Time of the Month: BART CURLISH & FARAH BLACK (DIRK GENTLY)

Since watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, I have decided I need a change of career. I want to be a holistic assassin, like Bart Curlish – one of the greatest characters in the Dirk Gently series. With that said, all of the characters in Dirk Gently are pretty bloody incredible. In fact, they are all so incredible that September’s Time of the Month brings you not one amazing character, but two! Bart Curlish (Fiona Dourif) and Farah Black (Jade Eshete). I agonised over which to write about before deciding that actually, this month you can have two for the price of one.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency tells the daft but charming story of Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), a ‘holistic detective’ who is investigating a crime. He enlists the help (or rather, pre-determines the help) of Todd (Elijah Wood) to assist him with solving the case. Cue bizarre plot twists, cute animals, unpalatable murders and a whole lot of time travel. ‘Dirk Gently’ is a mad, quirky hot mess and it’s absolutely brilliant because of it. It’s tonally terrific and though it makes almost no logical sense until the very last minute – it will keep you gripped the entire series through.

 

 A STORY OF THEIR OWN

Farah Black and Bart Curlish are two characters that have their own subplots, running alongside the main narrative. Bart is a self-titled holistic assassin who displays a lot of the same intuitive tendencies as Dirk, and coincidentally also believes it is her life mission to assassinate him. Bart is (putting it nicely) pretty unsocialised and a bit of a lone wolf. She has killed countless people and seems to have a knack for it, although she always affirms she doesn’t ever kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

Farah is a young security officer, working for the Spring estate, desperately trying to track down Lydia Spring, a young girl who is at the centre of the case Dirk is trying to solve.  Coincidentally, Patrick (Lydia’s deceased father) hired Dirk to track down his killers, a few weeks before he was murdered. Yeah – time travel features a lot in this show.  Farah, whose only prerogative is to return Lydia safely home, is swept along in the tidal wave of puzzles and clues trying to save Lydia and solve the case. Farah is fierce, determined and also ever so slightly neurotic.

What is apparent though, is Both Bart and Farah kick gender stereotyping to the curb. Their job titles (security officer and assassin) are traditionally assigned to men, neither of them are involved in a romantic narrative and they both have confidence and conviction in their individual skills.

Even better still, Bart and Farah, though caught up in the spiritual drama concerning Dirk and Todd, both have narrative arcs of their own. Which is another way to say that they don’t exist merely to support the two male protagonists. The difficulty with an ensemble cast, especially when female characters are in primarily supporting roles, is that they usually only exist in relation to the main male characters. More often than not there is little character development, and they seem to not exist in any way unless they are onscreen with the male character(s).

In our first introduction to her character, Bart’s existence (in her own words) is for the purpose of assassinating Dirk Gently. So how can we claim she exists as an entity unto herself, and not just in relation to Dirk? Well, even though Bart’s raison-d’etre is to kill Dirk, her narrative supersedes this. Bart grows, changes and develops throughout the series. She enjoys the backstreet boys. She learns what a shower is. She actually makes a friend, despite initially claiming that she doesn’t need anyone in her life. Bart’s edges become softer, but she doesn’t compromise who she is to get there, but in the process she becomes a little happier. Bart begins as the anti-Dirk – a character created solely to destroy Dirk – a trope employed in many superhero stories. In a wonderful twist, Bart’s story takes on it’s own life and direction.

STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS

It would be easy, and a complete cop out,  to claim that both Bart and Farah are ‘strong female characters’.

‘Strong female character’ is a term which is very liberally applied to any female character who displays any hints of strength, independence or determination. The problem with strong-female-characters is that they are usually portrayed as so “strong” that they are either pseudo-men or have no infallibility whatsoever. This doesn’t make for an interesting or authentic character, and certainly leaves no room for development.

Farah, as a WOC, could easily have fallen into the strong-sassy-black-woman stereotype. Sure, as we said earlier, her job does mean that she has to be somewhat strong and very brave. As a security officer, she does display strength, and she’s got the personality to match. However, Farah demonstrably struggles with weakness too. Farah is determined and clearly skilled at her job. But she also failed to get into the FBI academy, something which clearly still haunts her. When one of the minions pretends to be an FBI agent to try and fool Farah – we expect her to see straight through his act. We have an expectation that her physical strength transfers to her emotional strength and that she is infallible because of this. However, due to Farah’s own insecurities about not being ‘good’ enough for the FBI, she is hoodwinked. Farah isn’t a ‘strong’ person, she is insecure. This insecurity makes her relatable, and it makes her human.

Farah’s breakdown is a realistic response to the situation. Though brave and headstrong, she has little faith in her abilities because of rejection in the past. When faced with what she thinks is an authoritative figure, she crumbles – like many of us would.

Likewise, Bart’s entire life trajectory has been to eliminate Dirk Gently. When she finally comes face to face with him, she discovers that she simply can’t do it. The universe, or whatever it is, will not allow her to kill him. Bart has to come to terms with the idea that the thing she has been living for, is actually not going to happen. It’s almost a rejection from the universe. Bart seems to stumble through life relying only on intuition, but this time it has failed her. A girl who has lived as little more than a killing machine, finds that she really does have a moral compass.

