Feisty female characters – In which I go off on one.

* Warning: here be opinions. You may not agree. That’s fine though, right?

I have a bee in my bonnet – and you know who’s fault it is? Lucy Liu. Yeah, you missy, with your kicky legs and your cute freckles and your goddamn feistyness.

Of course, it’s not really Lucy Liu’s fault – I’m sure she’s lovely. If a bit kicky. Really I should be aiming my ire at the execs behind the decision to cast her in the new new US Sherlock Holmes series Elementary – as John Watson.

Or Joanna Watson, to be more accurate. Yep. Alarm bells should have been a-ringing when the title of the show was announced, since, as is pointed out in this post over at Miss Transmission’s consistently awesome blog, the phrase “Elementary my dear Watson” was never used in the Arthur Conan Doyle books in the first place. Alright, so the generally well-received BBC’s Sherlock didn’t stick absolutely to the original, but at least it felt consistent and respectful of the characters and plots that were clearly so loved by the pair responsible for bringing it to our screens, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. This most elementary of mistakes by the makers of Sherlock’s American counterpart makes me wonder if those behind the show have afforded the original stories the barest of glances, realised that they’d actually have to put in some time to read the damn things, before heading over to wikipedia for a more “skip to the end” approach to the whole thing.

I’m being massively unfair here I know, as I’ve yet to see anything so should really reserve judgement. But it’s not the fact that it’s in direct competition to a show I love. It’s not even that this most British of heroes -who’s adventures involve him racing around London looking for missing boats on the Thames, employing street urchins as his Baker Street Division, and using hackney cabs to tail suspects – has been uprooted and plonked down in New York. I don’t even mind the fact that a male character has been made female (it can work – look at Battlestar Galactica‘s Starbuck) – it’s that I’m pretty sure that the female John Watson will be…feisty.

She’ll be feisty or strong or kick-ass because she’s Watson, companion, foil, to the genius Sherlock Holmes. So huge is the consulting detective’s shadow that Sherlock‘s Watson only manages to get out from it by strength of Martin Freeman’s brilliance as an actor and some clever work by the show’s writers. Reading the books it’s apparent that Watson is nothing but a ventriloquist dummy that Sherlock can use to tell himself how brilliant he is, and how no one else could possibly have deduced it. Constantly.

Martin Freeman’s Watson is intelligent and brave in his own right, and is more frequently astonished by Sherlock’s arrogance and coldness than his brilliant mind. If he were female it would bring a whole other angle to the thing: is Watson unable to keep up with Holmes because her inferior female mind couldn’t hope to compete? Their love/hate relationship must be due to sexual tension, because, how could two people of the oppositve sex have such a close relationship otherwise? Desperately hoping to avoid accusations of sexism the writers will make her strong, and kick-ass, and feisty.

Feisty is the pigeon-hole tv writers put a character into when they’ve been told they have to include a woman in there somewhere, anywhere. She can’t be just Ditzy, because that would be sexist, so she has to be Feisty. That’s modern, right? It’s progressive and feminist and right-on, because this woman, right, she kicks-ass, you know, and she can keep up with the men, no problem. And Joanna Watson is a doctor so she’s like a role-model for girls too, right? Because, see, women can be like doctors or detectives too, and not just nurses and teachers and shit, yeah?

The word feisty is poisonous – you don’t even have to say it out loud or write it down, once you’ve thought it it’s there, and it will never leave. And it’s so big, this little word, that it expands and suffocates any other character traits. Who needs more? She’s feisty, okay?

Feisty is as patronising as ‘ditzy’ because it’s a bone woman-kind has been thrown to stop it moaning on about feminism and strong female characters that actually have a purpose in a plot rather than ticking the demographic box.

Is it too much to ask that there be interesting realistic female characters in tv dramas? They don’t even have to be ‘strong’ for godsake, just real. I want normal women who are mutli-dimensional and emotionally deep. I don’t want to see a woman kicking arse and shooting guns and feeling absolutely no shame about getting her massive breasts out because she doesn’t give a shit out being objectified and would probably shoot you in the face if you tried to anyway.

I want women who are quiet and funny and normal, who end up in dramatic situations that they don’t deal with like emotionally-devoid robots. Maybe they’re brave, maybe they do the right thing. Maybe they don’t, but crucially it won’t be because of their gender, but who they are as characters. Alright, so I’ll allow a bit of arse-kickage and shooting, but only if they have a little cry afterwards because, really, I know I would. No, NOT because I’m a girl – but because guns are bloody scary for most people. Especially, I imagine, if you’re having to shoot someone who’s trying quite hard to shoot you first. One of the most brilliant scenes in the remake of the Bond film Casino Royale was when Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd sat crying in the shower after helping Bond kill an assassin. Because violence, escaping death and killing, for most people, isn’t something that’s forgotten or dealt with easily.

Aside from death-defying and fight-scenes though, for a character, male or female, to feel real I want to be able to imagine their daily life. You know, the boring shit that doesn’t get films made about it because it would be incredibly dull – like paying bills and dealing with landlords and buying milk because it’s gone off again. Characters that cease to exist the minute the credits roll might as well not have existed at all.

A perfect example of this is, to bring it back to Sherlock, the rather fabulous Molly Hooper – the slightly pitiful, giggly pathologist who’s affections Sherlock cruelly manipulates to gain access to a constant supply of fresh cadavers from her morgue. She wears lipstick to impress him but wipes it off the moment he tells her it makes her mouth look thin. She asks him out for coffee but doesn’t say anything when he takes her offer of a date as an offer for a cup of coffee, yes please black two sugars. She’s real, she’s not strong or outrageously sexy or strident – but she’s always there. Just…plodding along, seeing things just a little bit clearer than everyone else because she’s patient and reliable and clever, in a not-having-to-shout-about-it kind of way. She may not be hard enough to happily run around shooting bad guys in the face, but you know she’s brave enough to bloody well give it a go if she really had to.

And I want to know more about her. I’d even watch her paying bills, dealing with landlords and replacing gone-off milk. There is no character like her in the Arthur Conan Doyle books, but even if there were I doubt she’d make the jump to the US’s take on Sherlock Holmes.

So, yeah, I have a bonnet with a bee in it. And this bonnet is feminist and nervous and often gets tearfully angry. But you know what it’s not though?

It’s not bloody feisty.

P.S – Please go and read Miss Transmission’s brilliantly eloquent post about the awesomness of Molly Hooper and real female characters here.


2 thoughts on “Feisty female characters – In which I go off on one.

  1. Iz Radage

    Perfect example of feistiness!… Though i can’t agree. I feel you are being rather Daily Mail..maybe avoid Hollywood movies for a bit and watch some Indie realism. Eg Tyrannosaur. Brilliant female lead, Olivia Colman.

    1. mimeher Post author

      Being rather Daily Mail?! Oh, low-blow Iz!

      Perhaps I’m not watching the right thing – Haven’t seen Tyrannosaur yet, but really want to, I love Olivia Colman and from what I’ve heard she was sorely robbed this awards season for her role in that film. But don’t you think characters like that, played well by actors like Olivia Colman, are still in the minority?


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