Monday, June 4, 2007
Cheerleaders are as hated as they are loved, especially by the geek community. Geek girls love/hate cheerleaders because their worth is measured against the cheerleader ideal: pert, perky, and pretty. And geek boys love/hate cheerleaders because they lust after them and have as much chance of dating one as they have of dating Supergirl in the comics they read.
Tim Kring is probably one of these geeks with cheerleader love/hate. Creator of Heroes, the runaway NBC hit TV show of the 2006-07 season, Kring created a character with a super power that fuels cheerleader misogyny. Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) is a cheerleader at her high school in Odessa, Texas. Her super power allows her to heal from virtually any injury. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Not when you see it done.
Claire heals but first she has to be inflicted with the most ghastly injuries. As the series begins, she’s making a video of suicide attempts to document her super power: she jumps off an oil refinery catwalk and falls fifty feet to a cement slab, breaking her neck, only to stand up seconds later. In another episode, she is killed when her skull is punctured by a broken tree branch. In the next episode, she wakes up in the morgue, her chest sliced open and exposed mid-autopsy. She has run through a building on fire and has stopped a nuclear holocaust in her skimpy cheerleader outfit. Those who love to hate cheerleaders nationwide can tune in each week to see the new and increasingly grisly injuries that Claire will sustain in a sick cycle of misogynist horror-show fantasy.
Beloved by geeks and non-geeks alike, Heroes has been a top 20 ratings winner in total viewers since its debut in the fall of 2006. There’s many things to like about the comic booky show about “ordinary” people with super powers, but how it treats women is not one of them.
In an interview in Entertainment Weekly, Ali Larter called her character Niki Sanders “the first real woman that I have played.” For an actress known primarily for her roles in the Final Destination films, the character of Niki is certainly more complex and demanding than her previous work in the industry. But apparently in Larter’s lexicon, the term “real woman” does not equate to the kind of role that breaks with conventional stereotypes in any way.
Niki Sanders is a single mom who turns to webcam stripping when her hoodlum husband goes on the run, hardly progressive for women’s roles. If watching blonde Claire flounce about in her skimpy cheerleader outfit is not enough cheesecake for the geek boy audience, the character of Niki also affords Heroes the chance to let another blonde, sexpot show off her smoking-hot body.
Niki’s super power consists of having an evil twin, Jessica, who comes out to do the “dirty work,” which has included webcam stripping, murders, covering up murders, and sex with a congressional candidate as part of a blackmail scheme. Though Niki/Jessica is strong, possibly even super-strong, her evil twin reinforces age-old Madonna/whore stereotypes in nauseating and unoriginal fashion.
These two stereotypical and misogynistic portraits of women could have been mitigated at least somewhat if Heroes balanced these roles against more positive and progressive women characters. But through the first dozen or more episodes, Niki and Claire are the only two major women characters among the cast. Later in the season, Kring introduced more women. Of these, the good ones, the ones who might break free of stereotypes, are all killed off. The ones who live are more like villains than heroes. These women represent the same crap that’s peddled on Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy: women are essentially manipulative schemers; they can’t be trusted. Among their many duplicitous acts, these conniving, women use sexual lures to spy on the super-powered men or do the bidding of the men in charge of various secret organizations.
The limited number of women characters on the show remind us that television, like comic books, is dominated by men. On Heroes, the women in supporting roles are simply caricatures: a mother with a pet poodle, who is a Texan version of Elle Woods from Legally Blonde; a babysitting sister with beautician skills, who is not much different than the woman with the poodle; a woman who plays no more than a romantic partner for two men and ends up dead, pictured above even though she has no powers; and a wife who cheats on her husband, for no clearly-defined reason, but falls in love with him all over again when he gives her the best sex of their married life because he can read her thoughts (anyone seen What Women Want?).
None of these roles are endorsements for women’s progress in television as fully-defined characters free of stereotype. Only one woman, Audrey, played by Clea Duvall, breaks with established stereotypes as an FBI agent, though even she cannot solve her murder case without teaming up with the super-powered male cop. And after seeing a lot of her in the early in the season, she disappears, possibly because a strong woman who doesn’t look like Malibu Barbie isn’t what the audience of Heroes wants to see.
Heroes is a compelling television program with weekly cliff-hangers and an ethnically diverse cast much like ABC’s Lost. A hotter property when ABC’s geek-fest was suffering from a post-sophomore year slump, the November 10th cover of Entertainment Weekly featured Heroes, showing the cheerleader sandwiched between two of the male characters proudly heralding a revision of the show’s promotion line: “Save the cheerleader; save the TV season!” (revised from the show’s motto: “Save the cheerleader; save world!”). The picture seemed most appropriate for the show’s ethos: Lots of men and not so many women. Perhaps a better motto would have been: “Save the cheerleader from all this misogyny!”