How does 24 portray powerful women – and what’s with the blonde/brunette thing anyway, wonders Lorraine Smith?
(n.b. review contains some season one spoilers)
You must by now be aware of the television phenomenon that is 24. Currently entering its second series on UK screens, this was one of the BBC’s biggest drama successes of last year and is back for (fans hope) more of the same. In case you have somehow missed out, it’s a thriller that takes places over 24 hours of the Special Agent Jack Bauer’s life, where everything happens in real time. No flashbacks or time-dissolves, just plenty of suspense. A gimmick, perhaps, but one that was well executed and turned out to be refreshingly different.
Many column inches have already been devoted to this interesting new concept in TV drama and so I won’t bore you with more of the same but, after watching the first two episodes of season two, I came up with a new angle. It wouldn’t take an eagle-eyed fanatic to pick up on the vast number of blondes in the new series who all seem to be sharing the same bottle of bleach, but it should also be noted that none of them appear to be involved in the show’s major plot line. All the ‘serious’ women so far are brunette.
This lead me to think about the major female players in series one. Nina Myers, Assistant Special Agent in charge of CTU, turned out to be a double agent who had been covertly operating for some time. Jamey Farrell, Senior Programmer, was also revealed as a double agent recruited to plant bugs and hidden cameras inside CTU. Sherry Palmer, the wife of Senator Palmer, appeared to be a control freak who managed her husband’s presidential campaign in an extremely manipulative way. Elizabeth Nash, one of Palmer’s Advance Team, was portrayed as a scarlet (and also quite naive) woman when she unwittingly got involved with, and fed information to, one of the men plotting to kill the Senator. After all that came the icing on the cake; Alberta Green, brought in as Special Agent in charge of CTU, who was just a power hungry bitch!
Am I just imagining it, or was this perhaps an intentionally warped portrayal of women in power? It has been my experience that, although there are still a lot of women in positions of authority who have got there by being as underhand as some men and are routinely hated for it, there are also an incredible number who have achieved success simply by being very good at what they do. What the writers on 24 seem to forget is that you need a broad balance of character types in order to make a story seem believable. In series one, it was getting to the point where viewers began to think that any new female characters introduced to the plot would fall into one of two categories: Sexy, slightly feisty but ultimately dependant; or Strong, stubborn and probably two-faced. The clothing of the new character would instantly give away which group she would belong to, but it looks like the hair colour is another tool for season two. There is a lot of stereotyping in evidence at the best of times on television, but this is about as easy to swallow as Teri Bauer’s convenient spell of amnesia in the first series.
Some television writers do get it right though. Their women are either ones who stand up for themselves, don’t turn on their friends, and don’t always rely on a big strong man to save them, or ones who simply have the same believable weaknesses and character flaws as the male characters do. Unfortunately, the writers of 24 often resort to cliches rather than taking the time to sit down and spend as much time thinking about their characters as they do on the plot. I will, as ever, be glued to the screen throughout this second series, but I’ll be constantly hoping that the writers will surprise me instead of just penning yet another scene where a tight-top-clad Kim runs away from some scary guy before doing something stupid and getting caught; yet again. Well, a girl can hope!