Some “Smart” Female TV Characters are Stupid
TV, over it’s long history has featured legions of stupid women. Their role has often been to be a helpful motivator for true protagonists.
We have a new generation of writers now who are aware that the characters they write communicate to the world in some ways what people can and cannot be. On come the lab coats.
No doubt it is refreshing to see characters intended to be a smart and competent women on TV. The twin problems are that they are overly competent and not actually smart.
I probably shouldn’t cite a character from a CW show you’ve never heard of as a prime example for this post, but I don’t watch enough TV to do better. Felicity Smoak (played by Emily Bett Rickards) on Arrow is a hopelessly stupid, smart character. She knows how to solve any sciencey problem. Her function is to get an artifact from the protagonists and later in the hour recite the information needed to advance the plot.
Smoak’s feats are indistinguishable from those of a magician. She can count cards, apparently without playing more than one hand. She’s a cryptographer (having decoded “military-grade”, “cobalt-level” and “asymmetric” encryption in the episodes I’ve seen). She can tell what building a drug was made in by analyzing the contents of an empty syringe (something about water). She is eminently capable.
What Smoak is not, however, is smart. She is simply a live-action Computer Engineer Barbie who has turned in her a pink laptop for a Microsoft Surface tablet. None of her accomplishments are more comprehensible to the viewer than a magic trick. Arrow would be the exact same show if Smoak were a psychic. The only way you know Smoak is supposed to be smart is her social ineptitude. And the lab coat.
Writers, in their zeal to come up with female role models have duplicated the Superman problem. The women they have constructed are so skilled that the writers struggle to find challenging problems for them. On Alias, Sidney Bristow’s character was superhuman, so the only way to create real tension was for her to be continually victimized by an endless stream of omnipotent quasi-government organizations—one time waking up having lost two years of her life. Chuck’s Sarah Walker was such a perfect super-spy that we rarely saw her do anything to cleverly solve a problem. She was too perfect to need to be clever in a way the audience could understand and thereby come to appreciate her for.
These depictions of women are an improvement over the disempowered ditz, but they lack humanity and as a result fail to perform even the minimal task of showing that women can be smart. These women aren’t geniuses. They are genies.
Update: I’m not quite narcissistic enough to think that the timing was meant to embarrass me, but Sarah Michelle Gellar is doing an AMA on Reddit right now.
Photo credit: Mattel