Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself: you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.
But here’s the thing: I fucking loved Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a sympathetic character, but that’s not the same as her actually being unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we need to do that, because it’s what we are.
But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even see in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.
And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where the audience is still encouraged to like them when they are.
Returning to Orphan Black, for instance, if Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to Swordfish, Death Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet, her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.
So I clicked on this review today and I got as far as
I’m talking of course about the disgusting scene where Emma Swan, our strong, independent heroine, BROKE DOWN IN TEARS over Neal.
and then I near about lost my fucking shit.
YES, HENRY IS EMMA’S SON.
You’re right. It is about more than who gave birth to him — and she has done more than just give birth to him. She made him happy, when he was miserable. She let him believe in the one thing that gave him hope, the one thing that gave him joy, when certain people were trying to convince him and everybody else that he was insane. Emma included him, Emma did everything for him. She left a stable job and a safe place to live, put her entire life on hold for Henry, just to make sure he was happy and safe and had a good life. Once she saw that he wasn’t? She stayed with him. And once she saw that she was potentially making a negative impact on Henry’s life — once she saw that staying in Storybrooke and conflicting with Regina was hurting Henry — she was willing to leave. She almost died, even for that effort. Later on, Emma almost died to save Henry’s life.
Emma is Henry’s mother. Emma may not have been there for the first ten years of his life, but in case you didn’t know — she had no choice in that decision. I’ve said it a million times over, but I’m gonna reiterate it again — a woman in prison can. not. keep. her. child. She can’t just raise them in prison. She could give the child to a friend or family, but in case you hadn’t noticed — she didn’t exactly have that. She could have given Henry to Ne— oh, wait. He wasn’t around either. Well… there was always the system… but then again, that was the place that basically tortured Emma her entire life. She could have adopted Henry out in an open adoption, true. But she wanted Henry to get adopted as soon as possible, she wanted Henry to go to a loving family as soon as possible, and a closed adoption provided that.
Jesus, what is with people putting down Emma as Henry’s mother? This debate is getting ridiculous. Emma is Henry’s mother. Regina is also Henry’s mother.
Get over it.