Additionally, the revelation that Bart actually only kills people who kind of deserve it, completely changes our perception of her. We can actually identify with her, and start to like her as a person now we know that she doesn’t just kill at random. Or, she does but somehow she knows that her victims are all terrible people. Holistic assassin, you know?

Both Bart and Farah are vulnerable, lonely women, masquerading as strong fighters who don’t need anyone in their lives. Dirk Gently not only allows us to see behind their masks, but also gives them the opportunity to learn and grow as the series goes on. Instead of giving us stunted tropes, Dirk Gently has blessed us with two wonderful female characters who (I hope) will continue to shine throughout the second season too.

Now, if the writers could just orchestrate a Farah/Bart spin-off, I’d be very, very happy….

Time of the Month: MOLLY SOLVERSON (FARGO)

Molly Solverson, played by Allison Tolman, is a police officer from the town of Bemidji – a place which is home to season one of Noah Hawley’s television series Fargo. From start, Solverson is proven to be a capable, unflappable officer who is growing into a exceptionally talented member of the Bemidji police force. She is still learning, especially from her mentor Vern before he is murdered, but she has a confidence in her abilities that is rare to see from a woman in such a male dominated career.

When strange events (namely, murders) start occurring in Bemidji and the neighbouring town of Fargo, it is the Bemidji police force who are put on the case. Fargo begins with three victims – Sam Hess (a local ‘big-man’), Pearl Nygaard (wife of main character Lester Nygaard) and Vern (esteemed Chief of Police, and friend of Molly). Right from the start, Molly (rightly) suspects that Lester Nygaard is the culprit, or at least involved in the murders.

Molly constantly perseveres throughout the season, pleading with Chief of Police Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) to see her reasoning. For a multitude of reasons, Bill refuses to entertain her theories. The main issue for Bill seems to be that he knows Lester Nygaard and he believes that Lester could never do anything like this. They went to high-school together, grew up together – it’s a version of the ‘old boys club’. Molly rejects this notion because she is an outsider – she isn’t ‘one of the boys’. She is able to see past friendship and emotion to work out what is really going on in Bemidji – a skill that is stereotypically linked to masculinity. 

Despite claims that Molly is based on Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand from the Coen brothers original film of the same name), the only things that the two characters really have in common are their professions and that they both become pregnant at some point. The similarities, largely, end there. Marge is a no nonsense police officer, wise and calm. She isn’t hassled about being a woman in the force, she isn’t undermined and there is no sense that she is in a ‘man’s world’.

Molly, on the other hand, is the one lone female face in a male dominated television series and police precinct. Vern makes it clear to her in the first episode that he thinks she is more suited for the Chief of Police job than Bill Oswalt, yet Bill is promoted without a second thought when Vern dies. Molly’s tough and determined, but the society in which she lives in shown to be full of sexist comments and patriarchal systems. This is a far cry from Marge, who is allowed to be a person in her own right, rather than being categorised as a the only woman in a room full of men.

I think it’s pretty important that we do recognise Molly breaks certain conventions that we expect of women on screen. She’s not thin. Molly is a bigger woman, but this is never commented on by herself or anyone else. Molly’s physical attributes are irrelevant, as Allison Tolman was swift to point out to some fat-phobic jerks on twitter.

The biggest crime against Molly (I mean, apart from the actual illegal crime of being shot), came in the final episode of season 1. Gus, Molly’s lovable but useless husband, pleads with her not to go after Malvo. He begs her to think of their unborn child and their future together. She concedes. She will stay at the station and miss out on catching the serial killer that has evaded her for over a year. In the meantime, Gus himself stumbles upon Malvo’s hiding place and take it upon himself to wait for Malvo to return home. Gus, the ex-police officer. Gus, the ex-police officer that let Malvo get away in the very second episode. Gus, the man who preaches safety to his wife, but goes completely gung-ho and kills Malvo himself.

Molly has been on this case, and right about this case, from the very start. To take that moment away from her feels cheap and nasty. It was Molly who deserved the praise and respect for solving the case because it was Molly who never gave up, even when she was told to stand down. To rub salt into the wounds, Molly even agrees that Gus should take the commendation he has been awarded for killing Malvo – even though they are both perfectly aware that trophy should belong to Molly and Molly alone.

Perhaps there is a wider point about gender dynamics at play here, and maybe I am not giving the writers of Fargo enough credit. It’s reminiscent of that age old phrase, ‘behind every successful man is a woman who put him there’ – except Molly actually did ALL of the groundwork, with Gus stepping in at the very end. Perhaps it is a comment on egos; Molly is humble and focused solely on doing her job, whereas Gus feels that he still has something to prove after failing so badly in the force.

I guess one of the reasons why Molly Salveson appears to be such an interesting and complicated character is that all of the other women in Fargo are little more than cardboard cut-out tropes.

Gina Hess, widow of the late Sam Hess – a character whose death sets off a domino effect in the first season – is a golddigger. Ida Thurman, widow of the late police officer Verne Thurman, plays the role of grieving widow and not much more. It’s interesting that the two other female characters after Molly are both categorised by their relationship to men. Gina and Ida are only involved in the events because of their husbands and neither of them have their own narrative arc.

In fact, Gina’s screen time mostly revolves around her seducing, shagging and being screwed over by Lester Nygaard – a man who has killed his wife.

