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Personally Interested

Star of the show.

Jim Caviezel at ComicCon (via Genevieve719)

This Monday, RTE starts showing crime drama Person of Interest. The CBS show is one of the better recent offerings from a U.S. broadcast television industry that has mostly been left in the dust for quality by cable.

Fitting questions about surveillance, paranoia, vigilantism and computer sentience into its case-of-the-week structure, it’s cleverer than it has any right to be and digs into its themes without losing the qualities that make it appealing right from the off. But as much as I like it for the thought that’s gone into its creation, what really impressed me was its approach to its female characters.

The two leads are both male, fitting into the brain/brawn categories, with plenty of psychological damage in their makeup. There’s a supporting female cop, who follows a fairly standard antagonist-to-support role, well played by Taraji P. Henson. With her as with the rest of the female characters, a simple rule seems to be followed: the women are as capable and intelligent as the men. Moreover, they’re just as likely to be the bad guys as good guys.

It seems like a simple thing, but it’s rare. Our culture is rife with female stereotypes that writers have to work hard to avoid. One in particular, never far away when a female villain is involved, is the femme fatale. Pleasingly, right through its first season, Person of Interest stays well away from that one.

Why is this a good thing? After all, literature and film are full of femme fatales. The problem is that when you have a female villain, it’s too easy an option to reach for. The link between women, sexual allure and power over men is an unbalanced one: no male character is so defined by his ability to manipulate women. James Bond may be a lothario, but he’s much more besides.

That’s why femme fatales, while memorable, are not long-enduring characters. They’re expressions of a trope, one that states that a women who uses her sexual desirability as a weapon is dangerous, even evil. In contrast, culture tends to view men who seduce women as admirable.

I wonder how much of the show’s avoidance of the femme fatale is down to Jim Caviezel (who plays the brawn side of the central equation in an appealingly deadpan manner). Famously religious, he avoided naked scenes with his romantic interest in The Count of Monte Cristo out of respect for his wife. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to think that the show’s avoidance of overt sexual themes is something that might have appealed to him. (There’s plenty of flirtation, but it’s underplayed.)

Of course, it’s possible to go too far the other way and be completely puritan in avoiding sex altogether. Person of Interest doesn’t go that far, and the point to all of this is that its female characters play on the same board as the men: matching wits with them and often winning. It’s good to see.

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  1. Kalin
    May 7, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    I always appreciate your attention to female characters, and male/female stereotypes. This is actually one of the main reasons I *stop* watching shows — most recently the Walking Dead (the female characters were so poorly written, and so unlikeable, that I lost interest midway through season 2). I usually stay away from even trying network shows — but this one does sound interesting. Hmm. Thanks!

    • May 7, 2013 at 6:06 pm

      I’ve struggled through The Walking Dead too, with only occasional enjoyment. I doubt it’ll survive the clean out I’m planning to conduct soon. Good thing there’s Game of Thrones to keep me entranced at the moment.

  2. May 30, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    I fully agree with you.

    This show is just good television – impeccable writing, enticing plot, multiple storylines and great actors with an amazing onscreen chemistry.

    Carter’s character is a breath of fresh air in the midst of so many weaklings out there. The best part is, she isn’t even a super-woman: she’s as human as can be.

    She started out as and incorruptible cop, but now she’s made some shady decisions that put her into a compeltely different light, while maintaing her overall integrity. Is that even possible? And not only is Carter’s character extremely well written – Taraji Henson also does an outstanding job portaying her.

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