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Posted by pocochina on February 1, 2011

In looking at some of my favorite media, I keep coming around and around and around to ladies I love whose stories I HATE. Which is a pretty odd thing to say, and it should be a peculiar experience, but it keeps happening over and over and over.

Eventually, it started turning into an undeniable pattern. The creators of a particular story would be commendably thoughtful when they created female characters, on some level recognizing that traditional expectations of femininity are actually designed to squash out personality rather than make for interesting people. And I would get lulled into a false sense of security, that maybe this would be the show where I did not become an incoherent volcano of lava-hot feminist rage. But then, apparently the thundering back-patting among the writers would drown out their own words being said aloud, which resulted in the characters reveling in unchecked, unacknowledged at best and usually openly validated woman-hate. Then, sometimes, the story itself would become a fetid cesspool of misogyny, punishing those women for whatever was most fantastic about them. Or just for breathing, whatever.

Then my soul would die. I would be unable to remember why I was ever invested in the show. Then my love for the characters, usually the much-mistreated Awesome Ladies, and what is apparently my sunshiny rosy optimism, would return and I would watch a few favorite episodes, just enough for me to realize the horror of the meta-narrative. Then I’d fume about it for a week’s worth of sessions on the elliptical until I was forced to take DRASTIC MEASURES, like for example making up a word and then sitting up until 6 am ranting in a Word document. And here we are. Sorkinitis (n)., a storytelling pitfall wherein a show which began with interesting, well-rounded female characters ends up with the feminist viewer feeling like she got smacked in the face with a cold misogynist fish.

This post contains Battlestar Galactica spoilers! If you have seen Battlestar Galactica, you know why this was completely unavoidable. If you have not, I tried to keep them vague, but in any event they are contained within a section which is helpfully marked BATTLESTAR GALACTICA in big bold letters so you at least have the chance to have your heart slowly, bitterly crushed over the run of the show like the rest of us. I AM GRACIOUS LIKE THAT. (Also spoilers for: The West Wing, Angel: the Series, Chuck, and various crime procedurals, but I think most of you have seen most of these.)

Aaron Sorkin gets the dishonor of being the namesake of this disease, even though I am sorry to report he is not even the worst offender, because this really started to bother me years ago when I first watched all of The West Wing. Not to bore anyone with the obvious, but CJ Cregg is perfection. She is perfect. (Also, she is based on Dee Dee Myers, who is a real person, which is a thing you can use on terrible horrible no-good very bad days to remind yourself that the world is actually not completely bereft of awesome. You’re welcome.) Abby. Ainsley. Donna. Andy. Zoe. Ellie. Amy. All ladies who are awesome and interesting and better than anything else I had ever seen on television.

But then I started to look closer at their stories and became woefully disappointed. Other than CJ, the way to be important in the WW-verse is to be someone’s love interest or daughter. As great as they all were, they were still important because of their relationships to men; kind of a meta-Bechdel test. The women who very clearly weren’t – Mandy and, to a lesser extent Ainsley – dropped off the face of the earth no matter how little sense it made. CJ, through the overwhelming might of her awesomeness ALL SHALL LOVE HER AND DESPAIR, managed to escape this fate, but she ended up walking away from politics completely in order to pursue an inexplicable, inappropriate relationship with a Nice Guy ™ reporter who thinks professionally undermining her at every turn in front of as many of her co-workers as possible is flirting.

Ugh. But even more disturbing, Sorkin uses the show as a means by which to vent his frustrations that those mouthy bitches dare to question his Dude Feminism. The show throws down with an empowerfulized sex worker lecture Sam out of wondering if he’s unknowingly and undesirably participated in a very real, very ugly type of exploitation, and then ends with Sam congratulating himself on deciding to save her anyway. Spunky, loveable duty-minded Ainsley bravely takes a stand against (brunette, sensible-shoed, unhappy-looking, natch) women having the nerve to nicely ask that the senior staffers in the White House keep their cat-calling out of the office.