The events of Fargo are set in motion after Lester kills his own wife – Pearl Nygaard. The two have a difficult relationship (and by difficult, I mean that we see Pearl ask Lester to do some jobs around the house and she mentions how successful his brother is) and Lester ends up smashing her brains in with a hammer, in the basement of their house. Fargo is all about it’s characters, and Lester killing Pearl is the catalyst for Lester’s transformation from bullied insurance salesman to successful, jail-avoiding business owner.

What makes me slightly uncomfortable about Pearl’s death is that she is never really treated as a human being. Pearl wasn’t a nice person (“I married the wrong Nygaard”) but her death is not seen as a terrible thing. We spend little time with Pearl before she is murdered, and there is very little conversation about her afterwards. In comparison to the grief expressed about Verne’s murder, or the way we are encouraged to feel sorry for the countless people that Malvo kills, Pearl isn’t really mourned at all.

Though Fargo may not be as progressive in terms of female representation as the movie that was released over 20 years ago, I am still going to be sad to say goodbye to Molly when I move on to season 2. Here’s to the women working hard in a man’s world, and here’s to Fargo hopefully channelling some better characters for women.

Time of the Month: LANE KIM (GILMORE GIRLS)

My favourite Gilmore Girl is not a Gilmore Girl at all. It’s punk-rock, drummer-turned-waitress-turned-mumma Lane Kim.

Lane Kim, played by the superb Keiko Agena, is Rory Gilmore’s lifelong best friend and confidante. When we first meet her, she appears to be a nicely spoken, sweet fifteen year old who studies hard and never puts a toe out of line. It only takes us ten minutes to work out that Lane is actually living the double life that many teens do, due to her mother’s strict household rules. The character of Lane was actually based on Helen Pai, a longtime friend of Gilmore Girls creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Pai, like Lane, grew up hiding her true identity from her strict Seventh-day Adventist parents as Bustle explains here

Lane Kim is a marvel, a superhero if you will. She is a master of compromise, constantly navigating her Korean heritage with American pop-culture, her love of junk food with her mother’s health crazes. She’s smart, strong, independent and above all else, she’s a brilliant friend.

There is an expectation that Lane would constantly be going an identity crisis of sorts as she crosses over two very distinct cultures, but Lane is confident in herself and what she likes. It’s pretty rare to see a teenage girl who has relatively high self esteem on TV and it’s doubly wonderful that Lane is a woman of colour. Of course, the Asian stereotype dictates that Lane should be an overachiever, timid and introverted. Though Lane may put this facade on to please her mother, she is none of the above. She’s an extrovert, with loud opinions. It is Rory who is the academic overachiever in their friendship.

Mothers, mothers, mothers..

One of the absolute greatest moments ever (and i mean ever, not just in Gilmore Girls), is when Lane tells Mrs Kim that she is giving up the band. They aren’t having any success with booking gigs and Lane, for the first time ever, just wants to quit. This is unlike her, and Mrs Kim can see that too. Known for her organisational (or rather military) skills, Mrs Kim quickly books the band a series of shows in Christian venues across the region effectively allowing them to tour. She organises their van, sorts out their packing and sends them on their way to capture the hearts of young Christians everywhere.

Of course, Mrs Kim’s actions are totally predictable – she’s stellar at solving a problem and she’s very good at making sure people fall in line with her orders. What is out of character is Mrs Kim’s sudden support for Lane extracurricular activities. She has never been a fan of rock music (likening it to the Devil himself most of the time), and she’s never been one to support her daughter doing anything outside of the Seventh Day Adventist Rulebook (the Bible, I guess?). This, I believe, was the turning point in Lane and Mrs Kim’s relationship. Mrs Kim, despite her hatred for rock music, hated seeing Lane giving up her dream and so decides to put aside her own grievances to help Lane and the band. Of course, the compromise is that they are playing Christian events only – but it is still a huge leap forward between mother and daughter.

Similarly, when Lane gets married to Zack (which still makes me angry #comebackDave), she sees a side to her mother that she had never seen before. Lane has to have a traditional Buddhist wedding  for the sake of her Grandparents, who would be horrified if they discovered that Lane and Mrs Kim were Seventh-day Adventists. As Lane watches her mother hide all the Christian iconography in their house, she realises that her mother rebelled too – just in a different way. Instead of reaching out popular culture, punk-rock and teen heartthrobs, Mrs Kim chose the Seventh-day Adventists as her way out of her family’s traditional culture. Each Kim woman is forging a life for herself, and it is not without irony that Lane understands this.

What is also pretty obvious, by the end of the series at least, is that Lane is a parallel of Lorelai. Both of them rebel from their mothers, move out of home and have children young. They both have ambitious streaks and are not easily swayed. They are both staples of Stars Hollow, darlings of the community if you will. Lorelai was also a stand-in mother to Lane for most of her teenage years – Lane would go over to the Gilmore house to eat junk food, wear her favourite clothing and sometimes to see Dave (yay Dave!).

