Tube Tied: Is Lost... Lost When It Comes to Women?

Michelle Dean
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Here's my transparent attempt to segue into an untimely essay about Lost (which won't premiere until January but my guestblogging stint ends next week): the promos for Flashforward were so ubiquitous - I first remember seeing one after the Lost finale in May - that I found myself watching it Thursday night with a sense of obligation rather than pleasure.  It was, in fact, so terrible that I turned it off after fifteen minutes of wordy expository dialogue that leapfrogged over any compelling sense of dramatic tension the show might have possessed.  Which is funny, because this is the show that's supposed to replace Lost for us, when Lost airs its final episode this spring.   And yet, Flashforward is thus almost the mirror opposite of Lost.  Lost's watchwords are mystify, obfuscate, contradict.  Flashforward's are explain, tell, lecture.  And so, other than observing to yourself how much Joseph Fiennes is, as he ages, resembling Ralph ever more, particularly in profile... well, there's very little to get interested or invested in in Flashforward.  (Oh, and spotting the Oceanic Airlines billboard.)

In fact the only thing that Flashforward and Lost really have in common is that they both belong to this new generation of mainstream fantasy/science fiction - the kind that has better production values than Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica combined - that has finally made its way into network television in primetime slots.  These shows have come up with the mainstreaming of ComicCon and the sudden retroactive chic of comic book culture, which, it seems to me, started emerging around the time Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay came out.  It's not that we haven't had sci-fi and fantasy in primetime before; it's just that these shows aspire to a sort of network television legitimacy we haven't seen before.  They don't just want to be invited to the Emmys; they expect to receive one.  And actually, we, the audience, tend to expect that too, on their behalf.  And being an obsessive reader of, say, Lostpedia, just doesn't have that stigma attached to Trekkieism, does it?  The mainstreaming of fantasy may be good for formerly underdog geek culture, and certainly it seems some people have felt their inner nerd liberated by the trend.  But it is still very much the kind of thing that plays out with men, among men, by men and about men.  I'm not trying to be dismissive here; I can see that writers of this genre are struggling to find a place for women within it.  But they haven't made much headway.

Let's explore this with Lost's example: the dramatic tension of the show was initially strung up between Jack Shepard the pragmatist, and John Locke the mystical idealist.  In both cases the leadership qualities of these men are more or less taken for given.  They are the movers and shakers of the band of survivors, with their booming voices and simple credos: "live together, die alone."  The main female characters of the first couple of seasons, Kate, Shannon, Sun and Claire - all exist more or less as foils to the men.  Kate is given a gritty personality and past, sure - but it seems more like an attempt to prove to women that the writers know that Women Are Tough than it is to build a woman who seems to define herself in some way other than as a potential lover torn between two really totally hot men.  Shannon is the woman who likes shoes.  Claire is the angelic pregnant woman who needs Charlie - silly, screwed up, Charlie - to protect her and her child.  Even Sun's somewhat more complicated example - as the woman who learned English in defiance of her scary husband - is set in the context of an affair, for why would any woman want to be independent if not the chance to attach herself to a man?

The show's uncomfortableness with female power was brought into stark relief when the writers brought in a female leader from the other side of the island, Ana Lucia, played by Michelle Rodriguez.  Rodriguez has a very aggressive presence, and as I recall, at the time, word on the internet was that everyone hated her.  And it seemed, to, that the writers were bewildered with her.  Arguably she was to provide a counterpoint with Kate, but contrasted with the lithe, unthreatening-looking Evangeline Lilly, Rodriguez seemed a bulldozer, and they seemed utterly unable to see the humanity within.  And so Ana Lucia was rapidly given a softer backstory - a cop, yes, but a cop angry because she had lost a child (women have no pain that cannot ultimately be retraced to their uteri, one supposes.  When that didn't work, she was killed.

There are, of course, other factors at play here, including that for a considerable portion of the series the writers appeared to be scrambling for consistency and direction.  I'm afraid I'm not one of those viewers who feels able to trust Lost's writers; I think it's obvious they were struggling for quite awhile.  But it's telling as the final season approached, the world of Lost became more and more male-centric.  Sure, the cast got bigger.  Ben, Jacob, Richard Alpert, Charles Widmore, Sawyer, Daniel Faraday, and Desmond joined Jack and John as the movers and shakers of the Lost universe.  Yet it's telling that the writers regained control of the steering wheel by more or less letting the guys run the show.  It's telling that we still live in a world where the easy way out is to write the heroes as men, because somebody needs to be watching those kids, even the Kates who were supposed to be proof that this was a Different Kind of Guy-Fantasy.

Lost is written, I should say, by both women and men these days; I am not trying to say this is an obvious case of guy tunnel vision.  But it's the kind of thing we should all be asking about more often.  It's the kind of thing that makes you wonder what it would take to have a show like this that used women as more than window-dressing.  If little girls wanted to be the Jack Shepards instead of the Kates.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

I'd be hard pressed to find

I'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would want to be Jack Shepard. John Locke is where it's at. We don't talk much of the people wanting to be Ben.

I agree with pretty much everything here, although I noticed you didn't get into the character of Juliet. Who I think has some pretty awesome moments, but still feels like they don't know what to do with her, half the time. (The ending of season 5 has the unfortunate answer.) Then again, her entire back story is about pregnancy. (The only female characters that aren't seem to be Shannon and Ilana.)