AtS has a borderline case of Sorkinitis. There are so many amazing women on AtS who differ from each other so wildly, and they really do have varied and interesting stories. But that doesn’t change the fact that the more awesome a lady is on AtS, the more likely she is to die of that foulest of black magics, pregnancy (her own or someone else’s), and given that all the ladies are awesome, they’re also ALL DEAD by the end. SERIOUSLY, THOUGH?

Chuck has terrible Sorkinitis. What the hell happened to Sarah? She used to be awesome and complicated and have emotional problems which were sad but made sense with someone who would choose her particular lifestyle. Lately her job has pretty much been to wander around puppy-eyed nagging Chuck not to go on some mission or other BECAUSE IF HE DIES, WHO WILL TEACH HER TO LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE? Retch. What the hell happened to Anna Wu? She used to be there. But, no! The Nerd Herd has to be completely composed of men who sit around venting their insecurities by sleazy and vaguely threatening ogling. How I Met Your Mother brings us the lovely Lily and the BAMF Robin, and then cannot go a single episode without body snark and/or rape jokes. Even 30 Rock is becoming this, as much as it hurts me to say. (Trigger warning on the link, kids, it’s that bad.)

Most (certainly not all but most that I can think of) crime procedurals have some mild form of Sorkinitis, but since they’re designed to avoid too much investment in ongoing storylines, it rarely gets as bad as serialized dramas. The Closer has gorgeous lovable Brenda, who is surrounded by men – seriously, she is the only woman in the main credits – who like to roll their eyes about the ex-ball-and-chain. (Of course, adding the sublime Mary McDonnell to the cast as the delightfully bitchy Sharon Raydor permanently would go a long ways toward fixing this. HEM HEM.) NCIS has more women in refrigerators than bodies in Ducky’s morgue. There’s actually a Chick Desk, for the one lady who is allowed to be alive at a time. Bones used to be an awesome showcase for quite a few awesome ladies. Remember when Bones wasn’t about BRENNAN + BOOTH 4EVA!!!!11!!? I do. It was fun. Jack McCoy had, as a rough guess, FOURTEEN THOUSAND spunky young ladies as second chair at one point or another.

Really, it’s the shows that are the most facially problematic that are least likely to suffer Sorkinitis. Mad Men is brutal to watch, but the show is consciously aware that it’s displaying widespread cultural misogyny, and does so honestly without destroying the female characters. I am aware that Dollhouse is controversial to say the least, but I love it to pieces because it tears any pretense we have of structural equality away with absolutely no hesitation, and it does so with fantastic female characters who only get more fantastic every time we see them. I don’t so much mind things being awful for great female characters as I do mind being asked to pretend that everything’s okay, because LOOK, SHE DOESN’T HAVE A BABY, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW, FEMINISTS?

SORKINITIS IS A COMMON PHENOMENON, so I am fairly certain that I’ve left off shows because I haven’t seen them, or haven’t watched them consistently enough to track the progression of the issue, by all means let me know what I’ve missed. Specifically, I understand there is a recent Major Issue with Doctor Who and someone named Donna, which from what I gather seems likely to fit here; if so, please feel free to share with the class. (Also, privilege being privilege and oppression being oppression, I’d hazard a guess that something similar happens with male and female characters of color and queer characters. We could probably call it Gunn’s Disease for MOC. I’m focusing on female characters because that’s what I relate to the most, not because THIS IS THE PROOOOOOOOOOOBLEM IN MASS MEDIA, other issues are totally on topic. There are actually too few great characters with disabilities to come to a conclusion on something similar in that arena, which is similarly dispiriting.)