Always the best friend, never the protagonist…

Whilst this parallel is interesting, I felt like Gilmore Girls almost gave up with Lane after Rory went to Yale. Of course, now Rory isn’t in Stars Hollow all the time, it makes sense that we and her would see less of Lane. What we did get to see, though, was her pining over Zack who treated her terrible and didn’t seem to know what he wanted most of the time. Lane deserved better! Lane was there as a constant for Rory through her ups and downs with Dean, Jess and Logan. Where was Rory when Lane should have been told that she deserved better than a guy who didn’t know if he wanted to date her! Speaking of, Rory was late to Lane’s baby shower, wasn’t even there for the birth of Lane’s twins and barely made an impact at her wedding.

Okay, maybe this has actually just turned into a ‘Rory is a bad friend to Lane’ rant, but someone has to say it.

Moving on… The basis of what I am trying to say is this. Lane is a wonderful character, a truly unique sidekick who deserved much more time and attention. As much as it annoys me that Lane gets stuck with Zack (sorry, I just don’t like him), it’s also pretty rare to see a woman succeeding at her career, her love life and being a parent. In A Year in the Life, Lane still makes music as well as being an awesome mother to her boys. Her and Zack are happy, and she still has time for Rory. Lane is clearly a wonderful mother, and I am glad that we get to see her still playing music both in the house and at the Secret Bar. All is not lost! Women truly can have it all if that is what they want! Not that you would know it to look at Paris or Rory, but at least Lane is a shining beacon of ‘actually being happy’ – and for that I am glad. On the one hand, it’s pretty sad that one of the best Asian-American representations on television is a character who is the best friend of the protagonist, but on the other – at least Lane is an awesome character, with her own stories. 

It feels sad that Lane got sidelined so much in the later year of the series, to make room for Rory’s boy troubles (specifically with Logan), when Lane was going through such a transitional period in her life. From being a rebellious teenager to an overbearing mother, to a mother herself. At least, in my view, Lane came out on top. Thoroughly deserved. 

Time of the Month: TRACEY GORDON (CHEWING GUM)

Michaela Coel, the mastermind behind one of the UK’s funniest TV shows right now, openly confesses that she really enjoys making people uncomfortable . Well, the truth is that she is extremely good at it. Chewing Gum, as well as being disgustingly funny and refreshingly honest, has moments that made me cringe so much I wanted my sofa to swallow me up.

Tracey Gordon, Coel’s creation, is a naive 24 year old on a mission to leave her religious upbringing behind and get on with discovering her sexuality. With the help of Beyonce (because of course), Tracey gets into many sticky (some quite literally) situations, not limited to accidentally going to a swingers party, trying to lose her virginity at a homeless shelter, rejecting advances from her cousin Boy Tracey and almost modelling for human/dog pornography. So if any of that sounds like something you want to watch, you are going to love Chewing Gum.

We meet Tracey as she is embarking on her new life. Though still living with her fanatically religious mother and sister, Tracey has decided that the #Churchlife is not for her. She’s dating a closeted gay man named Ronald (John MacMillan) who is determined that their relationship not be sullied by sinful desire. Tracey, at the beginning of her sexual revolution, is determined to change that. After a small (read: big) misunderstanding in the bedroom, Ronald and Tracey go their separate ways (not before Ronald is hit by a car) and Tracey realises that the world of men, dating, sex and sin is now open to her.

Due to Tracey’s mega religious upbringing, she’s a bit on the naive side for a 24 year old. She both dresses and behaves a lot like a child who has never had any real experience of the world, because of course she hasn’t. Because of this small quirk, she doesn’t shy away from any scenario, no matter how cringe-worthy or embarrassing. It’s almost like Tracey has been sullied by the realities of life yet. Even in series 2, where Tracey ends up almost dating a man who clearly has a fetish for black women (he asks her to ‘tribal’ dance for him??), she sees an opportunity to get some money out of him. Of course, the entire episode is laced with truths about powerful white men who fetishise women of colour (and are generally racist) but Tracey knows how to roll with the punches and make the most out of an otherwise pretty tragic situation.

Her naivety about life also makes her a phenomenal role model when talking about sexuality. Though inexperienced, Tracey is uninhibited – something that is very rare among young women on TV. She feels that she is entitled to a sex life, most definitely a sex drive, and she isn’t ashamed of her sexual desires. When things get heated with her soon-to-be-boyfriend Connor, Tracey takes charge of the situation despite never having had any kind of intimate contact with anyone before. As she makes the executive decision to sit on his face, talking us through her thought process the whole time, she isn’t sure whether what she is doing is right or wrong, but fuck it – she’s doing it anyway.

Race may not be the sole focus of Chewing Gum, but Tracey’s character definitely pushes the stereotypes of black women out of the water. Black women are usually portrayed as sassy, voluptuous, sexual beings and whilst Tracey is certainly sexually driven – she is also a virgin who doesn’t even really like penises (“pink balloon”). Sidney Fussell at Paste explains it best:

Black women have so long been accepted into pop culture primarily as sexual provocateurs that seeing a Black woman explicit in her failure to be a sexual queenpin is almost revelatory. Tracey leans into and explores a sexuality that’s weird, cartoonish, and ultimately doesn’t even involve penetrative sex…

Tracey, most of the time, has no idea what she is doing. Okay, screw that – all of the time. But it doesn’t deter her. She looks to Beyonce for advice, and dives headfirst into any given situation. I think we could all use a little of Tracey’s faux confidence in our lives!

