How Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. observes and deconstructs the crime drama trope of pairing a smart-ass man-child with an emotionally distant female.
In the middle of watching Intelligence, I complained that just once I wanted to see a procedural where the woman was an emotionally immature rule-breaker and the man was by-the-book, haunted by his past. Somewhere along the way, the term ‘strong female character’ became synonymous with ‘tough, serious woman, burdened by tragic backstory,’ particularly on television shows about law enforcement or espionage. To be a badass, she has to be remote, and then saddled with a loose cannon, a man who doesn’t adhere to the rules she considers sacrosanct.
Consider your Temperance Brennans, your Kate Becketts, your Myka Berings, your Olivia Dunhams, all women who rose through the ranks of male-dominated systems and walled up their feelings until their more intuitive male partners knocked out a few bricks. (Though Beckett became much less of the ‘straight-man’ after season two, and Seeley Booth was never much of a man-child.) They’re still wonderful, strong characters, but after the fifteenth Carrie Mathison or Sarah Linden, I want to see a woman fighting crime who’s not super-cop-with-hopeless-personal-life.
Which brings me to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The ABC show maintains this trope in the form of Ming-Na‘s Melinda May, who is unquestionably badass and delightfully deadpan. Her present state of icy remoteness is attributed to her ‘most tragic backstory,’ and Coulson could be considered her risk-taking, rule-breaking partner. But then you have Ward and Skye. Whether you ship it, hate it, or fail to have an opinion about it, in their partnership, Ward is the uptight fighting machine and Skye is the untrained asset with a special skill and sarcastic tongue. He’s the no-nonsense adult, and she’s the greenhorn, like the Chuck Bartowski to his Sarah Walker. Though the show has not lived up to the expectations of some, that aspect, at least, is refreshing.
And even though Skye’s through-line is her search for her parents, it’s not tragedy that drives her so much as curiosity, a desire to learn rather than the desire for justice or revenge which powers other ‘strong female characters.’ It must be in her hacker programming; like Claudia Donovan or Penelope Garcia. Having tech prowess allows strong women to show off their smarts and their personalities…though now I’m wondering if television will ever give us a female hacker who wears pantsuits and likes crossword puzzles.