Thursday, September 27, 2012

My definition of feminist female characters and Dr. Temperance Brennan

One of my favorite shows is Bones. And Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan and has a lot to do with that. While some (very few) have taken issue with her character because of her social awkwardness, I think one of the show's strengths is that is presents us with complicated characters and that it shows the people, both women and men, do not have to be perfect in order to be effective at their work and capable of having a positive influence on the world.
My intent is not to pretend like there's some sort of revolt against Bones (there's not), but rather to use a show I really like to demonstrate one example of what a strong female character can look like.
I believe that for characters to be passably feminist (by my definition, not any kind of official one), they need to be consistently shown to be as smart as the men around them, as independent of thought, as complex in character, and as strong willed. For them to be actively feminist, they need to be better than the men around them in at least one category. I don't, however, believe women need to be especially powerful in their societies to be feminist. Otherwise, it would be impossible to write a feminist narrative set in a male-dominated society. For example, even though women are not included in the business world of The Godfather, I would consider Kay Adams to be a feminist character though I won't say why here because I don't want to spoil the movies (though I will say so here; also, watch the movies). Similarly, while I haven't seen The Help (though I've heard I really should), I would imagine that the characters would satisfy most feminists based on what I've heard about it.
From the get-go, Dr. Brennan is portrayed as the smartest and most respected person at the lab. While there's a chance that Zack Addy may be smarter, he is less developed in his skills and is intimidated by Dr. Brennan, as are most of the characters in the show. Bones is "hyper-rational", and her thoughts are always coherent. She is consistently capable of separating her own bias from an investigation and seeing it objectively, even when understanding why evidence would point to her as the perpetrator of a crime. Bones is knowledgeable of many fields (if not pop culture) and is a trained martial artist, but, more importantly, she is shown as a tireless worker who can consistently get things done.
The main argument I have seen as to why Dr. Brennan is not a feminist character is that she is not socially adept. One writer has argued:
Dr. Brennan is depicted as being almost robotic or emotionless in the show, which could very well be due to the perception of women as being unable to posses both intelligence/a high career drive and have empathy. It is almost as if she sacrificed her emotions in place of her intelligence and career, making her undesirable.
Wouldn't it be more robotic and generic if Dr. Brennan somehow managed to be perfect in every way? She is someone who deals with recently murdered victims for a living. It seems like the kind of career that would require someone to be able to control their emotions rigorously, and in the first season's "A Boy in a Bush", both Angela and Zack struggle emotionally to deal with the sight of a young child's corpse, and the episode shows how objective and, yes, emotionless they have to become to be able to handle the job. To me, this is not anti-feminist but realistic. As one commenter writes here, Dr. Zack Addy "was the male version of Bones, and had virtually the same personality characteristics, so I don’t think that showing her as socially out of step is a statement on intelligent women." Moreover, each major character in the show has visible flaws and shortcomings. The show doesn't say that a woman, specifically, can't have everything together but rather that no one can.
In Bones, all of the characters have flaws and shortcomings that are essential to the understanding of their character. Identity is a very important issue in Bones. By solving crimes, the Jeffersonian allows victims to get their identities back. Brennan, meanwhile, is firmly committed to the idea of individuality and expresses her strong opposition to the changing on one's physical features.
On plastic surgery, she says:
"It's barbaric. It's painful. It's wrong. This murder victim may never be identified because this glorified barber with a medical degree had the arrogance to think that he could do better than millenia of evolution." 
"What this young woman did to herself. It's like she completely removed her identity." 
Plastic Surgeon: "I made her beautiful."
Brennan: "You mean you took what was unique and particular about her and destroyed it."
"She did everything she could to make herself beautiful. And all she did was make herself more invisibile."
"We are born unique. Our experiences mold and change us...I feel like we should be arresting these doctors because whether they killed her or not, they still erased her."
Isn't that kind of commitment to individuality enough to justify someone's awkwardness in the minds of viewers?
Besides, it's not as if the show is suggesting that all smart women have social issues. Cam and Angela are both portrayed as very intelligent and seem much more at ease in social settings than Dr. Brennan. And when Agent Seeley Booth has a serious girlfriend Hannah, who serves as Bones's romantic rival, she is portrayed as smart, intelligent, and driven, and she and Dr. Brennan have a substantial amount of respect for each other.
I have a lot of appreciation for how the creators of the show have managed to create full-bodied, interesting characters and have managed to create strong female characters whose supposed weaknesses come across as human and individual rather than indicative of female incapability.

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