Heroes and Heroines

My wife and I got hooked on NBC’s superhero drama Heroes after the first season was completed. Several friends of mine had recommended the show, and despite the fact that I’ve been burned many times by movie and TV show recommendations, I ordered the first season from Netflix. We both really enjoyed the first season: following the intertwining storylines, gleefully empathizing with characters as they discovered their powers, trying to anticipate who was behind everything, and the constant sense of suspense made the first season a welcome break from the stress of work and school for my wife and I.

The second season, which was cut short by the writer’s strike, lacked some of the suspense of the first season, but was still quite enjoyable. Two weeks ago, NBC premiered the third season of Heroes, which you can watch on Hulu.com.

So far, the third season has not lived up to my expectations. The tone is almost obnoxiously dark at times, the central conflict is not clear at all, the characters’ motives are not well defined, and the pacing is off. For example, there are several scenes in the first few episodes where main characters are suddenly and inexplicably thrust into danger, which undermines one the essential aspects of the show: long, suspenseful build ups to action. Within the first episode of this season, Sylar (the main villain) manages to steal Clarie’s power, something he spent the entire first season trying to do. When we watched this particular scene, my wife and I thought it was a dream sequence since there was absolutely no setup. Sylar is suddenly at Clarie’s house. She is home alone. She runs. He takes her power. He leaves. While the story has picked up in the latest episodes, thus far I am concerned that the producers have forgotten what makes a drama compelling.

As a believer, there are many aspects of the show that interest me. Perhaps at some point I’ll post an article on the ethical issues Heroes presents. But the issue that has bothered me most about Heroes, from the very first episode, is its portrayal of women as either evil, shallow, sex-objects, or dead.

With few exceptions, the female characters in Heroes are painfully shallow, stereotypical, or sexualized. One of the more obvious examples of this is Niki Sanders, a former Internet stripper who has a split personality named Jessica. Jessica is an assassin who often uses her sexuality to complete her assignments. Although the producers try to make Niki a complex character by giving her a family, her “powers” prevent her from being a good mother, as they consistently lead her into sex and violence. Unless we are meant to believe that her character is a commentary on how society prevents women from being anything but sex objects, and I doubt the producers put that much thought into it, Niki (or “Tracy” in the new season) is little more than the show’s sex appeal.

Then there is Claire Bennet, the cheerleader. Claire’s character is interesting in that she is very purposefully written to challenge the ditsy, sleazy, shallow, superficial cheerleader stereotype, but her actions often reinforce these very characteristics. On several occasions Claire stands up to the school cheerleader (a girl who does fit the stereotype), she is deeply concerned for her family, and she has a desire to help others with her power. On the other hand, she consistently disobeys her parents (who, in painfully trite fashion, just don’t understand her), is primarily motivated by her personal desires (so like a teenager), and often makes obnoxiously stupid decisions based on those desires. I get the impression that the producers really wanted to make Claire an intelligent, well-rounded character, but just got lazy. It’s simply easier to set up dramatic situations when you have a character who is foolish enough to put herself in danger. Plus, attractive cheerleaders make for high ratings television.

Last season, they introduced a new female character. Maya Herrera has the power of plague, or something like that. Essentially, when Maya gets mad, people around her die. As if giving a Hispanic, female character the power of hotheadedness wasn’t bad enough, she is also one of the sleaziest characters in the show. Within a few episodes of meeting Sylar, she starts making out with him. Within two episodes of meeting Suresh, they are having sex. In fact, Maya seems unable to resist her desire for Suresh. In one of the first episodes of the new season, Suresh says something about Maya having a hot body, and within a few seconds they’re at it. Maya, at least thus far in the series, is portrayed as a hot-blooded Latina who is unable to control her anger (which kills people) or her sexual desire. Oh, and between season two and three she seems to have lost most of her accent, for no apparent reason.

While there are some female characters on the show that do not so easily fall into a sexist stereotype, that does not minimalize the inappropriateness of these three characters, particularly since Niki and Claire are so central to the show’s plot. As believers, I would hope that we can watch shows like Heroes with discernment, understanding that many telivision characters are created to appeal to certain demographics, desires, or stereotypes, rather than to explore the complexity of a person made in the image of God and in desperate need of redemption.

