“But You’re Just a Girl” : Television and the ‘Strong Female Lead’ Pt. 2

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Earlier this week, in celebration of the anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, I posted the first of a two-part look at female leads in television. The first part focused on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost Girl, and Veronica Mars. If you missed that post you can find it here.

This time I will look at the Australian drama, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries as well as compare and contrast the four female characters.

The Girls

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

The lead character of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Phryne Fisher, is entirely unlike any of the other women we’ve discussed so far. She shares some similar traits – her confidence, strong character, determination – but unlike the other three women Phryne is not an outsider within her society. Phryne has an extremely open personality that is quite unlike the other three women, which allows her to make friends and gain trust almost anywhere she goes. The series is set in Melbourne, Australia in the late 1920s and Phryne is a very progressive woman for the time period. She demonstrates no interest in forming a committed relationship, instead takes on several lovers throughout the two seasons that have aired to date. She is extremely supportive of women’s rights, as well as the right to love whomever you wish – at a time when homosexuality was viewed as a crime in Australia. However, no one judges Phryne for her modern views (with the possible exception of her Aunt Prudence); in fact, the result is quite the opposite – most characters are drawn to her charisma in charm. She is a well-adjusted confident woman – the only skeleton in her closet being the kidnap and murder of her sister years before, an event that the series returns to several times until wrapping it up in the first season finale.

“Phryne’s a superhero, really … She’s the woman that many women would like to be. Because she is so independent and has no dependency upon men, just loves them. And as long as they don’t try and rule her, she’ll enjoy every bit of them.”

– Essie Davis (Phryne Fisher), npr.org

Phryne Fisher vs. Buffy Summers, Bo, and Veronica Mars

By comparing using Phryne Fisher as a comparison, we can see that some of our favorite strong female characters are still lacking in some areas, three in particular.

1. “Damsel in distress”

While watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries one of the things that stands out within just a few episodes is the fact that no matter what kind of corner Phryne finds herself backed into, she always gets herself out without the help of anyone else.

In contrast the others frequently need to rely on help from others. Buffy and Bo are by the far the most independent of the group, but even they need help sometimes. In season 5 after the death of her mother and the kidnapping of her sister Buffy goes into a catatonic state and needs her friend Willow to pull her out. This was one of Buffy’s weakest moments, though it was later followed by one of her strongest – sacrificing her life for her sister’s. Bo, being much like Buffy, doesn’t often need help, but there are still a few times when she needed assistance from her friends – namely her former love, Dyson. In the season 1 finale Dyson made a deal that transferred his wolf strength to Bo so she could defeat her foe.

Veronica probably needs rescuing more than any of the women discussed above. Despite being a strong character in so many other ways, Veronica frequently finds herself in situations where she needs rescuing – and typically it’s a man who must rescue her. In the season 1 finale, Veronica discovers the true identity of her best friends killer, then finds herself locked into a freezer which is then set on fire. Veronica’s father, Keith comes to her rescue. In the season two finale she is trapped on a rooftop with her rapist, and the person responsible for killing several classmates in a bus crash. As soon as she gets the chance she texts her ex-boyfriend Logan and he comes to her rescue. There are several other times throughout the series Logan comes to her rescue when she has gotten herself in over her head.

VMars1

2. Trust Issues

As discussed above, Veronica has extremely deep trust issues. Some of which are based on her experience of people letting her down, others based on her experience working with her dad’s detective agency. Caroline E. Jones also connects Veronica’s lack of trust to the fact that she was raped before the first episode of the series, “Veronica has learned to deal with her status as an outcast by refusing to give anyone else the power to hurt her. She has cultivated a thick skin” (75). It becomes a cycle for Veronica, she won’t trust anyone or let anyone in, so she becomes an outcast and being an outcast is what strengthens her resolve not to let anyone in. These trust issues become a detriment in relationships and cause a rift between Veronica and her boyfriend Logan. Buffy and Bo do not display nearly as troublesome trust issues, although Buffy does have commitment issues in relationships that could be a result of trust. Her first boyfriend turned into a murdering psychopath after they had sex, so naturally that would have an impact on one’s love life. Bo has some trust issues mostly rooted in her relationship with her foster mother, but they don’t prevent her from forming friendships or other relationships the way they do Veronica, or to a lesser extent Buffy. However, they do exist.

Phryne Fisher is once again the contrast here. She portrays little to no problem with trusting anyone, in particular even though she does have the suspicious nature that comes with being a private detective. However, she doesn’t automatically distrust anyone – in fact her first case was investigating the murder of a friends husband, and Phryne was surprised when the clues led her to discover her friend was a murderess. However, she tends to try to see the good in people and give them the benefit of the doubt.

