Sunday, July 7, 2013

'Bates Motel' and Women's Bodies

There are three- no, four recurring female characters in  the show Bates Motel, a prequel series to the Hitchcock film Psycho. I can't really rank them from best to worst or vice-versa, since the ways in which they're poorly or well written diverge (hah!) enough to make it difficult to come up with even a vague notion of quantifiable difference. So I'll just go in the order I think of them. I'll say now  that my basic thesis here is that the writers are awesome at objectifying women's bodies- but not necessarily through T&A, though. Rather, women's bodies are tools for plot and drama frequently in this show, and things are either done to their bodies or they are written as using their bodies in ways that remove personhood or individuality from them. I'll get into this in more detail later. If you aren't into spoilers, I'll give a nice heading at the bottom for you to read on from so as to get the overall picture in more depth, though. :)


For those unfamiliar but interested (and not concerned about spoilers), the show is about Norman Bates and his mother, Norma (yeah, they do comment on how odd that is at least once in the show), who move to a tiny town in Oregon after Norman's dad is found dead in the garage (having been crushed by a shelf that fell on him). Weird things start happening, and there are lots of mysteries going on at once, shady characters with which to deal, and a really complicated relationship between Norman, Norma, and Norma's older son from her first marriage, Dylan. Of course, Norman himself starts proving weird and odd, and there are hints toward the end of the first season that he blacks out and does some pretty horrible things during these moments (like kill his dad, for example, ahem). 

So first, I'll start with Norman's teacher, Miss Watson, played by the Blue Fairy in Once Upon a Time

She starts out pretty generic, the run-of-the-mill hot English teacher that recognizes our central character as "special" or some kinda jazz- we see that crap all the time in shows and movies, no surprise. And there are a few moments in the first half of the first season (the only one that's done so far) where she actually seems to be earnest and caring, providing a useful contra to Norma's fiercely controlling nature (more on that soon, of course). But she soon takes an odd turn and starts becoming a pseudo-Mrs. Robinson and starts trying to get Norman into a Teacher-Student Romance. I'm not really going to delve too much into the "teacher" aspect, since it probably goes without saying I find that highly problematic in its own right. But  the nuance I wish to contribute is that it's disappointing because a person at first presented as "safe" for the main character turns out to be quite "dangerous," and she uses physicality and her body as a means of manipulating and controlling him. It starts subtle with the generic leaning and personal-space-invasions you see all the time, but then it gradually escalates. She hugs him, she blocks his way, she follows him outside (see above gif) when he tries to get away. Eventually, she hugs him a few times (highly inappropriately, of course) amidst divulging more information than she should and/or requesting he do the same (again, highly inappropriately).

And then she escalates to giving him rides a few times. This is exceptionally invasive and inappropriate, yes, but also highly controlling and manipulative. She presents herself as wanting to help, but she puts him in her car, a place he can't escape from, and then proceeds to invade his space in the metaphoric sense- interrogating him, dropping teasing bits of information with the intent to make him ask what she means in order to then word-vomit all over him. She pulls the simpering, crying  display in a semi-damsel-in-distress move a few times, and while maybe she does have some pretty crappy stuff going on (to which we're never given too much detail, so its nature isn't ever revealed), she very clearly makes sure Norman knows about it to pull at his heartstrings. Literally final straw is when she gives him a ride home... from a dance... and makes a stop at her own house; and not only is she then way too sexxy about cleaning an injury on his  head, but she friggin' gets naked in his view (under the pretext of changing out of wet clothes in order to then drive him home).

Interestingly, Norman  has visions of his mom while he's at Miss Waton's house, saying  exactly what anybody else would  be thinking: That Miss Watson's behavior is entirely inappropriate and terrible, that she's taking advantage of a sensitive boy with issues. Now, it gets wonky when this  hallucination says, "You know what you have to do," to him, and the last shot of the season is Miss Watson's dead, half-naked body, a necklace with a "B" on what's left of her neck. This necklace is meant as an insinuation, I think, that Miss Watson was having an affair with the father of yet another female character, Dylan- another strike against her, as any info we get about the affair presents it as entirely negative. Granted, it's all from third parties, since the dad is dead and Miss Watson's identity as the person he was cheating with isn't even implied until that shot of her body lying there. All we know is Dylan freaks the fuck out about it.

So okay, yeah, woman's dead, but that doesn't help- if anything, it's worse, because she never gets a chance to redeem herself before she's killed off. So all we know or see of her is she's basically a light version of a femme fatale whose use of her body leads to her own death. Blegh. She started out as cool, but (and yeah, I'm about to sound incredibly academic here) got pretty  insanely annoying after not too long.

Next, there's Bradley Martin, a fellow student of Norman's. 

Another female character that started out good and just got worse as I saw more of her. In the first episode, we find out she's out with her girl posse as their leader, the nice, , pretty, spoiled sweet girl that isn't really all that mean but is still the queen bee at school. They come across Norman and very obviously find him incredibly adorkable from the get-go, so she offers him a ride to school. The group witnesses her father crash his car while on fire, and it's unclear later if Norman is the only person that bothered to try to reach out to her as Pops was dying in the hospital (it took a while... ouch), or if he's the only one she responded to. Either way, we're at least given the impression she doesn't really talk to anyone else. So while Norman is hot for her from the get-go, it takes a while before things go from just a deep friendship forming during her grief into something with romantic connotations. And that's okay, right? I mean, it's pretty touching to see the way Norman is so genuine about how she's doing, and she clearly responds to that in ways she herself didn't anticipate.

