Fighting with the Sky

Career Women and Their Love Lives

Posted on: September 14, 2009

The other day when I posted on Dana Scully for Feminist Flashback Friday, Clarissa commented on how in tv shows, women who are successful in their careers rarely have a love or social life and if I have ever noticed that.  To that I say: why yes, Clarissa, I have noticed that.  Especially when it comes to romantic comedies, I have noticed that women who have strong careers just need the right man to come along and show them that they don’t actually want to be that successful at their jobs.  But let’s look at television shows.  In tv shows, career women have to continually be denied a love or social life week after week.

Let’s look at some examples.  In Bones, we rarely see Dr. Brennan’s life outside of the Jeffersonian.  When her brother or father come along, it’s usually in association with her work.  When we do see her social or love life, it is often criticized.  For example, when Dr. Brennan is seeing two men at the same time because they each provide different things that she needs, Booth and the Jeffersonian team criticize her aversion to a “conventional” relationships.  They are now alluding to the fact that Dr. Brennan and Booth will end up in a romantic relationship.  This just shows that Dr. Brennan cannot step outside of her work life where as we often see Booth’s life outside of the FBI.  It also falls into the stereotype that women and men cannot be friends or colleagues without having sex or at least some intense sexual tension.  The same thing holds for Dana Scully in the X-Files.  Scully’s social or love life is very rarely shown in the show and she does end up entering into a romantic relationship with her partner Fox Mulder.

In Fringe (which, granted, I have not seen all of yet, I’m only about five episodes in), Agent Olivia Dunham is committed to her work.  In the first episode, we see that she is romantically involved with one of her colleagues, Agent John Scott.  But as the first episode goes on, Agent Scott is first almost killed, then we find out he is a traitor to the FBI, and then he is really killed.  It is as if Agent Dunham is being punished for her sexual relationships with a fellow FBI agent.  After that, we don’t see any of her social life…her whole life is devoted to her work.

Deb’s life in Dexter is completely devoted to her job at the Miami PD.  In this case, we do see more of her love life, but it is often a tragic love life.  First, she is with a serial killer, then with a guy who wants to write a book about her relationship with the serial killer, and then with her boss.  Yes, she does have a love life in this case, but it’s not a healthy love life.  And her love life rarely escapes her work.  In NCIS, Kate, Zeva, and Jenny’s love lives are rarely ever discussed where as Tony talks about his “exploits” all the time.  We even see some of Gibbs’ romantic relationships.  The same thing is true with Numb3rs.  The only romantic relationships that women have on the show that we see are with main male characters.  Liz and Don, Larry and Megan, Amita and Charlie.

It’s also interesting that all of the examples that I could think of for television shows like this (certainly not all the tv shows falling into this category, just the ones I can think of) are crime-fighting shows.  In these shows, the majority of the show is dedicated to the story line of the work, the crime-fighting.  But we often see, or at least discuss, the love lives of the men in these shows.  And when the women are in romantic relationships it is portrayed as dysfunctional (as in Bones) or with main male characters of the show.

In movies, it is often that the successful woman needs a guy to come along to show her what she’s missing by focusing on her career and they all live happily ever after — without the successful career, or at least scaled back.  But in tv shows, the successful career women are continually denied their social or love life.  If a guy came along to show her the error of her ways, there would no longer be a show or at least that woman would no longer be on it.  When a successful career woman’s love or social life is shown on a television show, it is often portrayed as dysfunctional or lacking in some way.

So why can’t these strong, successful career women have healthy love or social lives outside of their work?  Because then she would just be too powerful.  Women can’t be good at everything.  They are either good at their careers or they have somewhat healthy love and social lives.  People see a strong, successful career woman on a tv show and say “Wow, she’s a great role model.  She’s a feminist icon.”  And I must admit, I fall into this as well.  But having a successful career does not mean that you have to give up on having a love or social life.  And it’s about time that television and movies reflect that.

9 Responses to "Career Women and Their Love Lives"

Meh, I can’t really agree with you there. Why can’t strong career women in TV have a great love life? Because TV requires ongoing drama and conflict. Because TV writers are accused of letting things get boring when they finally let someone have a happy romantic life. Viewers love their ‘ships, they get rabid over them, and yet all the fun seems to be in the build-up.

Plus, most of these shows start with a pair that is set up to be together at some point, so until they are (and they can’t be TOO soon, because otherwise, again, people cry “boring!”), there have to be reasons why they’re kept apart. Did anyone REALLY start watching the X-Files or Bones without the expectation that the main characters would be put together in the end? On Fringe, I think it’s pretty obviously that Olivia and Peter will be together someday. What about on CBS’s Monday night sitcoms? Ted is a (sometimes) successful architect who goes through failed relationship after failed relationship because his whole story is about finding the titular Mother, but the show will reach its end quickly if that happens TOO soon. On Big Bang Theory, Penny and Leonard are OBVIOUSLY intended to be together, but you can’t just hook them up without all sorts of wacky hijinks that makes the payoff worth it. And on Entertainment Weekly, where news stories report that they’ll be together finally this season, commenters are saying, “Already? This could get boring.”