Though Chewing Gum has intrinsic themes of race, gender, class and sexuality – Coel is keen that she is representing the ‘London that I know’. What we see is a melting pot of different cultures, traditions and ethnicities, rather than a dialogue from someone who has never even lived on a council estate in their lives. Coel has lived it, and understands the communities, so although Chewing Gum sometimes feels surreal, it’s also incredibly authentic. 

Representations of council estates and the working class on British TV are pretty dismal. They are portrayed as depressing places, awash with grey. Coel takes the opposite approach to the estate which Tracey lives on the fictional Pensbourne Estate (somewhere around South East London). She talks about her deliberate use of primary colours throughout the estate, to give the place a warm and inviting feel. Everything is colourful and bright including the characters who Tracey interacts with. The estate is a community who help each other and need one another. There’s a wonderful humanity throughout Chewing Gum, especially in scenes in Candice’s Nan’s flat. There’s a sense that there is always something going on, schemes being hatched, relationships being built. Coel has turned the stereotype of the British Council Estate on it’s head, turning it into a warm, inviting home with a solid community living there. 

Tracey and Candice’s friendship is another interesting dynamic in Chewing Gum. The two girls could not be more dissimilar (Tracey alludes to Candice having the looks and her the brains, so it’s all okay) but they definitely raise the bar as far as on-screen female friendships go. Tracey has a second home at Candice’s, a first home as well when her Mum kicks her out when she finds out about Tracey and Connor’s ‘sinful’ relationship. Though it doesn’t work out living at Candice’s (lesson here is never, ever live with your best friends because you won’t be for long), Candice and Tracey always have each other’s best interests at heart. Candice may be sexually experienced, but she doesn’t judge Tracey for her lack of knowledge in that department. Tracey is also more than happy to give Candice advice on just about anything – whether she is an expert or not.

In the last episode of season 2, Candice and her boyfriend Aaron go through a pretty tumultuous  break-up which climaxes in Aaron cutting off Candice’s hair as she sleeps. Candice, someone who prides herself on her hair, make-up and general aesthetic, is understandably devastated. It’s one of those comedic yet sensitive moments that Chewing Gum manages to pull off so well.  In the final scene of the series, Tracey shows up to a christening on the Estate having chopped her hair off too, in an attempt to make Candice feel better. The two of them embrace each other, short hair on show to the world. This is about as sentimental as Chewing Gum gets, but it shows Tracey for the kind, loving person she is. 

Coel bases much of Tracey’s character on her own life, Chewing Gum actually came from a semi autobiographical stage play written and performed by Coel. It gets a bit hard to know where one ends and the other begins with Coel and Tracey as so many of the outrageous things that happen to Tracey really did happen to Coel. Yes, even accidentally going to a swingers party. Wherever the line is drawn, though, we should be eternally grateful to Coel for bringing Tracey and Chewing Gum into our lives.

Tracey is the feminist hero we both deserve and need.

Time of the Month: AMY SANTIAGO (BROOKLYN 99)

Oh Amy. Beautiful, naive Amy Santiago. Possibly television’s funniest geeky geek, with a heart of gold and a head of ambition.

On the one hand, Amy Santiago (played by Melissa Fumero) fits neatly into a trope which appears in almost every situational comedy show – the overly ambitious woman who takes everything a bit too seriously. In the past, they’ve been portrayed as shrill, as stuck up, as … boring, quite frankly. However, nowadays the world has moved on a bit and (finally) realised that women can care about their careers and also enjoy themselves too. Amy Santiago, as a motivated career gal, is in wonderful company. She’s comparable to Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope (which is hardly surprising as Mike Schur is the brain behind both Parks and Brooklyn). They both share high ambitions, they adore their jobs and co-workers and are both unique in their own special (very special) way.

One of the most wonderful things about Amy Santiago, though, is just how much her character changes and grows throughout the series – whilst also managing to stay completely true to herself and her goals. So let’s talk about why Amy is the greatest, and why we would all secretly love to be Jake Peralta (and not just so we could behave like five year olds and get away with it).

If Brooklyn 99 was a lesser show (or perhaps was written in the 1990s), Jake Peralta would be the audience stand in. We would identify ourselves with him – the cheeky, yet charming ‘bad’ boy who always manages to save the day. Instead of focusing solely on Jake’s journey and character, B99 allows for a fuller and richer ensemble cast, meaning that other characters are also not reduced to their stereotypes. Amy Santiago would traditionally be Jake’s ‘nemesis’ – solely due to her competitive nature and her desire to succeed in her job. Whilst Jake and Amy tease each other often, it comes from a place of love and support. In this way, we also identify with Amy, and can understand her motivations and individual desires too. Unlike other sitcoms which always ultimately end up objectifying a (usually lone) female character through the eyes of the male protagonist (Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory… etc etc) Brooklyn 99 avoids this completely. Even when Jake and Amy begin dating, she is never portrayed as a sex object or as someone for Jake to attain (it totally helps that Jake is a feminist). Regardless of whether they date, are co-workers or friends, they are both still individuals.

