s a symptom of a greater cultural bias that characters that form in a writer’s mind (except in relationship-focused stories) are far more often male than female.

The second criterion is diversity and depth of female characters. Contemporary writers generally recognize that they need to include important female characters, but the female characters they produce are overwhelmingly likely to be young, attractive, and socially competent: in other words, dateable. Flaws of fictional women most often fall into the category of “girlfriend flaws”: being naggy or oversensitive or interfering. Rare is the important female character who is over 40, or a jerkass, or truly plain or awkward (as opposed to Hollywood Plain and Hollywood Awkward.) House is a particularly egregious example of this failing: Cameron, Cuddy, and Thirteen are all eminently dateable. Amber, aka Cutthroat Bitch, broke the mold a little, but she wasn’t around for long.

Women also tend to have shallower inner lives. Teenagers aside, a moody, secretive character is likely to be male. A character who shows hidden depths or previously-unsuspected qualities is likely to be male. With female characters, what you see is usually what you get. Male characters also get the lion’s share of agonizing moral dilemmas: females aren’t often given the plurality of values that yields serious internal conflict.

Another angle of the diversity question is the roles women appear in. Even in shows with a solid range of well-developed primary female characters (Firefly and Farscape, for example), there’s often a dearth of women in the stock supporting roles. Comic relief, wise mentors, and especially villains are usually male. One might say, “No big loss,” since these are usually shallower roles, but it indicates the overall disconnect between the fictional universe and the real one. In the real universe, half the people are women, and they occupy the full range of human possibilities. In the fictional universe, people are male by default, and the females live within a fairly narrow range of roles and characteristics. The fictional universe needs more complex and conflicted women, more goofy women, more antagonistic women. And, for the love of Toph, more women that aren’t pretty.

Which leads directly into the third criterion, the eye candy quotient. This one is pretty straighforward: the ratio of sexy men to sexy women. I don’t have a problem with women as sex objects per se; my problem comes when women are mainly sex objects (as addressed above) or when men aren’t also sex objects. Some shows are more devoted than others to dishing out the eye candy, and I’m fine either way, as long as it’s equal-opportunity. This one is where Battlestar Galactica falls down. It does really well on the diversity-and-depth criterion, (with extra credit for the creation of Laura Roslin and Starbuck), but every single female on the show is smokin’ hot, while there are only four or five attractive males, and only three of them are ever played for sexiness. (If you’re curious, I’m counting Helo, Lee Adama, and Anders as the “played for sexiness” ones, with Gaeta and Baltar as the other two.)

Avatar meets all the criteria solidly. The important characters, characters whose development is important throughout the series, are Aang, Sokka, Zuko, and Iroh, (male) and Katara, Toph, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee (female). The female characters are as likely as the males to be heroic, morally conflicted, goofy, and badass. There’s plenty of eye candy on both sides. Background and tertiary characters feature women in as broad a range of roles as men (from one-episode villains to bizarre comic relief). You get the sense that in the world of Avatar, just like in the real world, half the people are women.

The only other fictional work I can think of that gets full marks (although most of the shows I’ve named here come close) is the webcomic Girl Genius. Also perhaps the short-lived Joss Whedon show Dollhouse. (I haven’t watched enough of Buffy to judge it, but it may qualify as well.) Any other nominations?

Is God good?

I’ve been listening to a debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Dembski. It’s over two hours long, so I’m not through the whole thing, but I just got through a part where they’re talking about the goodness of God, and I had to stop and write.

Dembski makes the argument that, once you accept the existence of God, the goodness of God follows almost necessarily. His argument runs thus: If we claim that there is a God (“God” here defined as an all-powerful being who created and continually engages with the universe), but that God is not good, we have to ask, “Where does the standard of ‘good’ come from?” We are claiming that there is a standard of morality that God does not meet, and this seems like a fairly absurd claim. If the standard comes from an authority higher than God, then God isn’t worthy of the name, and if it comes from a lower authority, then it’s presumptuous to suggest that God should be subject to it.

This reasoning is completely sound, in my judgement. Dembski then continues, addressing the problem of evil: if the all-powerful God is good, then why is there evil? And here is where I have a problem, because he’s just equivocated on the definition of “good.” In the first argument, “good” is defined as “the standard of morality set by the highest authority.” No assumptions have been made about which actions or values are good and which are not. It’s simply been stated that it doesn’t make sense to pose a standard of good which God does not meet. It doesn’t follow from that argument that evil exists at all. There is no reason to suppose, from this argument, that the universe, with all the destruction and cruelty it contains, isn’t exactly the way God wanted it to be.

