Mild spoilers for Revenge up to 1.12 Infamy. When I refer to Emily, I refer to the protagonist of the show.
Every time I hear or read the phrase “strong female characters” I get flashbacks to Kate Beaton’s comic about it. Characters like Sarah Connor and Xena were pretty ground-breaking at the time for being bad-ass female protagonists, but it feels like pop culture hasn’t progressed very far in their definitions of what a bad-ass female character should be. Too often creators seem to believe that “bad-ass” means making a woman hold a gun and fighting rough while spouting sarcastic one-liners. There’s often no internal motivation or driving force behind that character besides “being bad-ass” (read: being a male fantasy and nothing else).
Revenge is a TV show (very) loosely based on the Count of Monte Cristo and features a female protagonist. I was delighted when I heard about the premise because Dumas is one of my favourite authors, but my delight turned to full-blown worship after I actually watched the show.
I think what elevates the show from “alright” to “exceptional” is how it avoids the common gender tropes for female bad-asses, and subverts many of them. When I really thought about it, I realised that most shows that purportedly had strong female protagonists usually engaged with at least one of the following tropes that would irritate me, yet Revenge hasn’t (yet). I’ve got my fingers crossed that the writers will continue to treat Emily (nee Amanda) with the awesome she deserves and not have me hastily retconning the content of this post.
To be clear, I don’t think the following tropes are problematic in isolation, but they’re macroproblematic representations of women, especially when media engages with more than one of them at a time. The issue is not the representation itself, but the fact that there are very few other representations of women:
1. Women are more emotional and sentimental.
Part of what the actress Emily VanCamp does beautifully is her portrayal of a single-minded, focused woman who is actually operating deep undercover. A lot of media fall into the trap of women being “fooled” by their own emotions while undercover, such as accidentally developing feelings for people they’re meant to dislike. I think the writers tried to incorporate this into the text, but I hope they gave up on it. VanCamp plays the duality perfectly – in one moment she is warm and friendly to her enemies, and in the next moment we see her coldly plotting their demise.
It’s refreshing to see a woman who is not sympathetic to sob stories and who can’t be swayed by appeals to her emotion. It is a male character, Nolan, who frequently has to play The Heart and moral compass to Emily’s scheming – to varying levels of success.
What’s even more heartening is the lack of emotional attachment to the consensual sex she has while undercover. Women who have sex with people they don’t love or even like are usually presented as having an unhealthy emotional motivation. She’s insecure. She’s lying to herself about her feelings. She wants to make someone else jealous.
In this case, Emily has sex with Daniel because it’s useful to her quest for revenge, and there’s nothing more to it. What we see instead is Daniel becoming attached to her after sex. Which makes sense given how Emily is deliberately plotting to attract him.
2. Women react to events rather than take initiative.
You are the Chosen One, go slay some vampires. Your son is going to lead a future rebellion, protect him. Something nasty is after you, pick up a gun. In many cases the actions of female protagonists are brought about by fight or die situations where characters have limited choices, and their only motivation is to stay alive.
Emily’s decision to exact a slow and terrible revenge on everyone in the Hamptons stem from her father’s death, but it’s hardly a forgone conclusion. Most of us would probably take the money and run. But rather than accepting the status quo, Emily takes initiative and makes plans to shape events and her world so it aligns with her beliefs. What’s exciting is watching events unfold as a direct manifestation of her will – a woman who has an impact on the world because she chooses to, not because she’s forced to.
3. Women are unable to achieve their goals without the help of others.
I’m a big fan of action movies where the lone wolf (or lone wolf plus side-kick/partner) trope is often invoked. Sadly there aren’t many female action heroes generally and the ones that do exist often do fall into the other tropes I’ve mentioned. Other portrayals of leading bad-ass women (Buffy and Veronica Mars for example) require them to receive help from their network of friends and allies — which is fine, but I’d love to see a female MacGyver, for example.
So far Emily has called in exactly two favours – everyone else she has manipulated, blackmailed or otherwise persuaded. She saves and navigates herself out of tricky situations – the favours she calls aren’t white knights or deus ex machina and still required a lot of her own scheming to work. While she receives assistance from Nolan, it’s clear that she initially doesn’t want it, will never ever need it, and probably doesn’t rely on it. Their dynamic seems to imply that she lets Nolan help as a favour to him, rather than as assistance to her.
It helps, of course, that she has a ridiculous amount of money. But so does Batman.
4. Women use sex to get what they want.
Emily is not a femme fatale. She has a sexual relationship with Daniel, but the sex is a byproduct of having that relationship. They have sex because she convinces him that they’re a romantic match and that she loves him; not because he’s suddenly lost all rationality because a woman wants to sleep with him.
Instead of overdone come-ons and seduction plots, we see Emily deftly using information and subterfuge to draw suspicion on others, and manipulating relationships to her advantage. It’s clear that she’s not only extremely intelligent, but also extremely competent. Too often we’re just told that a bad-ass female character is smart, only for the narrative to limit the demonstrations of her talents to her physical allure and nothing else.
Revenge subverts the femme fatale trope in many ways because the people we see wielding sexual power to manipulate others are men – Nolan and Tyler. Nolan seduces Tyler and makes a sex tape, Nolan is the the dinner date diversion while Emily blows shit up. Both are common plotlines would ordinarily be given to women.
