Compassionate Heroines: The Exceptions

In a previous post, I mention that the compassionate heroine can be rather exasperating. I list Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary as an awesome exception.

Here are a few more:

Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation: Troi  marks the line between irritating "oh, Captain, I feel their pain" emphathizer and a strong women who sincerely wants to help people. Barclay's view of her in "Hollow Pursuits" is a good example of how Troi could be played (and viewed). My personal assessment is that Troi survives as a character despite the Barclay possibility not because she is tough (Joan Watson) but rather because she is fallible.

Barclay's Vision
So she gets exasperated with her mother (multiple episodes), angry when she loses her abilities ("The Loss"), bemused by Barclay (multiple episodes), unyielding and even ambitious when she handles the bridge successfully ("Disaster"), silly about a crush ("The Price"), and irritated when she's drunk (see First Contact).

Her fallible side becomes clear when one compares her to Kess from Star Trek: Voyager. I quite liked Kess's character (and I really loved the way she dressed), but she had a shelf-life. Bad things could happen to her--but Kess herself was so perfectly sweet and tolerant and understanding that she kind of, yeah, totally needed to be replaced by a snarky Borg chick (there is a great episode where older Kess comes back and destroys the ship because she felt abandoned by Captain Janeway and . . . then everybody is saved by sweet Kess).

You see Turrell Baylor in hell, you
ask him what I wouldn't dare to do.
Brenda Lee Johnson from The Closer: Brenda is a strong emphathizer--it's what makes it possible for her to understand
the bad guys and their victims. She also extends sincere and unqualified compassion to, for example, victim's families, including a victim's crazy chef husband; Stana Katic's Russian ex-prostitute; Flynn's sex-changing cop friend, and her cat (and occasionally Fritz, her husband).

What makes Brenda so delightful (on the screen) is the streak of pure self-centeredness that runs through her personality. She empathizes with people right up to the point when she gets exactly what she wants from them. She is sure of her path/cause--to the point of being possibly the most tunneled-vision protagonist on television. She would be absolutely unbearable in reality. On-screen, she's great to watch since she is willing to get inside people's souls in order to take them down (to be fair, she doesn't care if her decision to get people to confess rips her apart emotionally). From a feminist point of view, she is relief to watch since her compassion never negates her principles: men are often allowed to have principles that trump all else; women  . . . not so much.

Judy Hopps from Zootopia: Judy is actually an adorkable optimist. However, I placed her here because it is her outsized compassion that gets her into trouble--then gets her out. She is initially easily conned; she goes through a period of disillusionment because people aren't what she expected them to be; she makes promises to a victim's family that she may not be able to keep; she reaches for an easy, so-called compassionate answer regarding the "savage" animals rather than a harder, more complicated one; she gives up because she hurt people.

On the other hand, compassion and empathy are her strengths. Her commitment to help the victims pushes her to keep looking; she figures out how Nick thinks and successfully anticipates his attempts to wriggle out of helping her (okay, she didn't see the sloths at the DMV coming--ha ha); she reaches out to others (including the local mafia boss and his daughter); she extends magnanimity to her childhood bully; she sees things through others' eyes and apologizes for her mistakes.

"You know you love me," Nick says to her at the end.

"Do I know that?" she replies. "Yes, yes, I do."


FreeLiveFree said...

Of all the characters, the one I'm most familiar with is Troi and then it's been years. Though I do remember that scene from the Barclay episode like it was yesterday. I have seen an episode or two of the closer.

The interesting thing you said about Troi being fallible. It does make her human. I never like Kess, but there wasn't really a lot I liked about Voyager.

The thing about the Closer (going from what you said.) If she wasn't willing to choose principals over compassion she couldn't do her job.

Katherine Woodbury said...

In the Golden Age mystery Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, a professor is being hounded by the wife of a male lecturer who committed academic fraud, then ended his life when the fraud was exposed, he lost his job and could no longer support his family.

A Research Fellow, Miss de Vine (she is "Miss," not Professor--this is 1935) brought the academic fraud to light; she was on the committee that determined that the man lost his position as a lecturer. His wife blames her specifically.

In the final chapters, Harriet, one of the novel's detectives, tells Miss de Vine that she, Miss de Vine, did the right thing. Miss de Vine agrees--the man committed fraud and couldn't be given tenure (or the equivalent). But Miss de Vine goes on: another female professor, Miss Lydgate, would also have reported the fraud and refused the man tenure, but she would have gone on to find out about his family situation and to help them cope with the loss of his position--she is that kind of person. Miss de Vine, on the other hand, never even considered the man's personal life.

Harriet agrees that the Miss Lydgates of the world are rather unique individuals.

Miss de Vine's decision isn't the issue--if a man made the same decision, nobody would lift an eyebrow. It is her decision plus her being a woman that raises the crazy wife's hackles (and the reason she pursues Miss de Vine despite there having been men on the committee).

There is still a feeling, especially within academe, that female professors/instructors may not necessarily be nicer about grades but should certainly be more motherly and understanding.

Which is not to say that weird assumptions don't follow around male professors--and men in other positions! They just aren't the same assumptions.

There have been changes in our society--the trope of the passive woman waiting to be rescued has lost whatever juice it ever had. But the belief that a woman should be caring still clings to the gender. Many of my male and female students, for instance, like Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU--she is tough (doesn't need to be rescued) but she also cares! She'll do everything she can for a kid in a bad situation. She cares until it hurts!

Brenda also cares, right up until she puts the same kid in jail for breaking the law. Even I'll admit that Brenda is much easier to like as a character than as a person. (I feel the same way about Kojak.)

Generally speaking, I find that as a woman I have to be a tad careful about whom I point out to that caring for its own sake is kind of self-indulgent, especially if all it produces is a bunch of bumper stickers on a car.

FreeLiveFree said...

I used to listen to a political commentator who used to say "men need to be brave, women loving." He talked about women being loving enough I decided he was probably pretty needy.

I never thought much of bumper sticker philosophy.

It would be interesting to talk about heroines who aren't particularly compassionate. Is there ways to make them sympathetic?

Katherine Woodbury said...

Okay--this is kind of a weird example because she is a real person but Kari from Mythbusters rarely plays the compassionate role; Tori and Grant are more likely to adopt that role, especially since Kari is infinitely more skeptical than both of them.

Early on in Mythbusters, she was one of several women--all competent and fairly attractive--working mostly with Jamie. I was rewatching Season 1 or 2 recently and wondered, "So how did Kari end up on the Build team (instead of the other women)?" Grant was brought in specifically for the team. And Tori was the only other main guy who did building (plus all the stunts Adam couldn't do because of the insurance). I'm glad Kari got chosen--but why?

And then Kari and Jamie go to scout out the location for Elevator of Death. They are walking around in this empty, spooky building, and Kari says, almost off-handedly, "Well, you're here, Jamie, so should we start filming the horror movie now?"

And I thought, Yeah, that's why.