Some “Smart” Female TV Characters are Stupid


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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163 Responses

  1. Avatar Kim says:

    By the same token, Spock isn’t smart (despite us being told he is, repeatedly). He’s a walking encyclopedia, used to further the plot (which is generally to tear Kirk’s shirt off and watch him fight)Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Kim says:

      I agree with that interpretation.

      I think there might be a corollary that the more often we are simply told that a character is smart, the less likely it is that the character actually is smart in a way the audience can appreciate.Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to Kim says:

      There’s been a trend to pair “smart” and “dysfunctional” to avoid the whole Superman problem. (“He’s perfect, so exactly how are we gonna make it seem like he has to even try to fix this?”)

      Big Bang Theory has “smart” being completely incompatible with “social”. And by “social” I mean “romantic relationships” Literally the smarter a character, the less likely he is to understand, connect to, or maintain a relationship with a woman. At least in early seasons. They got a bit better.

      Sherlock does a better job — it’s not that he’s not capable, he simply doesn’t care. He happily describes himself as a high-functioning sociopath (although Aspergers seems more likely).

      But in general, TV and movies like to pair “Super smart” with “can’t connect with people” which is, I guess, balance. With men.

      With women? For some reason, it seems “giggling helplessness” is the go-to balance rather than “Socially ignorant”. (Counter-example: The Abby character on NCIS. They balanced out “super smart” with “Goth” — ie, “outside the mainstream” — without making the character socially awkward, regularly helpless outside of a small world of expertise).

      Then again, she’s a Spock — mostly there to provide plot coupons to move things along.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to morat20 says:

        I’d say the show Elementary does a better job, all things considered. Sherlock is smart & can maintain relationships, when he wants to (although he still has blind spots). Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is smart, and clever, and quite capable on her own. Her only failing, honestly, is that she does not have the Sherlock mind with it encyclopedic store of facts, so information is not readily at her fingertips. This doesn’t stop her, just slows her down while she does research.Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Depicting intelligence in film or tv is usually very difficult regardless of the character’s gender identity. Film and tv are visual media and it’s hard to depict intelligence and intellectualism in that format. It sometimes works like in the Murdoch Mysteries but not always.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I think this is true of highly technical skill, but cleverness is fair game. Chuck, I think is a good example. Chuck himself is very much a flawed, emotional man who lacks skills relevant to most of what happens in the show, so he it is often his cleverness that saves the day.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        What’s more, because he’s not perfect, he actually has to have a developed character or he’s just going to be in the way of the plot. That is, with perfect characters, they can do anything, so they never get in the way. Imperfect characters have to be dealt with in such a way that their flaws play out consistently within the story, so the character gets filled out, so to speak.

        I think that’s actually the main problem with women in television and movies: they tend to be one-dimensional, and often if they’re not perfect, they’re little more than props for other characters. This was my biggest problem with Lori in the Walking Dead series. She was basically a point of argument between Rick and Shane, and little else, and once Shane was dead, there was really no need for her, so they could easily kill her off. She didn’t have any clear traits that would work well in any story line, so I imagine they wanted to get rid of her because they had no idea what to do with her.

        On the other hand, I get the impression that Scandal has a female protagonist who’s pretty filled out (I don’t really watch it, but that’s the impression I get from people who do). So maybe the solution is to have more female head writers.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @chris – the Lori problem wasn’t so much a “female character” problem, as it was that TWD can’t write anybody with any depth. The better characters are so mostly by dint of decent acting (weirdly, I think Andrew Lincoln is not as bad an actor as many seem to think), not through any deep characterization.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I dunno, I think they did a pretty good job of making both Shane and Rick seem human instead of cardboard. They did that with Andrea to some extent after she met the Governor, and they’re doing it with Michonne right now, so they may have realized that having only cardboard women was kinda sucky, but I think they’ve always gotten at least one or two of the men right.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Ugh, Andrea.

        And ugh, Lori.

        Maybe you have a point. It’s not even a question of “characterization” in the sense of backstories etc., it’s that the men are given goals (Shane/Rick – each wanting to protect the group, in their own way) in a way that the women often aren’t, so whatever they do is seen as supporting the male characters (at best) or nagging/obstructing them (at worst).Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Relatively minor spoilers below:

        It’s more than just goals, though. If you give characters a story that amounts to more than “This person is the cause of some sort of tension for this other character or these other characters,” then you have to give at least some insight into who that character is. Now, being television, it’s not uncommon for them to completely change who a character is depending on the needs of the story (see, e.g., Chuck suddenly recalling that he was one of the world’s greatest hackers), but at least they have to be somebody. Lori didn’t have to be anybody at all, except a pretty girl who had sex with the two main male characters and made them all jealous and stuff. Andrea was just there to be moody and the object of Dale’s half-fatherly/half less-fatherly obsession. Then she met the Governor and had to be conflicted, so they had to fill her character out a bit, give her a personality that allowed her to behave in situations in ways that weren’t simply meant to provide bridges between the actions of other characters.Report

      • I think you’ve summed up a good deal of the problem right here: cleverness versus smart. In this day and age, a “smart” person doing “smart” things within their field of expertise is indistinguishable from magic for most of the population. I offended my wife the other day when she asked me to explain the analog electronics circuit I was wiring up. After I failed miserably to explain it, and she asked why I couldn’t explain it, I blurted out that she lacked a couple of semesters worth of classes at the local community college that would let her speak the same language I was using.

        The sex of the smart person has nothing to do with it.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        if you can’t explain an analog circuit without a few semesters of college courses, you probably don’t understand it nearly as well as you think you do.

        Try it again, but think “black box.” Or explain it in terms of waterflow, rather than electrons.

        [I am shit for explaining physics]Report

      • @michael-cain ,
        I think you’re right. Though I think there are still ways to communicate intelligence other than hollow signifiers. And maybe if the writers are unable to do that, they shouldn’t be trying to write smart characters in the first place. There is no particular reason that TV needs to have smart characters to be interesting. #FridayNightLightsReport

      • Respectfully, @kim , I disagree. The first question was of the form “what does this do?” That’s a black-box question that I could answer in every-day English (it detects the presence of a signal of a particular form, and if the signal is present, outputs a modified version of the signal). Then came a series of “how does it do that?” questions at various levels of detail, all of which assume some degree of background knowledge. Filters. Phase-lock loop. Integrator. Comparator. Edge detector. None of which have very good analogs in other spaces.

        Yeah, physics can be particularly hard.

        Someone: “Mike, how does an LED work?”
        Mike: “Electrons and holes combine in the right kind of semiconductor crystal and emit photons instead of phonons.”
        Someone: “Electrons I know. Holes?”
        Mike: “The absence of a valence electron. It’s a shorthand name because it’s a hassle to keep saying ‘missing valence electron.'”
        Someone: “Valence?”
        Mike: “Magic. LEDs work by magic, and a bit of electricity. Or you could go take a couple of semesters of courses at the community college.”