So what makes Amy’s character so great to watch? For a start, her sheer determination. Whatever the task is, Amy Santiago will throw herself into it with 110%. Even jobs that she might not be that suited for (the time she went undercover in prison as a pregnant criminal), Amy wants to prove that she can handle it. And yes, she partly wants to prove herself to Holt, but it often turns out that Amy needs to prove it to herself more. Though confident in her abilities behind a desk, Amy routinely pushes herself to do things that are out of her comfort zone.

We also see this amazing, and hilarious progression between Amy, Gina and Rosa throughout the series. Though the three of them are certainly acquaintances, both Gina and Rosa are not the easiest people to befriend. In comparison to Amy’s need to please everyone around her, Rosa’s main goal is to be as un-emotionally unavailable with the people around her as possible. Likewise, Gina (who is one the greatest characters to ever grace our screens, but we will leave this for another post) can be a bit stand-offish, especially to Amy. Rosa makes an important point in season 1 however, about how the women of the precinct need to have each others backs in such a heavily male dominated environment. And whilst the three of them may not always see eye to eye (Amy’s constant stream of positivity regularly rubs Rosa up the wrong way), there are several moments of wonderful friendship between them.

One of these comes in Season 3, when Amy approaches Gina to give her some advice with an idea she has had for a new flashlight mount. It shows how far Gina and Amy have come in their friendship and that Amy understands the importance of asking for help when she needs it. With their combined talents (Amy’s product and Gina’s showmanship), they produce an incredible pitch. It’s Amy’s ability to let go of always having to be right and to allow someone else to give her help when she needed it, that shows how much she has grown. The purchasing department of the NYPD decide not to buy the product, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the wonderful collaboration of two very different, very wonderful people. It’s not dissimilar to the time (in ‘Beach House’) where Gina decides to get Amy very, very drunk just to witness the 5 Stages of Drunk Amy Santiago (or 5 Drink Amy). Though partly just for the comedy, Gina also does this to let Amy have some fun and let her hair down – something that she perhaps needs to do a little more often.

Of course, we can’t end this post without acknowledging Amy’s ethnicity and the fact that she completely bucks the stereotypical portrayal of Latin American women on TV. Amy is hardworking, brave, introverted and comically fearful of overt displays of sexuality – something which goes against all of the harmful tropes normally attributed to Latina characters. It’s important to note, because it proves that television can focus on a character’s individual desires and personality without always boiling them down to a stereotype. And if Brooklyn 99 can do this (and it does it so well with ALL of it’s characters) then there’s no excuse for other show-runners out there.

We love you Amy. Even if you can’t handle hot sauce.

Time of the Month: B’ELANNA TORRES (ST: VOYAGER)

Let’s talk about Star Trek: Voyager. I wrote some of my dissertation on Voyager, and I still maintain that it is one of the most progressive series of all time, and certainly one of the most progressive Star Trek series.

We are all aware of how ground breaking and ceiling shattering the original Star Trek is. I could go into great detail about just how ahead of it’s time the original series was by American, Japanese and Russian crew members all sharing equal responsibilities at the helm of the ship, in a series that aired in the 1960s. Or introducing one of the first black women to have an onscreen role as a qualified scientist and communications expert, not as a maid or servant. Or how forward looking Gene Roddenberry was to try and envision a world of global peace despite creating the series during the Cold War – an era of fear and global distrust. Yeah, we could go into that, but that’s not why we are here today.

We are here to celebrate one of the greatest characters on Star Trek: Voyager – B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson). Originally a part of Chakotay’s crew, B’Elanna and the rest of the Maquis reluctantly join Janeway’s crew on Voyager in the first episode, as they are stranded in the Delta quadrant. Lightyears from home (no exaggeration, they are roughly 75 years from Earth), the two crews are forced together – despite the fact that Voyager’s original mission was to apprehend the Maquis and bring them home. The two opposing sides have to join together in order to navigate their way back, through a quadrant so far uncharted by Starfleet.

So it’s a rocky start. B’Elanna is the Maquis ship engineer and would quite like it to stay that way. She’s slightly hot headed, has a quick temper but she is incredibly good at her job. Typically, in sci-fi or otherwise, engineer’s have always been a male fronted profession. So it’s a very welcome surprise when Janeway selects B’Elanna to be the ship’s Chief Engineer, placing the (male) Starfleet engineer as her second in command. This is a bold move. Women are rarely given “important” jobs or roles in science fiction, at least not until fairly recently. It’s regularly argued that Voyager actually paved the way for women to be involved in sci-fi in a much more prominent way, and the case of both Captain Janeway and B’Elanna, that is certainly true.

B’Elanna securing the role of Chief of Engineering sees her overcome the odds because of two things. Firstly, that she is female and secondly, that she is part Klingon. The Klingons, traditionally enemies of StarFleet, have reconciled with the human race by the time Voyager is set and so it is not ‘out and out’ racism directed at B’Elanna. She is, however, subjected to stereotypes that other crew members point out about the Klingon race. There is still stigma attached to being Klingon, and B’Elanna probably feels this prejudice worse because she is also a woman. Klingon’s exhibit traditionally masculine characteristics – you know, aggressive, intelligent, enjoy a good fight, that sort of thing. Though Voyager tries its damn hardest to come across as ‘post-gender’ (Captain Janeway’s refusal to be called “Sir” or “mam”, simply “Captain”), the show is still making a very critical point by giving the Chief of Engineering role to B’Elanna over her competitor: a white man. B’Elanna’s background means that she is at a unique intersection. She is a biracial feminine character and talented scientist, leader and engineer, who is logical, rational and highly intelligent.   However, her Klingon side is far more irrational, aggressive and ‘masculine. B’Elanna, quite literally, has two separate sides inhabiting her body – as explored in the season 1 episode ‘Faces’ (which we’ll discuss in a minute).

