Many of the strong female characters in – mostly – American drama series, have some mental disorder. At least that is the case if I believe an article in the latest ‘Veronica Magazine’ (a Dutch television magazine). I watch a lot of American drama series and I have never noticed it, or did I just never paid attention to this matter? These Power Women are sometimes ‘damaged goods’, while the male heroes don’t have to carry so much bagage. Most of these strong female lead characters had to overcome some dramatic situation to become this powerful and nobel woman in the first place. Why does this occur so often? Are female characters less interesting to the public if they are ‘normal’ and don’t have a traumatic past? In this column I’m going to dive into this matter and see if this phenomenon is also present in my favourite tv-series.
The Dutch Veronica Magazine includes the drama series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Bones and How To Get Away With Murder. What these series have in common is that the female protagonists have a very strong character and a managerial position in a nobel job. Nothing’s wrong with that at first sight. Until the writers create a story showing that these women have been through a traumatic experience in their youth. In Law & Order Mariska Hargitay plays the role of Olivia Benson, a detective who helps girls/women who were sexually abused and get the culprit behind bars. Olivia might have chosen this job because also she has been a victim of sexual abuse and she still bears the burden. The main character in Bones is Temperance Brennan who has problems in the social circuit, which might be the effect of growing up in various commits houses. However, as the series progresses, it seems Temperance develops better social skills. In the latter series – How To Get Away With Murder – everything seems fine for the character Annalise Keating, the fierce advocate. But also she seems to have been abused in her childhood.
Also in my favorite tv shows the women in leading roles have their problems. In Grey’s Anatomy the main person, Meredith, saw how her mother tried to kill herself when she was a child. In Castle Detective Kate Beckett has chosen this profession after her parents were killed. Not to mention the female protagonist in the series Stalker. Beth Davis is a police officer who focuses on stalker cases, because Beth had a homicidal ex-boyfriend that turned her life upside down. There are undoubtedly other series that lend themselves to this phenomenon. Think of the fantasy series Game of Thrones. Almost all women have experienced something traumatic, or experience something during the series, but eventually it makes them stronger.
Now I wonder if there aren’t any other strong women who have a strong character, because that’s who they are, without having experienced a traumatic event? They chose a job because it feels good and right, without some underlying motivations. Isn’t it strange to think that female lead characters are not interesting enough without having endured some drama in their past? That they only can develop a strong personality when they are exposed to something awful? When I look at exceptions in the drama genre, I think of the Irish series The Fall. Gillian Anderson has played the strong character Stella Gibson for two seasons, a detective who is chasing a killing psychopath. However, at the end of season two the writers hinted at some father obsession. Another exception I can think of is Suits, although that series is in my opinion less dramatic than the previous ones. One of the main characters is a black woman – which is the only thing that might hold her back from being her complete self- who has worked hard to reach the top and has her own office. But who knows what happens in season three.
What about the male characters? Are there any strong male characters with a dark past? There are only two persons I could think of and one of them is Oliver Queen – The Green Arrow – from Arrow. Oliver was a spoiled and rich teenager, until he went on a boat trip and got ‘lost’ for five years. A lot has happened in those years and it made Oliver choose to be ‘something else’. The other one is Derek Sheppard from Grey’s Anatomy. His dad got murdered in front of him and that made him want to be a doctor. I think it’s too easy to involve all those supernatural series, like The Originals or The Vampire Diaries. The guys in those series all have some mental disorder because of some troubled past and – well – it’s supernatural.
In my search for men with a strong character, I suddenly thought of a film character with a very dark past, which has his a huge effect on his present life. I’m talking about Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey. However, there is a big difference between him and the women I discussed earlier. These women have chosen a nobel profession that stems from the suffering they have experienced. But now I have included films, is this phenomenon also present here? It’s difficult to compare, since films have less character development because of its duration. And if there is something ‘wrong’ with the main character – male or female – it is often the reason to make the film. This also applies for series, but less. Sure, the past of a character will affect future choices, what profession is chosen, and is therefore, to some extent, the motive for the existence of a series. It also gives the series a more dramatic tone and this is something the audience intrigues. But it’s also to give the lead characters more caliber.
If I never had read the article in the Veronica Magazine, I probably would never have thought about this phenomenon. It is interesting to examine this and what the exact reason is to give the strong women in a drama series a ‘backpack’. As if women can not develop a strong personality without having a trauma or that they would be less interesting. The series that I have discussed, are all series that I regularly watch and enjoy. Usually, the past of the main female character is mentioned a few times, but it remains somewhat in the background during their work. Until the past is repeated, one way or another. The series Stalker is a good example, too bad it got cancelled. I loved the characters.
The exceptions are the women who play a supporting role and serve as support for the team. To date I haven’t discover, with the exception of Derek Shephard from Grey’s Anatomy, any other male characters with a difficult past who have chosen a certain noble profession. But I’m going to keep my eyes open because I think this is a fascinating subject. I like to hear your opinion about this matter, if you know other series were this occurs and, even more important, if you can recall a male character with a dramatic past. Let me know in the comments!