        Fortunately, a lot of electronic design can be done by cookbook and some rules-of-thumb. But the cookbooks and the rules can be complicated and require that you speak the language. Unfortunately, like so many technical subjects, the language uses (in most places) English words but attaches a very specific meaning to them. At the risk of launching an entire subthread, the difference between what a scientist means when they say “theory” and what non-scientists usually mean (the non-scientist typically means “hypothesis”).Report

      • Once upon a time, at what turned into a Mike-roast (although that wasn’t the original intent), someone remarked, “You know how we know that Mike is smart? You can go to his cubicle and ask a question. His face lights up and he wriggles like a puppy. Then he starts to talk, and the words that come out are English, arranged in sentences with subjects and verbs and objects. Entire paragraphs. And the whole thing is absolutely opaque. Then when he runs down, you can ask, ‘But what I need to know is how many routers we should install.’ He’ll look disappointed, pause, squint at the ceiling, and tell you, ‘Six. Maybe seven. Certainly less than eight.'”

        Occasionally, but not always, a story needs a magician. We used to simply call them that. Today we put them in a white lab coat and give them a clipboard. Or blue jeans and a ratty t-shirt with a computer terminal on which they type out ridiculously difficult code in a matter of minutes that runs the first time without faults. I mean it when I say “terminal”; ever notice how many of the displays are clearly some version of UNIX with scrolling text windows, and graphics added as an afterthought? Magicians don’t use GUIs.

        In the US, the transition occurred sometime between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s. “Evil sorcerer” was replaced by “mad scientist.”Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        oh, that? that’s truth in television. Real magicians don’t use guis.
        They use refrigerators. (Imagine: “and the answer is Ice Cubes!”
        “Paul, what’s 25 s of ice cubes mean?”
        “let me check my notes…”)Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

      There are obviously other issues at work, but @leeesq is right in that writing intelligence is very hard. Just look at anything that Aaron Sorkin has ever done. The Newsroom viewer is supposed to believe that Jeff Daniels’ character is smart, because he can list a bunch of statistics from the OECD web site. The other thing is that writers write intelligence in a way that tends to flatter writers, so intelligence becomes the ability to engage in wordplay or to conjure up obscure facts out of thin air.

      It is really hard to depict curiosity, empathy, imagination, etc. within the confines of a 20 or 45 minute TV show, so writers stick to doing it only for one or two main characters and leave the supporting cast largely as window dressing.

      One of the best things about the present TV renaissance and the unfolding of plots over multiple episodes and seasons is that writers are starting to flesh out supporting characters. The Wire, Mad Men, The Shield, Weeds, etc. all have female characters that demonstrate their smarts in actual human ways as opposed to this sort of stupid human tricks method.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to j r says:

        Intelligence is cognitive flexibility and the ability to create and access knowledge nets, pure and simple.

        Wordplay is one aspect of that.

        Writers when they try to write superhuman intelligence, often get lazy and just have the character read the plot.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

        Depictions of intelligence tend to conform to the anti-intellectual sterotypes of intelligent people are like. The Big Bang Theory is the biggest offender. The characters are intelligent but so foucsed on their work and nerdy hobbies that they lack even the most basic social graces. There are people like this in real life but not to the extent depicted in the Big Bang Theory. Its even worse for intellectuals whose focus is in the humanities because thats anlytical thought.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to j r says:

        Is Donna Meagle intelligent?
        How about Ron Swanson?

        I think that often folks get labeled as “intelligent” or “not intelligent”
        (Bart versus Lisa — bart’s definitely shown to be afraid to try and be smart)Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to j r says:

        yes, the whole walking wikipedia thing is the most annoying Sorkin tic. The weird thing is he sort of knows it’s a problem. In “A Few Good Men” – “Why do you keep telling me your resume?” “Because I want you to think I’m a good lawyer.”Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

        kolohe, sorkin probably is well aware of the limitations of the media he is in. Like I said above intelligent people tend to think a lot and depicting thought in a visual media isn’t that easy. Sherlock does this through the visualization of the Sherlock scan and all the words that appear on the screen when he is engaged in thought and through some rapid think out loud monologues. The Murdoch Mysteries does this by acting out the analysis that Murdoch goes through when solving a case. Nearly all attempts to visualize thought go through this.

        Showing that a lawyer is good and intelligent is difficult because many court hearings are much more boring than what occurs on in movies and TV regardless of the type of trial. Judges like to keep things calm and most drama if any tends to occur during the discovery process.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to j r says:

        @leeesq It’s a movie, not a TV show, but one of the better attempts I’ve seen at depicting intelligence onscreen is “The Wind Rises”, Hayao Miyazaki’s latest movie. It’s about an aeronautical engineer in 1930s Japan, and it goes out of its way to show him working on designs, coming up with new ideas and testing them. Definitely one of the strongest aspects of the movie.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to j r says:

        Lester Freamon, and to a lesser extent the other detectives on The Wire, manage to be convincingly smart in that the show goes into the details of what they do and the complexity of it, so you see them aggregating data, making connections, making guesses, acting on that, re-evaluating, etc. Of course, describing what it is about the show that allows it to portray intelligence convincingly also demonstrates why so many shows don’t do it: it asks a lot, both of writers and of the audience.Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I also think that there might be a market demand for these types of characters. Women want surrogate fantasies just like men do.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

      The fantasies would be better if the protagonists are weaker. That’s the reason Batman stories are interesting while Superman is boring.Report

    • Avatar veronica dire in reply to LeeEsq says:

      But are women watching and relating?

      I rather suspect these girls are geek-focused jerk-off fantasy figures for the young male audience.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to veronica dire says:

        Here, we get into the conundrum of who the watcher identifies with in the story.

        Girls have long been tasked with identifying with male characters; boys tend to actively avoid female “throw like a girl” identities. Misogyny starts young. I hope this is really changing, too.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to veronica dire says:

        Writers don’t know jack fuck about who guys like to Jack Off to.

        Deep Space Nine is my current hobbyhorse, so I’ll ride it so you know where I’m going…
        Kira’s the obvious fap-bait — to the point where the camera is often focusing on areas of her body that it just doesn’t on the men. (“Camera, that is her ass. Why are you focusing on her ass?”)
        Dax, however, is the one all the trekkies wanted to have sex with. And give the actress credit, it’s a very well acted, and deliberate, maleness to the character.

        [Neither of those two characters was a magic walking superman. Unlike Enterprise.]Report

      • @veronica-dire ,
        I guess the Nielson figures are needed to really know, but I think Alias was watched by plenty of women if not mostly women. I would guess that Arrow leans male, but I would guess it’s seen by women as well. I would guess Chuck would be pretty balanced.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to veronica dire says:

        I don’t watch TV so I don’t know but based on other forums I participate in, there are at least a decent amount of female fans of these characters. They are after all Mary Sues. Women can be just as prone to wish-fulfilllment fantasies as men.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to veronica dire says:

        Damn straight!