This discernment, allowing yourself to be concerned about the loving and truthful portrayal of characters, may often damper your enjoyment of telivision a bit, as my experience with Heroes has been, but the choice to not allow culturally defined and unloving stereotypes to mold your thinking is much more important than any enjoyment the tube can offer. My wife and I will continue to watch and enjoy Heroes, but we’ll do so only with a heavy dose of discernment–which more often than not translates into audible groans and shouting at the TV.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Unfortunately, the trend you’re noticing in Heroes is just part of a larger trend common to all superhero fiction. The genre itself, long aimed primarily toward adolescent males, has been consistent in portraying women in a sexist way. Their purpose in the scope of the genre has been to 1) titillate, 2) provide an emotional response/character growth experience for the dominant male characters, or 3) to die or be maimed in order to elicit a response in the reader. That a show that pulls from the genre and involves actual creators of superhero fiction would skew towards the similar direction is little surprising. And mostly just kinda sad.

    The Danes last blog post..20081006.WhichAuthor

  • Kris Michalski

    Is it possible the writers can’t do better with the characters because they can only write what the know?

  • Leah Schroeder

    The commentator has a compelling point to make about the “Heroines”. And he did not even mention Angela Petrelli by name. While she does add suspense and a quality of confusion popular in many recent television shows, Petrelli, is a cold-hearted woman who cares very little for her own children, except when their special abilities aid the “cause” for which she is currently rooting (or perhaps orchestrating).

    Petrelli is proud that she is the mother of such “special” sons and occasionally has jewels of wisdom to present them. For example in the third season when her son Peter has traveled back in time to “fix” the future she explains that he cannot do so in a sterile environment. Peter finally realizes the truth of her words and the possibility of a “butterfly effect” and goes back to his own time.
    But her motherly “wisdom” is almost completely voided by her caressing of Gabrielle/Sylar’s face and motherly affection possibly even pride at his abilities not to mention the questions such affection raises about her true motives.

    Maybe, being a Christian mother myself gives me particular disdain for Angela Petrelli’s conniving manipulation of her children but I find her as the “matriarchal” character in the show, one of the most disappointing women in Heroes because though she has birthed some amazing children she has absolutely no mother’s heart for them.

    In fact, the other main example of a mother, besides Nicki Sanders, whom the commentator has already addressed is Claire Bennet’s mother who has been a bumbling idiot for most of Claire’s life and is just now starting to come out of the fog. Even though she has mothered Claire for her 16 or 17 years of life she still has no idea how to interact with her gift and no empathy for Claire’s desire to make good decisions.

    It is disappointing as a Christian woman and mother to see the role of mothering and women in general demeaned in popular television. With such low expectations of women and specifically mothers constantly set before our society how do we expect to see mom’s maturing into women who raise responsible, intelligent, independent-thinking children capable of making rational decisions such as to whom they ought to vote?

  • Leah Schroeder

    @Kris Michalski -
    Everyone knows how to be idealistic.

  • Alan Noble

    Dane,

    Thanks for putting this discussion in perspective. I sometimes hesitate to make cultural observations like this because it might seem like I am singling out one creation while ignoring all the other examples, but culturally criticism has to start somewhere! And in some ways it is very helpful to work with one example of an issue so that we can deal with concrete examples. Anyway, that was my thinking.

    Kris,

    Quite possibly.

    Leah,

    I’m glad you brought up Angela and Mrs. Bennet. I had originally planned on discussing each of the female characters, but in the interest of space I left some out. I agree with your analysis completely. I have some hope for Mrs. Bennet in this season, but for the first two she was a painful caricature of a middle-class stay at home mom. As you point out, the show suggests that mothers are either middle-class/age airheads or diabolical manipulators.

  • David Dunham

    Alan,

    I couldn’t agree with you more that since the first season Heroes has dropped the ball. But I was wondering, out of all the subjects you could have dealt with in this show, and there are countless, why did you pick this one?

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Because he wanted you to be able to write about the other topics David.

    The Danes last blog post..20081006.WhichAuthor

  • Alan Noble

    David,

    I suppose I picked this one because I felt it was an issue that Christians don’t often address, and it’s something that has always deeply bothered me about the series.


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