It’s the storytelling structure more than a desire to not let women get too powerful. I mean, is Booth’s love life any less dysfunctional than Bones’? He’s the one who’s romantic at heart, and yet his son’s mother is the one who he could never make it work with (and of course he couldn’t, because he was designed to be with Bones in the end).

YES! I love this. I think it’s tragic that career women on television either fall into the “working until I find a man who will take care of me” or the “so devoted to my job that I have no life” category. I can’t think of any show in which we see a career woman successfully balancing her career and her life.

The justification for that, I suppose, might be that dramatic tension is needed to keep shows interesting and dynamic. But I think you’re right on the money when you say that a powerful woman is too much of a threat to be allowed to exist on television.

I just saw this quote on an interview with Alan Ball that Entertainment Weekly did about last night’s True Blood finale:

“Is Tara ever going to be in a happy relationship?

BALL: Happy relationships are boring. We all want them in our own life. But I don’t want to watch them on TV.”

This also reminds me of Cutty from House. She’s HIS boss, and yet allows his immature (and unprofessional) behavior slide as a “he-doesn’t-know-how-to-be-in-a-relationship” excuse (when are WOMEN ever given that?). There was one episode where they had a patient that had to say whatever popped into his head, so House called Cutty in and the patient talked about how much he wanted to have sex with her. Finally she figures out that House had called her in there for JUST that reaso – that she was humiliated in front of her peers (but he has a medical condition!) just for House’s entertainment. After they exchange words, she has a little smile on her face. Oh, because powerful women LOVE being objectified by men who don’t know how to communicate otherwise. It’s the grown-up version of “he’s teasing you because he likes you.” Sad.

Mediocre writers tend to lean on relationship conflict when it comes to creating drama. Personally, I find it mindnumbingly boring and obnoxious, and it brings decent shows down to the level of soap opera.

It’s true that there aren’t too many examples of male leads with successful relationships (with other leads or with minor characters) either. But when I think of examples of good/healthy relationships on the small screen, they pretty much all involve a male character and a partner, which I think speaks to Laura’s point that women are not allowed to have successful relationships/marriages on television, unless the relationship is the whole life, like the mom figures in numerous teen shows.

Especially when women, like Bones, have unconventional views of romance and relationships, there’s pretty much no chance that they are going to be get away with having stable relationships. I cringed repeatedly in the episode in which writers totally did not understand how polyamory worked, and presented Bones sneaking around on her various boyfriends as a poly model. It was clear that the writers had no interest in modeling a different approach to relationships in a healthy or balanced way.

I can see the “happy relationships make for boring tv” angle, but I don’t really buy it. All relationships go through their ups and downs. A happy relationship does not mean a conflict-free relationship. The conflicts, the drama are what make for good tv — and for good writers, you can still have happy relationships. And let’s even drop the ‘happy’ off the relationship. When was the last time we saw a successful career woman on tv who was in a relationships outside of who they work with (yes, the relationships exist in the tv world, but they are not that common). This just reinforces the idea that if women want to be successful at their careers, they have to dedicate their whole lives to it — even their love lives. Women can either have the home life or the successful work life, there is no in-between in the world of television.

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Minor correction: in Dexter, Deb wasn’t with a guy who was going to write a book about her – she THOUGHT she was, but it turned out he was a children’s book writer and she broke up with him for other reasons, he was good, and safe, but not the right person for her at that time.

One of the things I loved about NewsRadio was that they just cut right to the chase and had the main characters have their relationship. This was apparently a deliberate decision in opposition to all the “will they/won’t they” sexual tension in a lot of other shows. Different kind of show, of course, but still.

Hmm.. I have mixed opinions on this. I do think that a woman who had it all probably wouldn’t make for that great of a TV drama series. What entertaining anecdotes would arise from her story? I think the they choose leading stars to have lives which are full of drama, ups and downs, but are relatable. The point is to pull in an audience of viewers who can see a bit of themselves.

The downside in this is that although it may be some kind of sitcom/drama tactic to pull in viewers, it also makes viewers think that this is how life is supposed to be. Desperate Housewives has called eating disorders among a new age group (40/middle aged women) because women see people like Eva Longoria, Terri Hatcher and think “hey they are 40 and skinny, why aren’t I?”

It would be nice if TV started painting a better picture of successful/balanced women, just so the message is out there.

Random side note — Dexter is great!


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