        Now, I’d nail Nana Visitor (Kira) but that’s ’cause I do love short hair on women, even if I think her ass is a bit wide in the glide. Counter offset-Red hair.

        Dax-yes, she’s the primary fap material. It doesn’t hurt that she’s good looking and kisses girls too. 🙂

        Of course, I thought Ezri Dax was hot in a cute way too.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:


        Surely you have a better way of expressing your admiration of a woman’s looks than what you offered here.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to veronica dire says:


        My comment was specifically directed at Kim’s comments about writers and Deep Space Nine.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

        My mistake, @damon . I didn’t see her comment (I tend not to read hers).Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to veronica dire says:

        @leeesq — (On Mary Sues). Yeah. Fair enough. Love me some Mary Sues.

        Bring it on you badass gals!

        That said, there is a real thing, involving guys, objectification, geeky women in media, and the real life cool women who have to deal with these guys.

        No, sorry Mr. Fedora, I’m not your manic pixie-dream-Ramona Flowers.

        (Not that this happens much to me personally, since I would be your manic pixie dream Hedwig.)

        (But that’s my life.)

        (I would knife a fucker if I got to be Willow in the end.)Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to veronica dire says:

        Veronica Dire, I’m not very sympathetic to people who complain about Manic Pixie Dream Girls. If heterosexual women are allowed to have their fantasies about the ideal partner, which I seem to be the opposite of, than I don’t see why men can’t do the same as long as they don’t bring unrealistic expectations into real life, which I suspect that few men actually do. The number of heterosexual men who expect Manic Pixie Dream Girls in real life might be slightly larger than the number of heterosexual women that want their Prince Charming or Bad Boy but not that much.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to veronica dire says:

        You’d think that Manic Pixie Dream Girls would be a step in the right direction. “I’m daydreaming about a partner who would make me be a better person” rather than “I’m daydreaming about a partner who has boobs like *THIS*.”Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to veronica dire says:

        oh, it’s way better than dreaming about the type of girl who would follow you through hell and back (including you cheating on her) — and fall in love with the type of creep who stared at her on the train and never said a word to her.

        Women are not puppy dogs.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to veronica dire says:

        We need to establish what it’s cool to daydream about and write it down somewhere.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to veronica dire says:

        Trolling’s way more fun than forbidding things.
        Besides, why bother? people are just going to go on
        about stuff anyway…Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to veronica dire says:

        What I’ve been able to deduce is that it’s okay to daydream about women fighting against the patriarchy and learning to love their own bodies. Beyond that, you’re treading on thin ice.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica dire says:

        it’s okay to daydream about women…learning to love their own bodies

        Whew, that’s a relief.Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy says:


    Are they different from male characters in this regard? Or just still lacking overall? I don’t consume a ton of television. I certainly know some female characters who fit this description. But I can also think of male ones. So I’m trying to figure out if all characters tend to be written this way or if some male and most female ones are?Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

      There are many male characters who are also lacking in this same exact way. Kim was right to point to Spock, and I think it’d be fair to put James Bond’s Q in the same category. Presumably Q is capable of great engineering work off camera, but the audience is given no appreciation of it. Instead, he just shows up carrying a gadget.

      There *are*, however, genuinely smart male characters on TV. For example, in the premiere of Chuck, Chuck disables a computerized bomb by going to a web site with a computer virus that we learned about earlier in the episode. I think that’s a good example of how intelligence can be shown on TV. If instead it had been one of the female characters mentioned in my post, they’d have disabled it simply by cracking some encryption algorithm by virtue of their awesomeness rather than because they are applying information that we the viewers can see and appreciate as Chuck did.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Active problem solving is a lot better than “here’s the magic solution”. Torchwood’s episode on chelating a poison is a good example of that (also, getting the science right. AND dialing for help when needed).

        Thing is? Active problem solving for hard problems takes a while. Avengers handled it well, by making the point that the smart dudes would write programs, and then just goof off (transl: try to talk with each other) until they got results.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

      Yeah, I think this analysis may be lacking a bit, because of the genres chosen.

      Take Alias, whose first two seasons were some of the most ridiculously entertaining television I’ve ever seen (let’s not speak of the last three). Sydney Bristow is made more human in the first 2 episodes, than James Bond has been made in a zillion books and movies. We know about her family history; we see her deal with emotional pain and loss, and struggle to navigate multiple roles demanded of her by her job as a double-agent, who works with family, who ALSO has an actual life outside her job. If she’s up against huge, nebulous, seemingly-omnipotent criminal/governmental organizations, well, that’s kinda how the spy genre works (at least the “pop”, James Bond/Spectre/Blofeld version*). The wigs/costumes were fun, but Garner brought a lot more acting chops to a role like that than it probably needed. It’s a run-and-gun genre – the only real way to display ‘intelligence’ is in fast reaction time/adaptability/memory, which she did just fine, and no differently than a male character would have done (hell, she’s smarter than Raylan Givens on Justified, who is kind of a lazy, incurious a-hole with a violent streak, if a funny and semi-lovable one).

      (*That said: Anyone see The Americans last night?!!)Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Glyph says:

        I acknowledge that Alias is much better conceived than Bond. And now that I think a bit more about it, she does do some problem solving too–at least as much as Buffy.

        I do stand by my critique that she was victimized a few too many times for me to stomach. And I think part of the reason for that was that she too heavily outmatched her regular competition.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        When Alias started, I saw Sydney Bristow as very much a post-Buffy character, and I think the show was intended to be in that mold, from the conflict between Sydney’s secret identity/regular life, to the way plots were used as metaphors (instead of monsters standing in for the struggles of Buffy’s adolescence, spying/subterfuge stood in for Sydney’s tangled family relationships and secrets.)Report

  5. Avatar zic says:

    Well, there’s Buffy. There’s Rachel and Priscilla on Revolution. There was Sun on Lost. And Olivia on Fringe. All the main characters in Sex and the City.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to zic says:

      The Good Wife features more than one strong, intelligent female character, I believe.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to zic says:

      Buffy is a good example of smart. Thank you for bringing her up. She’s often given challenges that push her, enabled by the fact that they made her far from perfect. And it was great that she had a team that was usually necessary to help her get through stuff. (And, yes, I am now admitting that the title of the post is not technically true.)

      Sun on Lost: Despite having seen the whole series I can’t really remember much about her. I want the hours I spent on that show back.

      Main characters in Sex and the City: I’m struggling to think of examples where I was impressed by their intelligence. I do remember thinking Samantha was remarkably clear-headed about what she wanted and what was required to get it, while Carrie was the opposite and thus frustrating to watch. Maybe I’m missing something, but it’s definitely not the show I would grab to show someone what smart women look like.