3. Sexuality

Sexuality is another place where the North American characters deviate from Phryne Fisher, though not in sexuality itself, but rather how it is perceived.

Being sexually independent is not Phryne’s only distinguishing characteristic: she’s also clever, sometimes inscrutable, funny and fiercely loyal. She speaks several languages. She carries a literal golden gun. But the series does extravagantly reintroduce the overt sexuality that was regularly part of the films of the 1920s and 1930s, but vanishes mysteriously from most contemporary films about the 1920s and 1930s, as if it’s too much to imagine that sex for pleasure existed in parents’ and grandparents’ lives.

– NPR.org

Phryne is completely comfortable in her sexuality, and take on multiple partners throughout the series. She also supports other characters’ sexuality, and equality as I mentioned above. But most importantly, she is not judged by the characters around her. She is not viewed as a “slut” or any other word that may be used to describe such a character more modern television.

The character of Buffy Summers is not overly sexual – we only see her intimate with four men over the entire course of the series – however the portrayal of her sexuality raises questions about the view of sexuality in this series. The very first time Buffy has sex, her lover loses his soul, becoming a typical bloodthirsty vampire. “He mocks Buffy for her inexperience and for her emotional attachment to Angel. Giles holds Buffy, as the Slayer,responsible for the re-emergence of Angelus” (Jones, 69).

Given that Buffy’s decision to have sex with Angel, an act of agency and an expression of herself as a sexual subject, results in the re-emergence of Angelus, the episode in question can easily be read as a regressive adherence to conventional tropes of both plot and ideology, an undermining of Buffy’s emotional and mental strength. Essentially, Buffy’s expression of her sexual desire, her transgression of the norms of American society (nice girls do not have sex) as well as her own norms (Slayers do not consort with vampires), results in punishment.

– Caroline E. Jones, “Unpleasant Consequences”

The second time she has sex isn’t until two years later, after she’s entered college. In this case Parker, the man she sleeps with, turns out to be a jerk the next day, paralleling her experience with Angel (without the murderous vampire part). At this point it would be easy to think Buffy might start thinking something is wrong with her. In season 6, after Buffy returns from the dead she starts a sexual relationship with Spike, another vampire. Throughout this season it’s heavily implied that Buffy believes there must be something wrong with her, and that is why she allows herself to sleep with Spike.

Veronica is probably the least “sexual” character in this grouping, however her first sexual experience was being raped. She doesn’t remember the actual act, but she knows it happened. Veronica’s best friend was murdered by a man she was having an affair with, then, in the third season, the main mystery involves tracking down a serial rapist. While there are healthy relationships in the show, there are also a lot of negative representations of sexuality as well.

Bo’s very nature requires a heightened sexuality in order to survive. Therefore, those around her accept this aspect of her personality; even her partners accept that this is a part of her that cannot be denied as she needs to feed in order to survive. Bo’s sexuality is also directly tied to her strength, as though to say sex is the only power a woman has.

One of Bo’s lovers, Dyson is also a wolf, and it is in his nature to mate for life. He sleeps with other women, but Bo is the only woman he can and will love. This contrast between the two only serves to make Dyson look that much more patient and understanding as he does not expect the same level of commitment from Bo.

Conclusion

The television shows discussed here are just a small sampling, chosen because each of these characters have been discussed in media as being examples of strong female characters. On their own, when you look at these characters they do seem to be examples of well-written, strong women. They have a lot of wonderful qualities that are a large step forward in the representation of women on television. However, when you hold up a show like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries as a comparison, you can start to see the flaws in even these strong women. Looking at these women through the lens of Phryne Fisher’s portrayal on screen we can draw four conclusions concerning the view of women – even strong women – based on the portrayals of Buffy Summers, Bo and Veronica Mars:

  •  Women can be strong, but not completely independent of men’s help.
  • Women can be sexual, as long as there is something “wrong” with them.
  • A woman’s main source of power is her sexuality.
  • Strong women are inherently distrustful.

While all four of these won’t always be true for every female character onscreen, it is interesting that they are evident while looking at three women whom most Americans identify with as being strong female characters.

PhryneFisher

It would also be false to conclude that all Australian female characters are stronger than American based solely on Phryne Fisher, however comparing Phryne to the American characters allows us to look at them with a new perspective. These are all strong, confident, capable women – more so than many other women on primetime television. However, even the portrayals of our best female role models have flaws and show there can be room for improvement.

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