And then they have sex. And suddenly she becomes cold and stops talking to him, which, of course, he doesn't take to all that well. She gives him a pretty hurtful brush-off on her front porch, and this leads to him sort of brooding around. 
His friend, Emma (we'll talk about her in a few), overhears some of the other girls talking trash about him in the bathroom, and she confronts them, inadvertently divulging the whole sex part to them. This leads to Bradley then basically telling him to get a life in the hallway at school- a move more typical of an alpha bitch than how she's originally presented. 

Jump ahead a little, and she starts massively flirting and using  her feminine wiles to get Dylan (recall, Norman's older bro) to let her into her, by this point dead, dad's office. They get shot at, which causes her to then bond with him, of course, and Norman witnesses some more flirtation later.

So yeah, she's complex. On the one hand, she goes through her process of healing in the pretty horrible face of her dad's death with Norman at her side, but once they have their little therapy session, she does a 180. And then she becomes more like a seductress or fille fatale than anything else- batting her eyelashes at Dylan and all. So she seems to sort of be a sex for solace type, although it's not all sex, per se. She uses her body in order to use Norman (as a conduit for her own healing), and then to manipulate Dylan into helping her get to her dad's old stuff. Internally, in the show, it's pretty crappy, and I don't really like the idea of anyone using anyone else, no matter how horrid their circumstances; but it's much more complicated and negative when being a bit more meta. And that meta-ness is the meat of the argument I'll use to tie all four of these gals together. For now, let's go to the friend I mentioned, Emma. 

Emma is Norman's only real friend at school. She's pretty smart and adventurous, and proves herself pretty kickass in a pinch- she and Norman get shot at together a few times, and she usually is the one to do the saving in those situations. She doesn't really take crap from anyone, like how I mentioned before that she confronts some gals talking trash about Norman. She has a way of viewing things that makes me pretty sure she's supposed to be more mature and thoughtful than her peers, and she uses this intelligence to solve one of the big mysteries of the show- in fact, it's her inquisitive mind that alerts anyone to said mystery in the first place. And she consistently upholds her moral compass and has reasonable reactions to situations, either by outside forces or ones created because of Norman's behavior.

Oh, and she also has cystic fibrosis- something that's handled remarkably well and deserving of its own post. I've talked on my personal blog about "supercrips" (persons with disabilities- fictional or real- that are in the media and presented as "survivor" or "hero" stories; they "overcome" their disabilities) and how they're a problematic stereotype in popular culture (because they're presented and thus perceived as an  ideal to which all other disabled persons are then compared)- and she isn't one at all. Her disability is entirely normalized and addressed in a "this is perfectly natural" sort of way by  her, and gently addressed by any adults discussing her. Now, thing is, they very easily could have made her into a supercrip, given the physical nature of some of the shenanigans she and Norman get into (not hanky panky- running for their lives and all that kinda jazz), but instead, the disability leads to some out-of-breath moments, but it's never portrayed as something she "beats" or "triumphs over" or anything. And since I'm an aspiring professional disability advocate, I'm biased to say this makes her the best-written woman on the show. But I recognize my bias, so I rescind that position for the sake of honesty and  neutrality.

But the problem I have with Emma (who is, I think, the best-written female, in terms of positive portrayal) is that she's still googly-eyed for Norman. She's smitten with him pretty much from the very beginning. And while sure, she's a loyal friend to him, she has constant little emotional bats and mini-freakouts over the fact that he doesn't reciprocate- she gets all pouty over the school dance and that he hadn't asked her, until he, you know, does- and when she sees Norman looking at Dylan there, she storms off. And while yeah, I did kind of root for her in making Norman walk home that night (because he does kind of use her in an attempt to get over Dylan), the reason she had the freak-out in the first place is she has this almost unhealthy obsession with Norman. She sort of forces him to be friends with her, really, by semi-stalking him until Norma gets involved and rules in her favor (presumably because she sees Emma's oxygen tank and thus views her as non-threatening). It's unfortunate, because Emma, Bradley, and  Norman  are thus caught up in a rather messed up love triangle where nothing  is entirely reciprocated- or, well, I guess  square, if you add Dylan into the mix. But with just Emma and Bradley, it's definitely, at least at first, a Betty and Veronica situation, right down to the bloody hair color of brunette v. blonde. The thing is, it isn't that Norman is entirely oblivious to Emma's feelings, either, which makes the way he uses her even worse. Norman keeps Emma around because he has nobody else except his mother to talk to, and he does this knowing she has a crush on him. I feel stupid, but I can admit to doing what Emma does- sticking around to get what a body can out of a relationship, even if it's only romantic in one direction. But there's a line between a character being  written  as a realistic and  well-rounded one, versus as being written in a way that undermines their strengths. Emma's clinginess and tendency to blow up at and for Norman because of her romantic feelings for him problematize the rest of her characterizations. And ultimately, Norman depends on her physical presence and thus takes advantage of her feelings for him, even is it's not deliberately to hurt her. 