      I haven’t seen the others. I did see the opening two episodes of Fringe when I saw that was a favorite here on OT, but I thought it was awful. 🙂

      I would suggest adding Dana Scully from the X-files to your list. At times she seemed stupidly dense about what was going on, but at least the things she said made sense and required her to be educated.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Vikram: you may find you like Fringe better if you skip almost all of the first season (most of which IS awful). S2 and S3 are really good.

        Then, in the way of all JJ Abrams-related shows, it goes off the rails. 2 good seasons is the max, and don’t ever expect a good ending.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        The final season of Fringe is so bad that it’s offensive. It made me want to retroactively go back and not watch any of it.Report

      • Glyph, thanks for the advice. I’ll give season 2 of Fringe a try.

        I’ve actually started using AVclub’s ratings to screen individual episodes of shows I don’t feel that engaged in but still want to watch. I think I got that from you or Jaybird. That’s the only way I’ve managed to get through the first season of Arrow.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I’ve ranted about the nonsensicalness of the Fringe final season before. I’m still mad about Oeblyrf tbvat bhg yvxr n puhzc, among other things. Lost is no better. Alias wasn’t great (it never really recovered from S3, though they tried in S4), but it was maybe slightly less offensively nonsensical than the other two, and that’s saying something for a show that prominently features a hybrid of Da Vinci, Einstein, and Nostradamus as a MacGuffin-generator.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        IIRC you can skip all but the last 3-4 eps of S1 and be fine.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Without specific spoilers, I will just say that if you are a television writer trying to close out a series, please don’t do what the writers of Fringe did and build a story that contradicts everything that came before it.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I agree about Fringe.

        I’m just finishing Lost now. There is so much I love about this show; the subtle repeats of things; for instance, Jack the doctor as an extra, a Janitor in the Hospital where Claire’s mother is, and then a Janitor at the Dharma institute. I love many of the characters. I’m at the last episode now; and one of my favorite characters, Desmond Hume, is the one that doesn’t make any sense now; he’s like this dude that can move through Shadow after walking the Pattern of Amber. (Ref. to Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, an amazing series of books totally lacking in good/intelligent/aware female characters.)

        Bad as the last season of Fringe was, at least it gave us an ending that was really a beginning, but it did not reward careful watching the way Lost does. Such care tears holes in it’s fabric.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Lord of Light, too. Zelazny simply could not write women. Heinlein would tell us that his female characters were geniuses, but never give them anything to do but fall in love with the hero and want to have his babies. John Varley, on the other hand, is great at writing strong, smart, hree-dimensional women, like Cirocco Jones from his Gaia trilogy.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        at least those foolz gave their women lines.
        Older scifi just had women there for the scream.Report

      • Avatar Barry in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        “Main characters in Sex and the City: I’m struggling to think of examples where I was impressed by their intelligence. I do remember thinking Samantha was remarkably clear-headed about what she wanted and what was required to get it, while Carrie was the opposite and thus frustrating to watch. Maybe I’m missing something, but it’s definitely not the show I would grab to show someone what smart women look like.”

        To me, a lot of the show (eventually) was based on the fact that they all had some serious dysfunctions:

        Samantha was, ah, indiscriminate, which both helped her get what she wanted, but also blew apart any relationships.

        Miranda was a successful corporate lawyer in Manhattan, but those hard-earned skills often got in the way of relationships, where cooperation was needed, rather than zero-sum behavior.

        Charlotte was an idealist and romantic, who was often disappointed by the fact that the world didn’t cooperate with her dreams. Notice that she endured and persisted through a lot of crap, until she found a good husband and children. She also didn’t compromise on things which shouldn’t have been compromised. [also, to me she was cursed with being a ‘freak magnet’; strange and problematic men were attracted to her]

        Carrie was a combination of the other characters, and the viewpoint. She had to struggle to find a good relationship without compromising herself, in a world which was harsh on idealists and romantics.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @barry first, I don’t think ‘smart’ requires ‘science smart’ to be smart.

        Each of those women were smart enough to realize they had problems, they were, in some essential way, dysfunctional, and to spend time working on ways to be more functional and less dysfunctional. That was often the very heart of the plot from show to show.

        This is, by my definition, very much part of the essence of being ‘smart.’Report

  6. Avatar Pinky says:

    Samantha Carter – Stargate SG-1
    Chloe – Smallville

    I can’t help noticing that sci-fi and fantasy seem to keep coming up. Is that just because of our viewing habits, or is this genre well-represented for a reason? It’s got a reputation for Seven-of-Nine-level exploitation of women, but maybe it’s on the high end for female characters as well.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Pinky says:

      In my case, it’s because it’s what I prefer to watch/read.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Pinky says:

      I’d imagine that Dallas would also have decently represented women (was too young when Mum was watching, don’t remember at all).

      I’d say the longer a story goes on, the more you get time to flesh out the side characters. And women are nearly always side characters.

      Scifi fantasy used to be HORRID with women.Report

  7. Avatar zic says:

    Gotta say it:

    My big problem with TV ladies is how they look. This is, remember, the controversy over Girls (never seen, so this is just a gleaned knowledge). A less-then-hot-babe baring it. Women who dare to be on the screen as something other then pleasing to the male gaze. Women who disappear, except as wise women of one sort or another, after a certain age. Or women of a certain age portrayed as predatory (total male misread, this cougar thing, The low-cut fronts are a feature of hot flashes, this internal cooking that you cannot begin to comprehend until you’ve experienced it.)

    If you want strong/smart women on TV, seeing women through women’s eyes, instead of for the male gaze, would be a nice place to start.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to zic says:

      Eh, people like to look at hot, fit people and TV/movies are a visual medium. You better believe that most people, of all types, would rather “gaze” at Daniel Craig removing his shirt, than at me removing mine.

      And you’ve said it yourself – they (and they = also often women, working in Wardrobe) are dressing these women on-screen in ways that are calculated to seem impressive to *other women*, both in-story and off-screen; because women compete with women on personal presentation.

      In conclusion: less Lena Dunham, more Lena Olin.

      (runs away)Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

        Ugly guy, hot wife is a common TV trope. How many can you think of that go the other way?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        How many can you think of in real life? You think Ric Ocasek is better-looking than Paulina P.? Women will lower their physical attractiveness standards for other qualities, thank God. I don’t know about you, brother, but my wife is way hotter than me.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Glyph says:

        Donna Meagle.
        (of course, she doesn’t count.).Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Glyph says:

        Ha. Ocasek. I used to work at a downtown-Boston music store. One of my co-workers was a Boston rocker, knew most of the big names. Me, I was a total jazz geek; I gave up on rock with Disco and John Bonham’s death.

        So The Cars were, at this time, at the top of the charts. And my friend made a bet with Rick that he knew a young woman who had no idea who he was, and wasn’t any sort of Jesus purity freak. (This is all unknown to me.)

        To settle, my friend invited me out to lunch with him and a friend, Rick. We had a great time. It was only when they went to pay the bill, and wouldn’t let me pay my own, that I found out I’d just had lunch with a rock star who’d have sent most women my age into palpitations.