Battlestar Galactica has THE WORST CASE OF SORKINITIS THERE HAS EVER BEEN, particularly because it’s not just (PRETTY MUCH ALL OF THE) individual character stories that suffer from arrested development on the lady issues front, but the entire universe-building project. The rumors are true to some extent, there are so many great female characters. There are more fantastic, beautifully-drawn, complex, sympathetic female characters on Battlestar Galactica than there have been in the history of some entire networks. This show gave me my favorite character EVER, the Awesome Lady who presides with a fearsome benevolence over all Awesome Ladies and their gentleman associates, BOW BEFORE THE MIGHTY LAURA ROLSIN, and then proceeded to JIZZ ALL OVER HER FACE FOR FOUR SEASONS STRAIGHT, eventually relegating her to a miserable pod!person shell version of herself so That Man Bill Adama could wander around gibbering and drooling in Man Pain. The creation of Kara Thrace was one of those flashing beacons of brilliance that makes remakes worthwhile – the original Starbuck acted, dressed, and mainlined moonshine just like our Starbuck in every way; the one thing the re-makers altered to change the character from a derivative carbon copy of hundreds of swaggering action heroes before to something almost completely unique was to make her a woman. She is so great. Unfortunately, her story devolves from conflict to angst to UTTER PUNISHING SADISM until half of her screen time is spent crying on cue.

The fridging. Including the most appalling example of fridging I have ever seen, wherein the Man Tears were induced by the man himself boo-hooing over his own MURDERING THE FRIDGEE IN COLD BLOOD. The favoring of the stories of painfully bland men over their likeable and often fascinating spouses. Our Awesome Ladies are boned. (Also, I know I said above that I wasn’t going to focus on queer characters, but OH MY GOD, RIGHT? The gay tokenism and the awfulness of the patterns thereof in BSG are also their own post, but really, we could just change character names and move around a few words and have the basic idea.)

You should only read the following if you are braced for cold, jarring horror to seep through your soul whenever you consider the BSG universe and all of the writers and producers: these people actually thought they were creating a gender-egalitarian world. This is a similarly horrible thing about our universe: PEOPLE ACTUALLY BELIEVE THAT.

I know. There, there.

In my subversive feminist – that is to say, completely contradictory to authorial intent but fuck ‘em – reading of BSG, it’s the fascinating logical extension of our preoccupation with putting a band-aid on some forms of gender inequality while stubbornly ignoring pervasive structural sexism. All officers get called Sir! Which would be a lot more impressive if they weren’t overwhelmingly men anyway. There’s a female president! Who is never elected by THOSE INGRATES, but rather assumes power through succession and then appointment, having her presidency interrupted by three dudes (and is succeeded by a fourth dude) who take credit for her awesomeness and blame her for their fuck-ups. Men are doctors, women are nurse’s assistants who are grateful there’s someone to take the big scary operations out of their little lady-hands.

BUT BUT BUT THE COED SHOWER – not showers with doors, ONE SHOWER – surely that showcases progressiveness? Obviously not, and actually, this is the sharpest crystallization of my issue that there is. This is a society only a hair less regressive than our own, but even taken on its own merits, the constant threat of violent sexual assault under which these women live would make being forced into that position frightening enough on its own (and quite possibly traumatic for the several victims THAT WE KNOW OF floating around the main cast, edit and trigger warning, white-texted for the AWFULNESS: particularly the Athena situation, where the men who tried to assist when Thorn attempted to rape her, assuming they survived the exodus, are living on the Galactica and therefore potentially sharing those facilities; I want to heave just thinking about it end edit and warning), but the lack of alternatives is basically the admiralty saying “yeah, well SUCK IT UP.” Even if it’s just fear – and lord knows, doors do only a little to deter rapists, though a little is better than nothing – that fear is fucking real, and to disrespect it is to disrespect rape survivors, who are overwhelmingly women raped by men. To me, this looks like a thorough and valid display that is the horror show of…not invisible misogyny, but skillfully-obscured misogyny.

The misogyny lurking just under the surface of Colonial society, and the way that culture maintains the surface, is a whole other post; it’s probably its own dissertation or seven. Suffice to say, it’s there. It wasn’t consciously created, for sure, but it was built into this world and this story and the Job-like trials in store for these Awesome Ladies we all fall for so hard.

Stories are how we show our aspirations. What happens when an Awesome Lady is created, gets public attention for being as such, and then is dragged through the mud is a reflection of how we punish real-life awesome ladies. When speculative fiction, which after all is about daring to dream of other worlds, bigger and clearer and maybe even better, calls a viciously misogynist society “gender egalitarian” it’s not just an inappropriate label. It’s telling us, this is all we can hope for. That even beyond the stars, a world without misogyny is not just unlikely, but actually unimaginable.

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