In reading this Atlantic article on The Good Wife‘s big twist, this jumped out at me:
And television characters, especially women, often make decisions that keep them in the orbit of their love interests, even when it doesn’t make sense to what we know about them. For example, would a savvy political fixer like Olivia Pope on Scandal really risk her career to keep working on her lover Fitz’s presidential campaign? In the Veronica Mars movie, would Veronica—who spent three seasons of her show plotting how to escape her corrupt hometown of Neptune—really give up a stable life in New York City to return home and rekindle a romance with Logan? While “Olitz” and “LoVe” fans get to enjoy seeing their favorite couples together, it comes at the cost of diminishing Olivia and Veronica as believable characters.
I understand the bigger point that, in the context of these characters’ established desires and priorities, it’s jarring for them to change course for romance. Except that I’ve seen, first hand, the way that love can inspire people (male and female!) to dramatically revise their life plans. In that sense, the ability to adapt to a new emotional landscape (or simply shift priorities over time) is a realistic trait for a character.
While I agree with the article’s premise that TV needs more female characters whose lives don’t revolve solely around romance, I don’t think the answer is to gradually eliminate romance (or romantically-motivated life decisions) from female characters’ lives. Every time I see a debate about this, I heave a sigh and think wistfully of Joss Whedon’s two greatest creations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Even their secondary female characters are complex and interesting women, while other shows often reduce secondary female characters to nothing but their romantic story lines (or role as best friend).
Maybe TV shows feature strong romantic story lines not because of subtle sexism, but because romance is interesting. Joss Whedon knows how to walk that line between creating a romantic story line that gives a show spice, and creating characters whose sole existence is to generate romance. Characters like Willow, Kaylee, Zoe, and Anya are fully-formed people with skills, weaknesses, passions, flaws, and a host of lively pursuits besides love. But love is there, in all their story lines — which makes them more, not less, realistic.
In response to fans who’ve said they’d stop watching The Good Wife at the conclusion of a popular romantic story line, the author of the article writes, “After all, viewers don’t expect male protagonists like Don Draper or Walter White’s story arcs to be solely propelled by their love lives.” No, they don’t — but those love lives (Draper’s philandering and White’s family loyalty) do, in fact, play a very large role in those male characters’ lives. Those shows aren’t devoid of romance, nor are those male characters immune from its influence. Female characters don’t have to shed romantic story lines in order to prove that women can be as complex, interesting, and powerful as men. Having a romantic story line can actually help demonstrate that point…after all, love is part of the highly textured, realistic lives of many men and women.