        He was a nice guy, and Paulina was lucky to have a healthy relationship with him.Report

      • Avatar Barry in reply to Glyph says:

        “Eh, people like to look at hot, fit people and TV/movies are a visual medium. You better believe that most people, of all types, would rather “gaze” at Daniel Craig removing his shirt, than at me removing mine. ”

        And for every Daniel ‘Washboard’ Craig, there’s probably 10 male protagonists and leads who not hot in any way, shape or form.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        there’s probably 10 male protagonists and leads who not hot in any way, shape or form.

        I’d need to see those statistics, please. Hollywood favors the good-looking; I don’t think this is controversial. Zachary Levi would have no trouble getting dates IRL if he never went into entertainment. Ugly or strange-looking guys tend to be relegated to comic relief (in which their unattractiveness is often played up for laughs), or character actors.

        Otherwise, we get a hot person, and dress them up in superficial signifiers of schlubbiness.

        There are exceptions in independent films or for actors who are really, really talented, but on balance it’s better to be good-looking than talented.

        Prestige stuff like HBO is an outlier, they’ll give leads to Buscemi and Gandolfini.

        I have in no way seen all these films, but it seems to me you have to get down to #23 – a comedy, in which the leading man, Will Ferrell, is SUPPOSED to be a deluded boob – before you get to anything resembling “unattractive” in a protagonist. The rest have heartthrob after heartthrob, whether the role needs that or not.

        Or take a different route – let’s look at TV and critical acclaim rather than box-office numbers:

        It’s a sample of 1, but my wife would tell you there’s plenty of really good-looking guys on GoT, Mad Men, The Americans, Parks & Rec, etc.

        Of the three series where I’d say the male lead is not traditionally “hot” (Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Masters of Sex) all three have lead actors considered top-tier, and in at least two cases (BB and MoS, haven’t seen Cards) I’d say that the actor not being quite as good-looking as usual is sort of essential to the character (Walter White is supposed to be a loser, and William Masters needs to discover a whole new world that wasn’t previously open to a nebbishy scientist).Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        It’s probably also relevant that Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Masters of Sex (and the aforementioned Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) are all products of the television equivalent of “indie” – that is, outside the big networks, on smaller/upstart internet/cable channels. So the pressure to cast ridiculously good-looking leads may be somewhat reduced.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Glyph says:

        Carnivale, which didn’t seem to have any cute guy leads (or at least, they tended towards scruffy), got shut down after two seasons. And yet it got Clea DuVall…
        (man, even for the pretty people, Carnivale got Distinctive)Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Glyph says:

        Ugly guy, hot wife is a common TV trope. How many can you think of that go the other way?

        This is as much for women as it is for men. In fact, considering how much you see it in commercials for products that are marketed to women, it is probably more for women than for men.

        Men like to think of themselves as average-looking dude who managed to land a catch. And women like to think of themselves as the catch. And the men are never really ugly, they’re just average and more than a little doofy. And the women are never unattainably hot, but “cute girl next door who cleans up well.” This, by the way describes a good number of the couples that I know in real life, so those tropes must be on to something.

        Also, a lot of this is changing as more women are gaining earning parity with men. I see a lot more instances of women wanting hot men as they no longer have to rely on men as a primary means of financial and social support.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Glyph says:

        Well, maybe girls that thought they were hot stuff in high school. Those of us with accurate views of ourselves would say “that’s bullshit.”

        I guess we also ought to note that both men and women want some stability, and some opportunities to cheat. And that they want stability with someone who works well with ’em (and is decent, but not outstanding, in the looks department).Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to zic says:

      My big problem with TV ladies is how they look.

      I acknowledge there are problems with that. And I think they tried to combat that by saying, “OK, here’s yet another attractive blonde, but this time she’s smart!” Except they didn’t deliver on the smart part because they thought a lab coat and some science vocabulary words don’t actually make you smart. Solving problems in a way that is appreciated by viewers at home does.

      Someone mentioned Sherlock above. Every problem he solves is accompanied by an explanation of how he solved it.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        But an explanation isn’t the issue.
        Problem solving is really difficult to show on tv.

        I mean, is it really interesting to see “you had a picture on your desk”
        Therefore you are from Nebraska,
        and the photograph technology means you are over 25 years of age.
        [example not chosen at random.]Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to zic says:

      This is more of an American TV problem than a TV problem. Actors tend towards the attractive. Men could get away with being less than optimal in the looks department than women, especially in comedy, but still tends to be better looking than most people. American movies and TV shows are more notorious for requiring actors be good looking than media in other countries. British TV has a fair number of ordinary looking actors of both genders and hotties.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Rashida Jones is kinda plain. Roseanne Barr was actively fat (don’t know if she’s lost weight). Retta’s not exactly “wowsa” either.

        I thinks comedians of all stripes get a pass.

        That said, Torchwood’s welsh contingent was actively homely, to the point of “he’s getting dates? how?” (note: said character was an ass. also, the author sucks at writing love stories).Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I would like to live in a world where Rashida Jones was considered “kinda plain”, because then she might have gone out with me.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Wait, Rashida Jones is kinda plain? Man, Kim, you have some seriously high beauty standards.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Who’s to say she wouldn’t? You’d have to up your game before that’d happen, though.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @chris – Great minds. I even considered linking some pics to show that I consider Jones closer to “ridiculously hot” than “kinda plain”, but that seemed like it might be overkill.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I was going to say “incredibly hot,” but “ridiculously” is even better, as in “It is ridiculous that people who are that physically attractive exist.”

        I also remember someone (I think in a major publication) recently including Amy Adams on a list of “plain” leading women.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Glyph Chris,
        you don’t see the writers, in Parks and Rec, having to reinforce — constantly — the idea that Ann Perkins is hawt?

        She’s not dressed in Hollywood Ugly, but she doesn’t pass for any of the bombshell beauty characteristics.

        She’s pretty, in a normal human sort of pretty.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

        What they said. Rashida Jones is among the best-looking people on TV. I felt vicariously happy when Aziz Ansari got to pretend-date her.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Jones doesn’t do it for me. She falls into that weird category of women who I totally get why other people find her remarkably attractive but who just doesn’t move the needle for me. I would never say she was unattractive or even plain (if nothing else, she has a rather distinct look), but I also wouldn’t call her “hot”. But I’m weird like that. We all have people like that, right?

        I like her as an actress though. Her work on “Parks and Rec” is great. And Zazzy loves her.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Me too about Jones. Also Olivia Wilde, who for me isn’t half as pretty as the brunette version of Jennifer Morrison.
        Not that if I met any of them in real life, I’d be able to get a coherent sentence out.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @vikram-bath – and now Aziz gets to pretend-date Tatiana Maslany. And he did get to pretend-date Natalie Morales.

        In fact, excepting Jean-Ralphio’s sister, Tom Haverford is doin’ alright for himself.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

        My guess is that the only time Rashida Jones looks rather plain is when she is standing next to her sister or her mother.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Not that if I met any of them in real life, I’d be able to get a coherent sentence out.