And this is why Revenge is so compelling for me. The femme fatale story and the superspy story have already been told a thousand times – I don’t need to watch another iteration. But when you reverse the gender roles that story becomes different and infinitely more interesting. It highlights how much storytelling is about the choices of creators and that while certain choices are being made over and over to the point of needless repetition, other stories are being completely ignored.
I am a dyed-in-the-Tauntaun-hide Star Wars fangirl, and I have a confession to make. Slave Leia, by which I mean the geek culture meme that resulted from the original scene, makes me uncomfortable. For a long time, it has made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t articulate. But I think I’ve distilled out what is lurking beneath the surface of the Slave Leia cultural phenomenon, and unfortunately I think it’s problematic.
I want to make it clear that my problem is with the cultural trope only, not the individuals who dress up as Leia in this costume or the individuals who find it attractive. There is simply no way for us on the outside to know how those individuals are framing the situation. I believe that it is possible for individuals to choose to wear a Slave Leia costume with full awareness of the issues of sex slavery and with healthy reasons behind their decision to don the costume. Only each individual really knows whether their behaviour has healthy or unhealthy motivations, or whether they are being mindful of the context of their actions. Since I can’t know that, I’m not concerned with that. What concerns me is how this trope plays out in the aggregate, in geek culture as a whole. That’s what I think is problematic.
First, the meme makes me uncomfortable because the in-narrative context of Slave Leia is the humiliation of a female political leader. I’m not suggesting that wearing a bikini is humiliating – there’s nothing microproblematic about wearing a bikini. I am suggesting that being forced into slavery, forced to wear a bikini and shackled to a chain is supposed to be humiliating. It is, by the way, clearly sub-textually coded to be sexual slavery – as evidenced by the damn bikini.
Now, in the narrative Leia actually strangles Jabba with the very chain he uses to imprison her, which makes this – in the text – actually a bit of a triumph for Leia over those who seek to dominate and subjugate her! Go Leia! Cast off the shackles of oppression! I believe therefore that an argument can be made for the integrity of the scene itself, although I have seen no evidence that George Lucas really thought about it.
However, this triumph is not what the subsequent Slave Leia meme is about. The Slave Leia meme is about those glorious 150 seconds of bikini-clad stateswoman on a leash. Nobody draws sexy pictures of Leia strangling Jabba. Nobody makes anatomically-creative statues of Leia vanquishing her captor. Regardless of what Fangirl Blog says, when you see women in Slave Leia costume, you don’t see them strangling their oppressors (in fact, you see this instead). People make statues and fanart of Leia sitting in shackles. Virtually no references are ever made in media or in geek culture to the empowering part of the scene.
The focus is always on the gold bikini and the manacles and the chain – the tools of Leia’s forced submission. The focus is on how sexy Leia looks in the garb she was forced to wear as part of her subjugation. If this bikini were Leia’s personal choice for a pool party or a beach holiday, it would not be problematic for geek culture as a whole to collectively salivate over it and elevate it to a trope. But it isn’t her choice. This bikini is the outfit chosen for Leia by the males who forced her into slavery.
I also want to note that the real-life context of the original scene with Carrie Fisher is also all kinds of skeevy. From the Star Wars wiki: “Fisher herself also found the costume to be difficult to endure and referred to it as “what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell.” Fisher also said it was particularly revealing to the cast and crew around her. In particular Jeremy Bulloch, the actor who played Boba Fett, could see more of the actress than she was comfortable with. In an interview years later, she said, “if you stood behind me you could see straight to Florida. You’ll have to ask Boba Fett about that.””
The meme of Slave Leia pretends to be coyly ignorant of its origins. We as a community like to pretend it’s just popular because it’s a “girl in a bikini” moment. But it if you stop and think about it for half a minute, you should see that it is way more problematic than that (as I just outlined above). So either we have a fanbase full of people who have a strong aversion to any form of introspection, or we collectively have an alarming willingness to gloss over the fact that the costume is a reference to sexual slavery.
I say the meme “pretends” to be ignorant of the origins of Slave Leia because it seems to me that everyone knows the slavery aspect of the whole thing is not a neutral force here. Some of the cosplay doesn’t bother to pretend Leia is in control in the meme version of Slave Leia. Indeed, again from the Star Wars wiki: “During a broadcast from Celebration IV, Spike television personality Nicole Malgarini (wearing the Slave Leia costume herself) referred to Fite [webmaster of Leia’s Metal Bikini] as the “slavemaster” and “the pimp ofStar Wars.” Oh great, that’s not harmful at all. Nothing problematic about that. Let’s trivialise slavery by flippantly referring to it as though it’s sexy rather than one of the worst things a human being can experience. Oh and while we’re at it, let’s flippantly refer to “pimps” as though that’s a big damn joke too. Good job everyone.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: the Slave Leia meme is macroproblematic. We have a situation on our hands where one of the biggest nerd fantasies apparently involves at the very least a reference to forced sex slavery. It is concerning that the geek community doesn’t appear to give this two seconds of thought, and when we do, we find it appropriate to joke about slavemasters and pimps. If Slave Leia is seen as the hottest female geek cosplay costume, this literally means that the community recognises as the hottest girls those dressed up like sex slaves.
Leia may have strangled her oppressor in the movie and emerged victorious, but geek culture couldn’t care less about that. In our world, Leia never got out of the damn bikini at all.