But Dembski takes for granted the existence of evil, and therefore brings in the assumption that God’s standards of good match up with human standards to some extent. To human eyes, it is obvious that things like cruelty, greed, oppression, and senseless destruction fall together under a heading generally definable as “bad,” “evil,” “opposite of good.” Different groups of humans have different ideas about whether certain specific actions or qualities are good, evil, or neutral, but the general idea of evil is pretty consistent and well-understood throughout humanity. In the appendix to his book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis gives an excellent catalogue of the moral precepts which have generally been agreed upon in human societies: compassion, fair dealing, generosity, trustworthiness. Approval of these qualities, and condemnation of their opposites, has appeared in human societies throughout history, and forms the hub of our notions of good and evil.

By asking, “Why does an all-powerful God allow evil to exist?” we are assuming that God agrees with this general idea of evil. As different human cultures differ in their precise moral codes, so we imagine that God may call some things “good” which we feel as evils, and vice versa, but we take for granted that God is in agreement with that basic hub of morality which is so consistently felt throughout human culture.

So when we ask “Is God good?” we can be asking two things. We can be asking, “Is God the highest standard of morality?” Or we can be asking, “Does our basic human understanding of good and evil agree with God’s?” The answer to the first question is “yes,” almost by definition. That does not, however, begin to answer the second question.

Without making any further assumptions, without taking any religious texts as authoritative, the most sensible conclusion is that our understanding of good and evil does not agree with God’s. The very fact that so many forces, both within humanity and without, oppose our sense of the good, suggests that the supreme authority of the universe is fairly indifferent to it. Nature rewards selfishness and competition as well as cooperation and generosity. The simplest answer to the question of “Why is there evil?” or, as David lamented, “Why do evil men prosper?” is that God has very different ideas of good and evil than we do. In other words, there is no evil. Everything, on heaven and earth, is exactly the way God wanted it to be, and our human feeling that in a perfect world things would be different is merely a misapprehension, a mistake born out of our limited and highly biased perspective.

In fact I find it hard to justify any other conclusion, philosophically. Why should we believe that God values compassion, fair dealing, generosity, and trustworthiness? Certainly it’s much nicer to imagine so, but that’s no reason for believing it. I don’t see how you get to such a belief without a religious text or a very complicated rationalization born out of wishful thinking.

So when religious apologists claim that, once you’ve accepted the existence of God, the goodness of God follows naturally, they’re using semantic equivocation to bridge a very wide gap. If you want to take “good” to mean “the highest moral standard in the universe,” go right ahead, but then you have to go on to ask, “Is human goodness actually good?” And no apologist that I’ve encountered has bothered to do that.

Queerish?

I feel like a poser. I love the queer community, love that they’ve had to carve new territory in the world of gender and sexuality, love the openness and flexibility and lack of assumptions that brings. I spend so much time now with queers of various stripes that I get weirded out by too much straightness. But when I’m not with my close friends, when I’m at a Pride event or a gay bar, I feel like a poser. I feel embarrassingly straight. I mean, I have a boyfriend. I’m mostly attracted to men. I didn’t grow up with the same sense of deep disconnect between my desires, my sense of self, and what society said was okay, that seems to give queer folk this profound sense of cameraderie with each other. I don’t have that. When I’m hanging out with queer people, I feel straight.

But I’m not straight. I’m polyamorous, for a start, and try explaining that to your fellow teachers at the preschool (I haven’t.) I’m only mostly attracted to men. I’m happy to have a female body, but there’s a strong masculine side to my identity. Socially, I’ve never really been a girl, and I have a hard time connecting with people who are. So when I’m around straight people, I do a lot of listening not talking, a lot of selective revelation (yep, I have a date tonight, yep, we’re going to a play, let me just fail to mention that I’m going with someone other than my boyfriend and this is not a problem for any of us), and a lot of feeling left out of conversations (Co-worker: “Men are so ridiculous! Can you believe he did that?” Other co-worker: “I know, it drives me crazy!” Me, in my head: That’s probably what I’d do too.) When I’m hanging out with straight people, I feel queer.

That’s really all I have to say on that subject. I feel a little bit neither-fish-nor-fowl, a little bit out of place wherever I go, a little bit lacking in community identification. It’s not the worst problem to have, by any means, but it does mean feeling like I’m always a guest and never at home.