    • Avatar veronica dire in reply to zic says:

      @zic — Have you seen Damages?Report

  8. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Leslie Knope is ultra-competent and at the same time highly (if endearingly) flawed.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Yeah, credit to the writers for actually listening to the focus groups.
      “Why is Leslie such a ditz?” (which she was, first season)Report

    • Ooooh. Nice one.

      She’s a great character. And even though she plays kind of a dope, she does do problem-solving, which I think is more important than the audience simply being told that a character is a molecular geneticist or whatever.

      I have to admit that by my criteria, I think you’re right that she qualifies as a “smart” woman. All of her claimed dopiness is usually undermined by what we see in any given episode.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        she’s no dope. She’s a relentless optimist, and an 8year old in a 30+ woman’s body. (cue candy necklaces. And Waffles!)Report

      • She’s not a dope if you look at what she actually does. But they gave her all the superficial queues to make the audience believe she is a dope. And that contrast is probably what makes the show so delightful.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        What do you find she does that is “dopey”?
        I think we may have different definitions of the word…Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I wouldn’t say dope, but she’s supposed to have low social intelligence along with her dedication, resourcefulness, and incredible diligence. The problem with that characterization is that she accomplishes things largely by persuading and inspiring people. And one of her go-to problem-solving skills is knowing the key person in some city department and already having a working relationship with him.Report

      • Dopey in the sense that there are a lot of jokes at her expense–usually because she doesn’t understand what something means. Sometimes it’s that she misinterprets what someone says to her. Other times, she’ll see something in Pawnee and not get the implication of what it says about the city. To me, these are indications that the writers are trying to make us believe she is stupid.

        Mike’s critique is interesting–that her “problem-solving” is usually knowing someone else in the government that can help. I’d have to dig back into the show to tell.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Knope came to mind for me, but I’m not sure how she is perceived.

        I think her primary flaw is in her unending optimism and trust in humanity. She often misses the joke because it doesn’t occur to her that people might be making a joke. She is too trusting.

        As flaws go, those are pretty admirable ones.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Rather, that she solves problems via a 47-point plan, but three of the points require knowing the right person.

        There’s one show where Leslie’s on suspension, so the other parks and rec people divide up her duties for the day. “This should be easy. There are six of us, so we only need to do (checks list) ten things each.” One of them is to get a case of beer for the maintenance guys, which they blow off: let them buy their own beer. At the end of the day they check out the site where an event is planned for the next morning, and it’s unusable, debris everywhere. Then it hits them what the case of beer was about.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        It seems you have three sets of people in Leslie’s World:
        People on her side: (ron, reluctantly– jerry, incompetently — and the rest of the crew)
        Bribeable: Police/Maintenace
        People NOT on her side/Active Enemies: Librarians, Sewer folks, Jamm.

        It’s the last that makes a lot of “who she knows” more about how creative she can be in getting around the roadblock people.Report

  9. Avatar RTod says:

    I can’t help but notice that you’ve chosen female characters that I think of as being written to be appealing to men rather than women. I know a lot of Arrow and Alias fans, and I think every one of them might be male. And I think the female character in Chuck IS simply there to be a motivation for the true protagonist.

    Which isn’t to say that you aren’t right about these TV characters, just that I think if you’re going to judge TV’s “smart” female characters, you should at least start with the ones women get excited about. The girls from Girls, or Skyler White, or someone from The Good Wife.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to RTod says:

      Again, that’s a function of genre, not character. Le Carre could write a kick-ass female protagonist tomorrow, but 90% of the people buying the book would still be male.

      Because, as a rule, that’s who buys spy stories. And Alias and Chuck are spy stories.

      Now, we can go chicken-and-egg, and say maybe we wouldn’t have gotten to this place, if the genres had featured more strong female characters earlier.

      But to criticize the ones who are doing it now, saying they are *only* doing it to appeal to men, is to criticize exactly the change you theoretically want to see happen.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Glyph says:

        Having recently read 4 (and working on the a 5th) Le Carre novels, I get the impression that he basically has one female character (at least only one who appears on stage, with a few others who only appear off stage): devastatingly beautiful, quietly intelligent, strong of will but melting in the arms of the protagonist pretty much the first time he holds them out to her, all while remaining cold and emotionally distant and frequently telling the protagonist (male, always, of course) who he is. Oh, and fiercely loyal.

        Also, his men are all either married to their work or womanizers, so they (and the books) frequently see women as either baggage or playthings.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Glyph says:

        Maybe, if we’re going to talk about the way female sex symbols written for men have changed over time. Which is certainly a valid and interesting topic, that I now think someone should write about here.

        But if we’re judging smart female characters on TV, I really do think the first place you need to start is characters that resonate with women for being smart and having depth, rather than the ones written to be sex symbols for male viewers.

        It kind of seems like a no brainer to me, but sexy centerfold who’s also a scientist in a lab coat (or a librarian!), wears glasses, and makes sexy innuendos ain’t never gonna be the best exemplar of “smart women on TV,” regardless of genre.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        I’ve never even read Le Carre. I just knew that he’s well-known/respected in the genre so I used him as an example, trusting that he mostly hews to genre conventions. 😉Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Glyph says:

        Given how early he started writing Cold War spy novels (in the early/mid 60s), I think he’s responsible for many of those conventions.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

        Much less so than Ian Fleming. LeCarre’s spies are highly flawed, non-charismatic, and often conflicted about what a life of spying has done to them.

        I don’t recognize the female you’re describing, Chris. The girl from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is pure victim. George Smiley’s wife is beautiful but completely disployal. The woman from The Honourable Schoolboy is beautiful but seems to have no other positive qualities.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Glyph says:


        New word new word new word wonderful new word how do we define it?

        Someone who foils plots and ploys of others? Mike Schilling is often disployal with his jokes in serious threads.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Glyph says:

        I have Katya from Russia House in mind, but I see her in other places, too, particularly Smiley’s wife and her being emotionally distant. And Liz in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is very Katya-like, except Leamas is her Goethe rather than her Barley, and she’s not described as being preternaturally beautiful like Katya (though her attractiveness is highlighted).Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:


      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

        I’ll give you Katya: she’s a fantasy figure, a woman you wouldn’t think twice about betraying your country for. Ann is a cross Smiley has to bear. Other than being beautiful, her main quality is being relentlessly unfaithful. Liz may be pretty, but she’s not a catch. She and Leamas get together because she has no other prospects, and she’s a perpetual victim, of the local Party, of Leamas, and finally of the East Germans, largely because of her warm and gullible heart.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Glyph says:

        +1 to @tod-kelly.

        Glen Close and Rose Byrne and Damages.

        Mireille Enos in The Killing.

        I mean, I’m sure there are others — I honestly don’t watch much TV. But these are not “male-geek-gaze” women. Everything Joss Whedon has produced is.