From the start, we understand that B’Elanna is probably going to go through some identity struggles throughout the show – possibly amplified by the fact that she is a woman too. Typically, characters who are part-human and part-*insert alien species here* tend to have narratives where they explore what that really means to them, and how they navigate it. Spock, Worf and Seven of Nine, Data and the Doctor (the latter two being human programmed holograms/androids)  all have in depth episodes exploring their identities.

B’Elanna is no different. In ‘Faces’, B’Elanna is physically separated into her two identities. An alien race, the Vidians, believe that they can cure a disease which ails their race by using Klingon DNA. They successfully kidnap and separate B’Elanna into two bodies – one of which is entirely human, the other of which is Klingon. Klingon B’Elanna has strength and courage, but is unruly and uncontrollable. Human B’Elanna is unconfident and scared, but is rational and patient. Though the two halves only meet towards the end, Human B’Elanna is convicted in her utter hatred for Klingon B’Elanna. She tells Tom Paris how she has spent her life trying to suppress her Klingon side, and we can see the whole episode as a physical manifestation of B’Elanna’s deep rooted identity issues. ‘Faces’ is probably the best episode in season 1 – and Dawson is fantastic as both the human and Klingon B’Elanna.

At the end of the episode, when B’Elanna is back to normal, she concludes to herself that, ‘I just have to accept the fact.. That I’ll spend the rest of my life fighting her’ (‘her’ being Klingon-B’Elanna). Throughout ‘Faces’, B’Elanna expresses a clear preference for her human side, but there is the small revelation that without her Klingon identity she would never have been able to escape the Vidians, or save her friends. We can see her ‘biraciality’ is overwhelmingly a good thing, but she has yet to learn that.

Though Faces’ is probably the closest we get to dissecting B’Elanna’s identity, there are several other moments where we get glimpses into how complex she really is, and her relationships with other crew members – notably Captain Janeway.

In ‘Dreadnought’, a deadly machine that B’Elanna programmed herself before Voyager’s arrival in the quadrant, is set to destroy Voyager and millions of people on nearby planets.  B’Elanna’s actions in programming the Dreadnought show how far she has come since her days on the Maquis crew ship, before joining Voyager. Despite her not being at fault, B’Elanna takes it upon herself to board the Dreadnought and attempt to stop the machine before it kills everyone. Her desire to save the Federation crew overrides the pride she has in re-programming the machine in the first place (a feat admired by most of the crew). As B’Elanna attempts to change the Dreadnought’s trajectory, her own pre-programmed security voice speaks to her – she essentially ends up arguing with her past self  via the Dreadnought. The whole situation is allegorical of B’Elanna’s changes in identity; Klingon to human, Maquis to Federation.

Interestingly, as in ‘Dreadnought’, B’Elanna and Janeway often disagree on the best way to tackle a problem. Whilst Starfleet regulation is pretty clear that Starfleet is not a democracy and the Captain dictates the orders, Janeway appropriately twists this rule when necessary. It’s important to note that Janeway respects and supports B’Elanna in her decisions (we can especially see this in ‘Dreadnought’), and to recognise that Janeway is a white woman who commands the respect of the crew, whereas B’Elanna is a mixed race woman (Roxann Dawson is also Latino) who has a troubled past. It’s an important symbol of the ‘equality’ that Voyager tries to portray.

In a lot of sci-fi/action films or television series, the ‘tough girl’ trope is regularly employed. B’Elanna seems to fit this trope – she is undeniably tough, she is a leader and she has a lot of traits that we understand as typically masculine. The ‘tough girl’ (also known as the ‘strong female character’) denies herself any kind of femininity, and constantly seeks to prove to the audience that women are just as capable as men, essentially becoming ‘pseudo-men’. B’Elanna definitely starts out as a ‘tough girl’,  but seems to move away from the stereotype later in the series. She starts to understand herself and allow herself to feel emotions – as is evident with her relationship with Tom Paris. She is proof of the multi-dimensionality that female characters can have – she can be a terrific leader, engineer, lover, friend and eventually mother too. B’Elanna isn’t defined by any one of these roles, she encompasses all of them.

Basically, B’Elanna Torres is probably the most underrated character in Voyager (and quite possibly the entire Star Trek universe). Thoughts?

Time of the Month: PATSY (AB FAB)

Let’s get one thing absolutely straight. Patsy  is a vile, disgusting, rude and absolutely horrendous human being. However, she is also an icon in every sense of the word and we all still want to be her. Despite her lack of any discernible career, her colourful language and uncertain actual identity – Patsy represents what we all kind of secretly want to have. Freedom.