I love Lost, but in regards to gender it's a pretty huge failure.


I kind of don't know what to say about her. They were too lazy to do more than half-draw her character, she got traded around between the guys with little comment, and now she's dead.

Juliet was a really strong

Juliet was a really strong character at first -- they just gutted her like they do every other female character that has the potential to be interesting. It's a cycle that plays out over and over again. Introduce strong female character (Kate, Juliet, Ana Lucia, Sun, Charlotte, Libby ...), start to do good things with her ... and then suddenly turn her into a weepy useless creature (usually blinded by love), or just kill her off. It's like they create these characters and then just have no idea whatsoever what to do with them.

Interesting fact: in the

Interesting fact: in the first draft of the Pilot, Jack was killed and Kate was the planned hero figure of Lost. As much as I love the show, I have also always been bothered by the way they address or fail to address "female power."
I would have loved to see where the show went with Kate at the helm.

Where's Scully?

Another good post, which articulates one of my big frustrations with Lost despite my faithful watching: the female characters are mostly defined by romantic heartache and babies, and their stories never seem to go further than this. Let's not forget Danielle Rousseau, driven crazy when her baby is stolen and her husband, killed. But she was cool because she was a survivor, suspicious of every new person she came across. Remember when she tied up Sayeed without falling in love with him? Now that was willpower (on the writers' part)! And she might have been the only female character who looked somewhat like she had been stranded on a deserted island. Too bad she died.

I don't think you are off in associating Lost's success with the somewhat recent rise in mainstream popularity of comicbook fantasy, though I have always thought of this show as ABC's X-files for the decade of reality tv (like a fictional Survivor with an endless cast of characters). For most of the seasons, there was a real tension between fantasy and reality, between varying plausible and surreal explanations for how the cast got to the island and what was going on there. That tension was pretty much abandoned last season when time-travel and the whole Locke/Jacob backstory was developed. The thing about X-files was that the rational, plausible side of things was proudly represented by Dana Scully who remained an integral part of that show right until the end and even after the writers abandoned the tension they had set up, and the show and Scully fully embraced the paranormal (she, too, had to get pregnant at some point over the show's 9 seasons).

Unfortunately, I have been waiting five years for one of the many female characters to step up and become the Scully I know they could be. Kate might just be my only hope. Will she stop following Jack, Locke or Sawyer and take the lead?

I, too, turned off

I, too, turned off FlashForward after about 20 minutes. It was definitely too wordy and not mysterious or interesting. Meh. I am, however, a huge Lost fan.

"And so Ana Lucia was rapidly given a softer backstory - a cop, yes, but a cop angry because she had lost a child (women have no pain that cannot ultimately be retraced to their uteri, one supposes. When that didn't work, she was killed."

Well rumor has it that her character and Libby's character were killed off because Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Watros were both involved in DUIs and legal troubles.

Regarding how the cast expanded, you're forgetting the most important character in all of season five: Faraday's mother, Eloise Hawking.

Anyways, an interesting tidbit about the casting of Lost: Michael Keaton was originally cast as Jack, and he was supposed to be killed off by the smoke monster (which is why Keaton agreed to do it, just because it was one episode) but ABC didn't like that idea because he was viewed as the "hero" and Kate was supposed to become the leader of the group. She was also supposed to be a 30-something businesswoman whose husband died in the crash.

Anyways, I like the female characters on Lost. I think you're taking it at more of a surface level. Shannon was actually a pretty deep person after she learned to let her guard down (I'm still mad they killed her off) and Libby was intriguing as well. Juliet has unfortunately been side-shifted but you remember what she did in the season 5 finale. I definitely don't think that the women on the show are useless, and it turns out that Claire may be one of the most important characters on the show. I didn't have a problem with her wanting to be around Charlie, he needed her and Aaron just as much.

So, I am a huge fan of LOST

So, I am a huge fan of LOST but since the finale of season one I have been unable to trust the writers' representations of women. Notice how Jack refuses to allow Kate an active role in saving the people. Notice how, after they draw straws to determine who carries the dynamite, Jack changes the rules of the game and puts it in his own pack, because Kate is a delicate female and not allowed to behave in ways that are considered male (brave, competent, rational, active). He forces her into passivity. Nevermind that Jack's the only doctor on the island and should be kept miles away from anything that explodes spontaneously. Notice also how, after moving the dynamite, Jack warns Kate that by allowing John Locke a role in saving the people (John Locke representing people over 50 in this show) they will soon have a problem with him trying to take a greater leadership role.

Either the LOST writers are brilliantly (and oh so subtly) exposing American society's disdain for anyone that isn't a young, heterosexual, white male of the upper class, or they are exposing their own hatred of everyone else. However, watching this show with men, they insist that Jack's actions are correct, because Kate (who, half the time Jack treats with contempt anyway because of her independent and violent past) should be protected like the maiden she is.

Besides Kate, I felt for Ana Lucia. She was not at all a sympathetic character, like the writers couldn't imagine a woman in leadership without BITCH stamped on her forehead. I give up really. The show's fine except that there's no place for women in it.

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