And last, but by no means least, Norma Bates, Norman's mother.

This character is disturbing for so many reasons, it's ridiculous. Given the source material, it's no surprise she'd be a messed up parent and over-controlling mother. It's what you'd expect- she's controlling and manipulative, and Norman always  goes back to her- every time he remotely rebels, it backfires, sort of proving her right and causing him to be sorry. Her manipulation never leads to her physically abusing him, but she is obviously doing enough mental and emotional damage that he literally hallucinates her presence when he's distressed. And she uses physicality in more subtle ways- she kicks  him out of the car during an argument at least once, and she often uses the silent treatment on him. And the boy is seventeen, and she still thinks it's okay to change clothes in the same room as him- it's no wonder we're all waiting for the Oedipus Complex within Norman to really burst out. 

But in terms of how women are portrayed in fiction, she's devastatingly characterized by what happens to her body. In the pilot, she gets raped by the former owner of the motel, and kills him when Norman  leaves the room by stabbing his unconscious form repeatedly on the kitchen floor. She flirts like crazy with the sheriff and his deputy, focusing more on the latter when it doesn't work on the former. So she keeps using those feminine wiles to keep him from being suspicious  and then eventually starts sleeping with him to keep on his good side- he says he'll protect her, but only if she's good. Norman talks to her about it, and she basically says she'll do what she has to do, so be it. The deputy ends up beating her and raping  her, too, though, and in the, "I LOVE YOU WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME DO THIS!" way. Then a guy who thinks she stole money from him threatens to kill her. The sheriff steps in and deals with the guy, but not before she has a gun (or maybe knife?) to her throat in a car with the dude making the threats. Then she tells Dylan that her most recent husband, his step-father and Norman's actual father, was beating her, which caused Norman to black out and kill him- and all that was the impetus for them moving. And then, Oh God Then, she confesses to Norman that her brother raped her all the time when she was a little girl. 

So yeah, it's just flat-out painful to watch and slowly come to understand. Domestic violence and rape are all that make up her character- she's constantly a victim and whenever she seems to be doing something  for herself or Norman that wouldn't be bad, the next male comes in and threatens her body. Her body is targeted at least once per episode, and all we know about her backstory involves her body being abused. So while sure, she treats Norman like crap, the reasons seem to be  centered around the fact that she has been and is consistently being physically assaulted and used and abused. They were going for complexity, but it's actually fairly flat because it's all the same, horrific thing over and over again with her. I really don't have anything good to say about her, except that she's played fantastically. But all of the actors in this show are amazing- gotta give the casting director and these actors a lot of props. Especially Vera Farmiga, the gal playing  Norma. I mean, you could give her a load of crap for agreeing to play a character that's one-dimensional for such a terrible reason, but she  does it phenomenally. 

Oh, and yes, in very fucked up ways, she does love both of her sons. It's obvious she loves Norman more, though.


So the overall problem is that all of these women's bodies are used, by characters in the show (and its backstory)  for their own desires, goals, and urges; and by the writers of the show for dramatic purposes, in ways that remove autonomy and agency from these women. It's this latter part I find most troublesome. These characters are fiction, yes, and that argument is often used as a pass for stereotypes and negative portrayals. But the thing is, their being fiction means they're being created by real people that are choosing to construct them as objects and victims. And they're choosing to depict these women as emotionally unstable and abusive, and as using their bodies as a means to an end- be it desire, healing, friendship, or even protection, their bodies are what get them what they want in some way. I'm not saying I demand that when a character is assaulted she be fine and dandy the next day in the show- but seriously, using abuse and trauma as the main aspects of a woman's psyche continues/echoes the discourses of subordination of women embedded in the real world. 

So it isn't that these women are being objectified in-story, per se. It's the fact that someone in the real world chose to write the story that way. Why do writers do this all the time? I could scream, "Yar braw rabble-rabble, patriarchy blah  blah," but it's more nuanced than that. One  thing to consider about norms of behavior and interaction and perception is that they become embedded and ingrained in our everyday lives, to the point that they're second-nature and taken for granted- without even realizing it, we do things that uphold the status quo, and we get used to perceiving  things in certain ways. So writers coming from a real world that objectifies women's bodies and not really perceiving it in daily life means that when creating a fictional world, those writers will write the world  to reflect their own. Thus, if they don't think twice about whether something is objectifying a woman's body in the real world, they won't do it as they write their own. And even if they do often try to act as proponents of equality, it's easy to miss things that perpetuate inequality. So I'm not saying these writers are bad people. But it's sad that they don't have the thorough devotion necessary to avoid this sort of thing.

And that this devotion is necessary is, of course, shameful, as well. But I'm at this point giving the writers the benefit of the doubt and assuming this is all unintentional.

Now, if it's deliberate, we have a whole different can of worms, but I doubt I need to really argue how messed up that really is. 

-This is Gab. Over and out.