The theme of artificial intelligence has haunted humanity for centuries, from the mechanical turks of medieval trickery to Alan Turing’s dreams of conversing with machines. That theme has likewise haunted cinema from its earliest days: Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the direct ancestor of a horde of artificial lifeforms, whether human shaped, like C3PO in Star Wars, or more abstract, like SkyNet in The Terminator.
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.