The Compassionate Heroine (Who is Cool, for a Change)

Pollyanna is more the adorkable optimist than
the empathizer. Still, one can't help but worry
that Pollyanna will grow up to hand over
thousands of dollars to real estate fraudsters.
A common stereotype--occasionally archetype (see prior posts)--is the emotional, people-oriented heroine versus the grouchy, logical, people-eschewing hero.

There is some (minor) truth to this dichotomy. Generally speaking, more women than men tend to enter people-oriented professions. Ponder-worthy enough, women also move more easily between fact or "thing"-based jobs and people-based jobs while men tend to excel at one particular type of job. So men tend to rise to the tops of certain professions but they don't always prove as flexible as women when it comes to changing careers/roles.

Troi, on the other hand, is definitely an empathizer.
Still, these are macro, not micro observations. At the micro level, there are men who easily change careers and there are men who love people-oriented professions, just as there are women who loathe them.

My focus here: the compassionate heroine who shows up to remind all the non-nice people how important it is to be nice. She is not ALWAYS awful (I will bring up some positive examples at a later date). Still, I often cringe a little when this heroine appears for the same reason that I cringe a little at church when people talk about women being more service-oriented than men because they "care" more about people's problems. I know exactly how service-oriented I am, and it rarely involves me wanting to climb inside people's personal lives and learn all about and/or fix their deep, dark secrets. (I often think, "Why can't we women be like the men and just clean people's garages?")

Which is why I have to give ultra kudos to Lucy Liu as Joan Watson.

Joan Watson's character on Elementary is people-oriented (as is Sherlock in a different way). She is also compassionate, empathetic, and more than ready to remind Sherlock of the importance of those attributes.

And yet, she is one tough cookie.

I hate to admit this, considering I was raised Christian, but Joan Watson's character is honestly the first time I have seen female compassion for others as a strength, not a weakness.

Yup, I'll admit that emotionally--not necessarily intellectually--I have almost always perceived compassion as something women should do/practice even though other people will take advantage. Don't get me wrong: the older I get, the more important I think compassion is though I still tend to prefer ordinary civility to "I feel your pain" empathy.

Still, as AI philosophers and neurologists point out, emotion is part of the decision-making process, and empathy plays an important role in that (macro) process--that is, human beings differ but the human race requires some type of trend towards projected insight/feeling to survive. (To clarify, "compassion" is to feel sorrow and/or want what is best for someone; "empathy" is to see things from that person's point of view; "magnanimity" is to extend compassion to someone despite that person's poor behavior. For the purposes of this post, I've conflated these terms.)

Yet Joan Watson manages to help/care about people without leaving the impression that she is about to get conned into buying a condo somewhere to help somebody earn enough money to pay for that very important operation without which his or her child/mother/aunt/grandpa will die.

Joan's compassion extends to Sherlock. In Season 2,
she sets aside his "debt" to his father to concentrate
on what is best for Sherlock: to stay in New York.
That is, she has the capacity to create boundaries, yet not give up on being kind. 

I'm not sure that Hollywood or television realizes how powerful this type of woman is to other women. When I was still watching NCIS (I tend to give up on shows that last more than 7 seasons), I was surprised and impressed by how many female viewers liked the show precisely because of Ziva's character. I've mentioned elsewhere that this was because she was a tomboy, which I think is true. But Ziva is also quite feminine and compassionate. And yet, like Joan Waston, she retains the ability to say, "Okay, I feel for you. Yet I'm going to arrest you. I'm also not going to give you my stuff or let you take over my life."

Which is very, very cool.


FreeLiveFree said...

"Generally speaking, more women than men tend to enter people-oriented professions. Ponder-worthy enough, women also move more easily between fact or "thing"-based jobs and people-based jobs while men tend to excel at one particular type of job. So men tend to rise to the tops of certain professions but they don't always prove as flexible as women when it comes to changing careers/roles."

This seems to with my personal experience that women do better in men's roles than men do in women's. There are exceptions, of course. Still it makes sense. In the old days, men often died doing the man things. In order to survive his widow had to take up the man's duties. Also a woman's work was a lot harder than anything most people male or female do today. Excluding the very rich, it was a lot harder to be a woman in the 1850s than a computer programmer nowadays. A lot of self-proclaim "real men" don't seem to understand that.

On the topic at hand, its very easy to make them very cloying. They become more annoying than anything else. There are exceptions. Troi was one. (Never seen Sherlock). Asami Sato from Legend of Korra is another.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I agree that Troi is an exception. Despite the silliness of some of her early dialog and story uses, Marina Sirtis managed to give Troi an aura of confidence and true kindliness with a faint touch of exasperation (having said that, it's even more fun to watch Troi go MEAN).

In any case, she's on my list for an upcoming post! My trouble right now is separating the adorkable optimists, who are often quite compassionate, from the unalloyed compassionate empathizers. As is often true, I find the first type easier to buy into than the idealized version.

FreeLiveFree said...

Interesting the other role I know Sirtis is the voice of Demona in the cartoon Gargoyles who is not very compassionate. She would claw your face off. Her clawing someones face off becomes a major plot point. In a kids carton. Made by Disney. (Jonathon Frakes had recurring role too. A lot of Star Trek actors did voices really.)

I think one of things that makes the empathizers hard to write is that still need have some resilience. But you can't make them too perfect or they become a Mary Sue.

To be honest the Pollyana types kind of annoy me.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Yeah, the Pollyannas can be annoying too. I guess what differentiates them from the pure empathizers for me is a sense of irony. It so often seems that empathizers, although they may have a sense of humor, have no sense of the ridiculous. So Willow in early Buffy is sweet and good-natured and optimistic. But she also has the capacity to get amused at the weirdness of life.

Of course, Willow ALSO has the capacity to rip people's faces off. Hmmm, maybe the key to Pollyannas, adorkable optimists, and empathizers is resilience and a (hidden) dark side. How much more interesting would Touched by An Angel have been if the viewer had never been quite sure if Monica (Roma Downey) was going to go all Old Testament and just blast someone!?

FreeLiveFree said...

Irony helps. I don't remember being annoyed by Willow.

You need resilience. The thing about hidden dark side is interesting. We don't really buy characters that don't have at least something of a dark side. Yet, at the same time when a character is revealed to have a hidden dark side fans will often claim they ruined the character.