        (Not that I mind, exactly. I still dream fondly of Willow.)

        (Someday we can discuss Veronica Mars. I’m literally named after her.)Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Glyph says:

        @veronica-dire film coming on Pi Day, too.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Glyph says:

        @zic — Well, of course.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Glyph says:

        It’s my elder sprout’s, (whom you might run into on the Red Line,) B’day.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Glyph says:

        @zic — You’re just waiting for me to meet this person, yes?

        I’m actually petty shy in public. I mean, I walk tall (which is a defense mechanism; I’m too big to disappear, so I take it the other way).

        But the idea of meeting a stranger — oh how it terrifies!Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Glyph says:

        I have every confidence that you will (or already have) met, introduced by loving friends in non-threatening and safe gathers.

        It’s like I know this to be; it’s my hedge-witch/seers knowing.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Glyph says:

        @zic — 🙂Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to RTod says:

      Everyone I know who watched Alias was a woman. My mother introduced me to the show! And I can’t think of another guy who watched it.

      Anyway, I think Tod’s critique is fair. The comments here seem to suggest though that I can’t even revise this to apply only to shows appealing to males. Buffy, Veronica Mars, the X-files, and Parks & Rec certainly had plenty of male viewers.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I certainly knew a lot of females who watch all the named shows (in fact I’ve done TV Clubs with them in more than one case).

        But that could be a function of selection, I am friends with some geeky girls.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to RTod says:

      @rtod ,
      Apparently more men than women watch Girls

      A full 56 percent of the show’s so-called “linear” audience (anybody who watches the premiere or any of the week’s rebroadcasts live or through a DVR) is male; 44 percent is female.

      I haven’t been successful in finding a breakdown for Alias or Arrow, but I will note that I’m subjected to eyefuls of Amell’s abs every single fishing episode (and no, not just the ones that involve fishing) while I have never even once seen the main female love interest in anything other than her lawyer garb, which as far as I can remember hides her form. I think the show could do a reveal that she has peg legs here at the end of season 1 where I am and it wouldn’t contradict any information in the prior episodes.

      I’m not saying that Arrow actually is watched by more women than men or that the show wasn’t expected to be viewed more by men. There does, however, seem to be evidence that they aren’t catering to the heterosexual male crowd in the inexpensive ways that they could, but they do seemingly toss something to the hetero female crowd at every single opportunity.Report

  10. Avatar Pinky says:

    Maybe looks have something to do with this. You can’t have a character that’s ugly, book-dumb, street-dumb, and rotten. You can’t have a character that’s gorgeous, book-smart, street-smart, and good. Everyone has to have faults as well as redeeming features, or else the audience rejects them as unrealistic.

    Imagine if Chuck was a TV-homely geek in a dead-end job and Sarah was a gorgeous spy who could do everything on her own. Chuck would contribute nothing. So you’ve got to make him a diamond in the rough, and make her imperfect.

    You’re never going to get non-stunning women on TV. Guys can look like Jim Belushi, but women have to look like Courtney Thorne-Smith. If you have to give female characters weaknesses, you can either make them bad (stereotype b****), book-dumb (stereotype dumb chick), or socially-awkward and lacking street-smarts.Report

  11. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    Firstly, as other people have noted, there are exceptions (Olivia on Fringe being one of them).

    Secondly, I’m not sure this is a problem about female TV characters specifically rather than about intelligent characters generally. The problem with writing a smart character – someone who’s smart in terms of creative problem-solving, not just in terms of reeling off facts – is that it requires the writer to actually be smart and good at creative problem-solving. Not all writers are.

    Similar issues pop up in a lot of fiction – writing stupid villains is an easy way to let the heroes outsmart them without requiring the writer to do too much thinking.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to KatherineMW says:

      Even when writers are actually good at problem solving, it still has to fit in the episode.
      Unless we want Ned Stark everywhere. And nobody calls him smart.

      Torchwood had one of the best episodes of “real life” problemsolving:
      1) Call a roomful of people smarter than you
      2) Do what they say, or find what you’ll need from the stuff around you.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        Reminds me of Apollo 13. Room full of engineers and “This is broken. You have this [dumps a box full of misc. stuff onto the table] to fix it with. Get to work”.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kim says:


        At some point, NASA became my professional enemy. Nothing against the fine blokes that work there, but whenever NASA comes up at work, I groan. Why? Partly because of that scene. A former employer loved that scene. He loved the idea that he, as a manager, could just tell a room full of engineers “Figure it out, like they did in Apollo 13!” and then just expect it to be done and call that “leadership.”

        Because that’s what they seem to teach in business school (no offense to Vikram). Learning to say “Just get it done.”

        At a later job, they loved the “failure of imagination” line (he had us all watch that miniseries about going to the Moon). Whenever we were having difficulty with something, the head of that company would talk about that. Usually in the context of “You can make it work. You just have a failure of the imagination.” At one point I wanted to scream “Don’t you realize the ‘failure of the imagination’ they had was a failure to recognize everything that could go wrong?!”Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Kim says:

        This is why there’s not TV series about Bell Labs. The pace, glacial. People left alone from distractions and meetings to actually sit in their offices and think.


        But really good way to get engineers to, you know, engineer.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Kim says:

        @zic — Oh my, I wish my boss had your attitude.

        He’s the sort who likes to see motion. When he gets a sniff that something has gone wrong, he calls a meeting.

        Today he formed a “committee” of two people (from a team of seven).

        To solve this teeny little problem we were already working on.

        A committee!Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        I watched NASA do that, actually. (Not Apollo 13. It was another issue back after they resumed flight post-Columbia). The reality is a lot less TV worthy. There are lots of meetings, reports, and test results. Lengthy video conferences and reports from segments of engineers (those reporting on the problem, those reporting on the given solution set, etc).

        Then again, NASA basically operates on a shoestring with everything interesting going on somewhere it costs thousands of dollars a pound to go, whether it’s got people on it or is just a probe.

        Frankly, the only difference between NASA and any other team of engineers dealing with a last-minute, big-ticket problem is NASA generally has a bit more time pressure and less to work with at the problem site.

        Which is one reason that NASA tends to study and test the snot out of things before they DO anything, which makes them quite cautious. (I know for a fact that SpaceX, for instance, will happily do things to their test rockets that NASA won’t. I don’t think SpaceX would do those things to actual rockets with actual payloads on them, but NASA basically looks at even tests and thinks ‘Too likely to blow up and waste the test’ even if it costs six months).Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kim says:

        I’m a biased QA guy, but most companies I’ve worked for have been more like this.Report

  12. Avatar Kazzy says:

    It’s been off the air for a few years now, but what do you think of the show “Scrubs”? Elliot might fit the description offered here at first glance, but if you watch the full run of the show, I thinks she breaks it. And Carla clearly does. The latter may not be “brilliant” but she is clearly intelligent in just about all areas of life. She is successful and well-respected at work. She’s savvy. Romantically successful. Empowered. Fully fleshed out. Maintains a Hispanic identity without being cliche, stereotyped, or a token.