Absolutely Fabulous is a pretty strong contender for funniest British comedy series of all time. Beginning in the early 90s, Ab Fab details the day to day lives of prosecco loving fashionistas Eddie and Patsy (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley respectively). Despite being in their 40s (don’t mention that!) and Eddie having an almost adult daughter, the two of them spend their time on all day benders, shopping in New York, ‘doing lunch’, taking ecstasy and all manner of other frivolities. They both behave like teenagers most of the time, which of course is the underlying punchline. Saffy (Julia Sawalha), Eddie’s daughter, acts like the parent scolding and scoffing at the two of them whilst Eddie and Patsy behave like overgrown 17 year olds on a Friday night. The series is based in London (‘Holland Park, not Shepherds Bush darling’) and focuses mostly on the misdemeanors and hilarious situations that the two women find themselves in. The series has gone on in one shape or another until today, and the Absolutely Fabulous movie is out now in the UK. It’s getting mixed reviews – so I thought I’d get in some good nostalgia in before the memory of the show is ruined forever.

So why Patsy and not Eddie? Eddie Monsoon (yes Eddie has a surname, and Patsy does not), is a semi-accomplished fashion something (we are never really sure what her job is). She got rich quite young, had 2 children (it was the fashion at the time), got two divorces and is now living a lavish and very comfortable lifestyle. Despite Saffy and Eddie’s comically reverse relationship – there are real moments of love between them (often punctured by Patsy). Eddie is an interesting character but she is motivated by two things – glamour and attention. Everything that Eddie does, every action she makes is either to be more fabulous or to get more attention. In one of the early episodes, Eddie begins banging pots, mugs and kettles in the kitchen to try and get Saffy’s attention. She is, for lack of a better description, a five year old in a forty year olds body. That’s not to say that Eddie isn’t interesting – she very much is. However, it is the mysterious Patsy who we all dream to be like, who is such an icon of British television.

The Eddie and Patsy relationship can almost be seen as those two voices that most of us have inside our heads. The head and the heart. What you should do vs what you want to do. Eddie is, though almost permanently intoxicated, a successful business fashionista with a family, a home and a lifestyle that she’s worked hard for. Eddie has to deal with motherhood (the hangup of the ‘having it all’ 80s), the fact that she is a little bit chubby and that she has responsibilities. Patsy, on the other hand, is the very definition of a free agent. If you want to really analyse the dynamic between the two of them, you can almost see it as the difference between certain ideas about feminism. Eddie wants ‘it all’, and has ultimately paid the price and is pretty unhappy when she isn’t off her tits on bolly. Patsy, on the other hand, has been continually self serving, has ignored the calls from society for women to have careers, families and the rest, and is living for herself alone. I mean, it’s hard to say whether she is ‘happy’, but she is a great deal more comfortable in her own skin than Eddie is.

The other thing we should really talk about (though I know Patsy wouldn’t want us to) is Patsy: the older woman. True to societal ideals, Patsy is disgusted at the idea of being old and refuses to acknowledge that her and Eddie might be ever so slightly older than 31. There is a constant running joke that no-one actually knows how old Patsy is, but we are inclined to believe she is at least in her 50s. The vast majority of women above 50 are either portrayed as maternal figures (mothers or grandmothers) or simply do not exist. Once women reach a certain age, they become invisible in society and this is largely due to their almost non-existent representation on the small or big screen (Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep are just two people who have spoken on this). Even if they do exist, it is unlikely to be in any capacity which celebrates and acknowledges their sexuality or femininity. Patsy, in complete opposition to what is expected of a woman over the age 45, positively thrives on sexuality alone. She is confident in her own style and body and attracts men wherever she goes. Whether she is dressed to go moshing at a gig, or ready for shopping in New York – Patsy is absolutely unapologetic about feeling fabulous. Not despite her age, because of it. It’s very rare to see a woman (especially an older woman) who has no insecurities about herself or sex. Whilst Eddie is constantly trying to change the way she looks (through minimal exercise and dreams of liposuction), Patsy doesn’t give a fuck.

Despite her outward vitriol to anyone who isn’t Eddie (and sometimes Eddie too!), Patsy has moments of vulnerability. They are far and few between, but they do happen. In one particularly memorable episode, Patsy is concerned about a letter from her doctor encouraging her to ‘check herself’ and seeks the advice of Saffy, who ends up examining Patsy herself. Of course the punchline comes when Mrs M (Eddie’s mother, Saffy’s grandmother) walks past the open door and witnesses Saffy and Patsy in what looks like an awkward tryst. Patsy’s abject disgust of Saffy, though, is put aside for a few short minutes, proving that Patsy has emotions and feelings beneath her cold, shiny veneer.

Patsy is, quite simply, a fucking icon. Everyone has a Patsy in their life and if you don’t – you need to find one. Whilst they certainly won’t guarantee stability or a shoulder to cry on, you’ll always be in for a fantastic ride.

 

Absolutely Fabulous The Movie is out now in cinemas across the UK!

Time of the Month: ALICIA FLORRICK (THE GOOD WIFE)

This will be the first instalment of a series of posts entitled Fab Female Characters (until I think of a better name, ideas welcome!) where I talk about an influential/well developed female character from a film or TV series. Mostly because having a regular series will help motivate me to actually write more often on this blog… Continue reading “Time of the Month: ALICIA FLORRICK (THE GOOD WIFE)”