Covert Affairs vs. Xena: Warrior Princess (or, how to do feminism on TV without really trying)

Hi, I’m Mary. You might recognize me as that chick who wants to touch Jared Padalecki’s hair. You might also recognize me as the one who never has anything nice to say about Covert Affairs.

Sure, I could just stop watching, but like that time Patty Hearst robbed a bank, it’s complicated. Furthermore, it’s better for the rest of the world in general if I spend an hour every Tuesday night directing my rage at Annie Walker, the darling of the CIA (at least until I finally secure Skyrim for PC and commence with the slaying of the innocents, or, you know, anyone who looks like they’re wielding a cooler sword than me). Anyone ever read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin? Covert Affairs is a lot like that poor kid who has to endure all of the hatred and filth of the world so that the rest of us can sip caramel lattes and hum along to acoustic covers of Lady Gaga songs at open mic night.

You’re supposed to walk away from the story feeling bad for the kid and contemplating society, you know, English major stuff. It’s a twist on utopian ideals: that there is no perfect society, someone must always suffer so that others may flourish.

In my own little currently Skyrim-less world, that someone is Covert Affairs.

And much like contemplating the plight of the scapegoat child in Omelas, some honest meditation on the higher meaning of my dislike of Covert Affairs has been enlightening:

Annie Walker is so blatantly intended to be a Strong Female Ideal that I have a hard time taking her seriously.  She’s perfect. And that perfection is both annoying, and unrealistic. I suspect that creators Matt Corman and Chris Ord sat down with a feminist theory textbook when they brainstormed Annie, fully believing her to be some sort of primetime TV revolutionary.

Psst, guys, textbooks aren’t particularly revolutionary.

Annie is good at everything. She can blow things up and rappel down a skyscraper. She can jog a mile in heels. She looks good in a mini-skirt. She has a thriving career that she loves and she has a strong relationship with her family…most of the time. She’s nice to everyone. Even when she’s trying to be mean, she’s not very good at it.

At no point, ever, is Annie Walker menacing, daring, exciting... or revolutionary.

Annie Walker

She’s the least threatening Strong Female on television. She’s even contrasted with Auggie in one of the oldest Strong Female cheat codes there is. By pairing a not-particularly-tough woman up with an emasculated man (emasculation generally accomplished through permanent disability, temporary submission, or a stark contrast in social class) she, by comparison, becomes the “stronger” character. Furthermore, it’s perfectly acceptable for her to be the dominant character in a story because (sorry, men) in ye olden days, you blind/deaf/paraplegic guys weren’t complete men anyway. 

In literature, there’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ethan Frome, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and so many many more. Television hasn’t gone unscathed and in Annie’s defense, she may be the most recent example, but even as recent as a decade ago, we had Logan and Max on Dark Angel. The prominent male character is symbolically weakened in contrast to the prominent female. Not only does it make the female look “tougher” but it implies that it’s okay for her to be tough because she lacks a reliable male.

In the coming weeks, as a good chunk of the network television traffic slows down while we all light candles, sing songs, and avoid driving past the mall unless we really really have to, I’m diving into the wreck of Strong Female characters to answer the tough questions: Why is Annie Walker more boring than a bowl of vanilla pudding? Who does Strong Mom-hood better? Lorelei Gilmore or Jill Taylor? And why did Joanna Beth Harvelle have to die?

Now, what I have to say in the coming weeks might sting a little. There are no seat belts on this ride, and sometimes the scenery gets a little shocking. I’d also appreciate it if you all could sign a waiver, or just take a look at this oh-so-shiny disclaimer:

  1. I’m a self-proclaimed Bad Feminist, meaning I understand that the cosmetics industry is a conspiracy aimed at making women dump money into attaining some unrealistic standard of beauty, but I still refuse to leave the house without eyeliner. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multiples.” Thanks, Walt Whitman.  
  2. This series is by no means a comprehensive guide to good and bad Strong Female characters on television. That’s where ya’ll come in. I’m not going to bring up anything that I haven’t watched myself because unlike Harlan Ellison, I like to know what I’m talking about before I pick fights in publicYou, however, can profess your love for Cagney & Lacey until your keyboard shorts out and your fingers fall off and I’ll do my best to catch up.

So grab a bra and a can of lighter fluid and join me on a red pill trip into the seedy underbelly of the subliminal and the sublime. 

Fun fact: that whole bra burning thing never actually happened.

So you know how it’s sexism if I apply for a job and don’t get it based purely on the fact that I have ladybits? Well, it’s also sexism if I do get the job based on my bits.

Equality, the feminist endgame, doesn’t mean that one gender is treated better than the other, like so many haters would have you believe. Equality, at its most basic definition, means that everyone gets the same piece of the pie, regardless of gender (or race, sexual orientation, religion, hair color, or favorite Power Ranger) and the best kind of equality is the kind that you don’t have to think about.