    Just another reason why I think that show was one of the more forward thinking (and enjoyable!) ones on TV.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

      Never watched that one. Or I watched a handful of episodes an have since purged them from memory.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Did you not like it? For my money, it is one of the best sitcoms ever done. It is remarkably forward thinking it how it addresses issues of gender, race, etc. I’ve also been told it better captures the reality of hospital life than any drama out there. And it makes Zach Braff quasi-likable, which is no small feat. I’m not a feeler but it certainly made me feel at times. That’s saying something!Report

      • It’s not that I didn’t like it. It was a number of years ago, and I think I binge-watched and then had something else to do. I don’t remember at all it addressing gender and race, but I don’t think I made it past the first season. Was that stuff there from the beginning?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        The first (or maybe second?) scene involves JD asking Turk if he can say the N-word if they are singing along to a rap song together. He can’t even finish the sentence before Turk tells him that he absolutely cannot.

        Yea, it was there.

        It didn’t beat you over the head with it. It wasn’t preachy. It wasn’t a “Very Special Episode”. It just dealt with many of the realities that exist when you interact in a multi-racial community (both micro and macro). Sometimes, there were massive issues with regards to it (such as things that came up during Turk and Carla’s marriage… spoiler alert… they get married) or when Turk feels he is being used in the hospitals ad campaign to appeal to black patients (including some pretty egregiously offensive billboards); sometimes there are little things. And sometimes it’s not even discussed. Ya know, just like real life.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Scrubs went off the rails later and became a lot…sillier (it was always a comedy first, mind you) but I’ve been told by more than one person that Scrubs captured some of the essence of hospitals better than any other show they’d seen.

        Which is cynicism, overwork, burnt out staff, and general attitude of “If this wasn’t literally life or death half the time, I wouldn’t be here”.Report

  13. Avatar Damon says:

    Smart chicks?

    Someone mentioned above that it’s all visual and these gals are plot movers. I’d agree, but for a different reason, unless I missed it. Does anyone really think that having anyone explain the science in any logical way would make the shows more appealing? Hell, you’d loose half the audience as they couldn’t understand the explaination. 🙂Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Damon says:

      I’d agree if there were no examples anywhere of it being done correctly. Sometimes it is, so we know they are capable.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Damon says:

      Eh. Torchwood manages.
      It helps that you often needn’t explain more than:
      XYZ is going to search the internet. We’ll get back to them in a day.Report

    • Avatar Damon in reply to Damon says:

      @Vikram Bath

      Count me in the catagory of not watching enough tv then 🙂Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Damon says:

      CSI had a reputation at least of fleshing out the science behind their investigations.

      Hey, CSI – all the brands, and all the Law and Orders, and Criminal Minds, and Without a Trace – they all had intelligent female characters. It’s been about 10 years since those shows were in their prime, but crime procedurals dominated TV for some time, and they dominate cable reruns still, and I think they all went against this article’s thesis.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Pinky says:

        Gillian Anderson’s Scully was probably the mold for that. Prior to X-files going off the rails on it’s own arc, she was basically smart (but realistically so — a medical doctor and an FBI agent), tough, and competent.

        Then of course by the end she was spouting physics and quantum-this-and-that as if she were some polymath, despite being…well, a doctor and an agent.

        But at least initially — tough, competent, smart and pragmatic. I can see shades of her in pretty much all the subsequent police dramas and procedurals, from CSI to the Mentalist.Report

  14. Avatar Stillwater says:

    The issue you’re talking about here seems of a piece with lots of other things I find deplorable about most US TV. At least, of the deplorable TV. If pressed for a one sentence summary of it, it’d be this: writers/producers of US TV shows seem to create characters based on their understanding of how other people view certain types of people, rather than just having that character be an actual person. Or maybe this: our TV characters are constructs of constructs.

    I wish I was smart enough to flesh that idea out.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Stillwater says:

      I think expounding on this is the entire premise of the TV Tropes website.

      I do think it’s better than it used to be. Besides competition (not only at the high end, but also at the low end so-called reality programing squeezing marginal scripted shows out), the Gen X writers that are now the showrunners and their protegees have been immersed in meta all their working lives, and now are more conscious writing to the construct spec.

      On the other hand, the fragmentation of TV means the shows that can actually get the most viewers from the broadest audience segment are all the same, and are all police procedurals. (or Chuck Lorre sitcoms) (not all of which are terrible). And in those shows, one definitely writes to spec. You don’t mess with that formula. At best, you try to let the actors flesh out the characters so they’re more than just the same old member of the 5 man team.Report

  15. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Getting away from spy and sci-fi genres, it occurs to me that nearly all of the characters on the various Law & Order shows are smart – detectives, lawyers, and lots of the suspects. And the Olivia Benson character on SVU combines good looks without being an obvious sex kitten, depth of human character and some personal failings and vulnerabilities, and discerning and quick intelligence. Granted, this character has taken 10+ years and the careful touch of a well-skilled actor portraying her. But, there ya go: this is the character you’re looking for.Report

  16. Avatar Paul Barnes says:

    Seems like a couple shows have not been mentioned here:

    Farscape and Aeryn Sun
    Babylon 5 and the two main female protagonists
    Warehouse 13

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Paul Barnes says:

      Haven’t seen em, so can’t comment. Others?Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Kim says:

        Aeryn Sun is a professional soldier and pilot.. Basically a bad ass. She develops some “science-ey” skills in the course of the series too.

        Several B5 females to pick from. Delen and Ivanoff (sp). Both strong women with their own opinions and bad ass. One’s on the ruling council of a interplantary species, one’s the #2 guy in command of a space station, pilot, a a russian. nuff said.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        Aeryn Sun is basically a cross between a Specs-Ops soldier and a Top Gun pilot, if they’d come from a highly militaristic society to begin with.

        She was paired with, basically, the helpless fish-out-of-water male scientist — who was smart (very smart) and adaptable but basically he was like Albert Einstein waking up in the Star Trek universe. Everything he knew was wrong and obsolete.

        Then, um, the male lead’s character sort of went crazy over the show (oftentimes hilariously, and frankly with due cause) and became something of a hardened warrior sort himself, culminating in holding himself hostage with a home-made nuclear bomb wired with every deadman switch he could come up with.

        Seriously, the show is just absolutely bizarre. It’s like someone through Deep Space 9 into a blender with Crapsack World, outfitted everyone in leather, and turned off any form of sanity check.

        I heartily recommend Farscape being next to do after B5 here. I’d LOVE to hear people’s thoughts on that one.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Kim says:


        Damn right! I’d love to see a convo on Farscape. That is my favorite show.

        Chriton: Who’s your daddy?
        Dargo: I’m your daddy!

        Some great lines.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Kim says:


        After the B5 book club ends, I’d be dead keen to do a Farscape book club.Report