Xena: Warrior Princess, is widely considered one of the flagship feminist series out there. Lucy Lawless stomps around a historically inaccurate ancient Greece, kicking butt and possibly making out with her lady sidekick.

xena

For me, Xena was my first taste of girl power on TV that actually resonated. Sure, there were the '70s Wonder Woman reruns, and the token chick Power Rangers, but as the girl who routinely stole my brother’s GI Joes, Wonder Woman’s sparkly patriotic get-up just seemed silly, and her punches were clearly fake. The Power Rangers tried, and yes, yes, I was the yellow one for Halloween when I was eight, but I  got angry that the girls always ended up being pink or yellow, never red, which was my favorite color at the time. And their zords were so dumb in comparison to the guys. How threatening can a pink pterodactyl really be? It can’t even smash things.

But then came Xena, with her metal push-up bra and the boots and the sneer. It didn’t occur to me when I was eight that the leather and the cleavage was designed to please the horny males in the audience, I just thought it looked cooler than pink latex.

Kimberly’s zord might blast Xena to smithereens before she even pulls her sword out, but at least Xena looks like she could do some damage. You know, on her own, without technological help. At least they’re both wearing sensible shoes.

Xena was not intended to inspire eight year-old girls to learn how to throw a proper punch. She was created by Rob Tapert, John Schulian, and the Raimi brothers, the brainpower that brought us such thoughtful, socially-conscious fare as the Evil Dead trilogy and later, Drag Me to Hell and the Spiderman movies that no one likes to talk about.

No, I’m fairly certain that Xena came about because the fanboys were disappointed that Hercules: the Legendary Journeys wasn’t nearly as gory as the four films that inspired the series and the Raimis had to do something to counter their primetime sausagefest before ratings tanked. Lucy Lawless appeared as Xena in a three-episode arc during Hercules’ first season and was so wildly well-received that she was given her own series almost immediately.

In one of those weird cases of the spin-off being more popular than the parent series, Xena: Warrior Princess would consistently out-perform Hercules in the ratings and ultimately ran for two years longer than The Legendary Journeys... though most of Hercules’ cancellation had more to do with Kevin Sorbo being bored than a ratings problem.

Thus, for six seasons, Lucy Lawless fought evil in what basically amounted to glorified underwear, and quite frankly, it was more revolutionary than anything Covert Affairs tries so hard to cook up.

And it didn’t even try.

Sure, one can make the argument that Xena is a hero for the male gaze, with an opening sequence made up entirely of T & A close-ups and Lawless’ inherently sexy, husky voice. But the thing is, there’s nothing wrong with having a sexy Strong Female. The demographic that tuned in purely for the cheesecake got the same story that the eight-year-old girls fed up with the Power Rangers did, and whether or not they took the same lessons from that story, or whether the message that the eight-year-old took was even the correct message is irrelevant, because someone got a positive role model out of the deal.

That’s the thing with creativity and art, the risk that a creator takes when he or she sends something out into the world to be studied and judged — ultimately, it is up to the consumer to interpret the underlying message in a text.

So, ultimately, Xena: Warrior Princess may have been created solely for the eye-candy and the sex appeal while Covert Affairs was created specifically to appeal to a modern feminist audience. To me, Xena’s ability to endure as a feminist icon despite her humble origins is a true testament to the power of good storytelling outweighing initial intentions. Despite Xena’s costume, very few of her stories actually revolved around her physique.  Furthermore, the idea that a woman can kick a man’s ass in Xena’s world was something that few characters gave a second thought. In Xena's world, she wasn't strange at all.  Effortless equality, the best kind of equality.

Covert Affairs may try to appeal to the feminist audience, but to me, that constant grabbing, obsessive need to point out that Annie Walker is a perfect professional woman, feels more like a commercial for feminism than actual feminism. It reduces an immeasurably important movement to just another television demographic.

Come back next week for a look at the token ladies of television with Ellen and Jo Harvelle of Supernatural.

By MaryAnn Sleasman

About the author

MaryAnn was raised by television because her parents were too cheap to get a babysitter. Some people have fond memories of summer camp, she has Salute Your Shorts rerunsStalk her on Twitter at @radium_girl.

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2 Comments
On: Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader" said:

Great, hilarious, and interesting in equal measures maryann !

On: Monday, June 30, 2014
K said:
I'd rather have commercials to feminism everywhere rather than Spartacus filled with struggling sex toys overcoming challenges and men. Although my true wish to have a script written the traditional [pro-masculine] way rewritten to replace both sexes hasn't come true yet, and probably won't before I die, I would take intentional feminism. It's better than sex toys. Why can't they make men the sex toys? I believe it would benefit them more than they even realise.
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