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24 Misogyny Watch: Day 3

It’s become something of a self-imposed curse: I can’t watch 24 anymore without noticing how it treats its female characters. I’ve written before on how the first two seasons of 24 seemed to suggest some bizarre woman-hatin’ streak among the show’s writers. Nearly every female character came across as an idiot, victim, schemer or some combination of the three.

Granted, it’s a bit silly for me to examine 24 for mistreatment of women when the Fox network is offering up so many more rich, meaty examples of misogyny — this is your cue to think of The Swan and recoil in finger-curling, full-grimace horror. The crucial difference, in my opinion, is that 24 seems to be made by smart people who want to create reasonably high-quality television, instead of, say, chattering cacodemons from the ninth circle of Hell. 24 promises more, and deserves to be held to a higher standard.

The good news is that this season was a significant improvement from the series’ first two years. Female characters were mostly treated as something other than Satan’s Own Hausfraus. Mostly.

Male characters had their share of nasty experiences this season — tortured, executed, shot in the neck, virus-infected, deprived of a hand. But too many of the female characters suffered more dramatic and gratuitous fates than the men, and too few of them shared the sort of complex motivations granted most male characters. Which suggests that, while it’s no longer portraying the ovary-bearing members of its cast as crybabies, nincompoops or frothy-mouthed hellbeasts, it’s still got a ways to go before I can devote my 24-watching time to more important questions — like, say, whether Jack Bauer could take Alias’s Jack Bristow in a fair fight. (I’m betting no. Bristow looks like a biter.)

Without further ado, here’s your scorecard:

CTU agent, lone beacon of female competence.

THE GOOD: Michele got to play loving wife to Tony “Soul Patch” Almeida without losing any of her superlative ass-kicking abilities. From her cool, compassionate command of a virus-infected hotel to her thoroughly awesome one-woman escape from the clutches of heavily armed ne’er-do-wells, Michelle basically owned every storyline she was in.

THE BAD: One early-season episode made Michelle look like an idiot for worrying that the bleeding gunshot wound in her husband’s neck made him unfit for duty. Because, yeah, that’s an unreasonable expectation. When she escaped from the very nasty people who threatened to mutilate her, Jack and Tony ordered her to let herself get recaptured for strategic purposes. Weirdly enough, she’s been demoted to a recurring character for next season. And there exists the unhappy possibility that actress Reiko Aylesworth only gets such an awesome role to play because she’s star Kiefer Sutherland’s current sweetie.

OVERALL: Michelle continues her proud tradition of seriously rocking for a second year.

CTU computer tech, fetching cougar bait.

THE GOOD: Kim didn’t do anything egregiously stupid this year. She was generally portrayed at being good at her job. And, in an episode I missed, I’m told she turned the tables quite nicely on a would-be attacker. She also stayed fully clothed all season.

THE BAD: Kim didn’t really do much of anything this year. The producers’ solution to the Great Cougar Debacle of 2003 was to have her mostly in the background, fretting about her relationship with her boyfriend and doing vague computery things. (“Open up a socket and patch me into the satellite feeds!”) Also, she, uh, stayed fully clothed all season.

OVERALL: A year without cougars is a step in the right direction.

Pure evil, in convenient womanly form.

THE GOOD: Nina actually got to stick around for a while this year, and she definitely made an impression. Fierce, uncompromising, and terrifyingly good at sowing mayhem, Nina was certainly no one’s victim.

THE BAD: Nina’s amped-up badassitude wiped away any sort of ambiguity about her character’s morals. Unlike last season’s brief glimpse or two of humanity, she was one-note evil all the way. And yes, she was reaching for that gun in her final moments, but Jack still shot her like a dog, in cold blood.

OVERALL: Next season won’t be as much fun without her.

Lady MacBeth meets Donna Reed.

THE GOOD: Penny Johnson Gerald turned in a marvelously malevolent performance as President Palmer’s whacked-out ex-wife. The producers openly acknowledged that Sherry’s Machiavellian scheming was ridiculous, hissable good fun.

THE BAD: Why did Sherry turn the Seven Deadly Sins into a handy to-do list this season? Because she wanted her ex-husband to marry her again. She even got a whole dewy-eyed scene to explain this as she clung adoringly to her baffled former spouse. Clearly, to win back the man you ruthlessly manipulated, why bother with flowers when murder, blackmail and extortion will do? Giving Sherry a twisted ideal of domestic bliss as her ultimate motive undermined all the initiative, intelligence and strength she’d displayed in the course of her evildoing. She’s a vicious bee-yotch, yeah, but deep down inside, she really just wants to bake cookies.

OVERALL: When Ann Coulter looks good in comparison, something has gone terribly wrong.

Rich wife; terrible role model.

THE GOOD: Gina Torres is a talented and lovely actress who’s made memorable appearances on shows like Alias, Angel and especially Firefly.

THE BAD: Julia Milliken went from unrepentantly unfaithful wife — married to a tyrannical, crippled husband solely for his money — to blubbering patsy for Sherry’s evil deeds. And when that wasn’t bad enough, the writers had her wig out, shoot Sherry, and then turn the gun on herself. 24’s sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of the American wife marches on!

OVERALL: If she keeps getting roles like this, Gina Torres needs to fire her agent. Out of a cannon.

Drug lord’s concubine; courageous and conscientious mother.

THE GOOD: Claudia, mistress to the less psychotic of a pair of Mexican drug lords, proved to be a refreshingly strong and resilient character. To protect her son and father, she daringly rescued a CTU agent from his torturers and helped him escape from her husband’s heavily guarded ranch.

THE BAD: Claudia’s reward? A stray bullet to the head. For most of her screen time, she was defined solely by her sexual relationships with both Jack and her trigger-happy novio.

OVERALL: Does 24 writers’ room include a Wheel of Stray Bullets with female characters’ names on it?

Annoying, puffy-faced CTU computer whiz.

THE GOOD: Chloe was damned good at her job, saving CTU’s computer network from a devastating attack. She consistently tried to act for what she considered the greater good, not her own good. She displayed rock-solid integrity when sticking up for her friends.

THE BAD: Chloe was whiny, sullen, prone to tattle on coworkers, and generally tactless.

OVERALL: I thought Chloe was this year’s most interesting character on 24, male or female. Was she obnoxious and short-sighted? Yes, but in an entirely ordinary way. She wasn’t a nigh-infallible saint like Michelle, or a grotesque parody of office politics like Season 2’s awful Carrie The Evil One. She was just a person, warts and all — a well-rounded approach that 24 could use more of, on both sides of the gender line.

Loving daughter, hostage.

THE GOOD: Even when she discovered her dad was a sleazy superterrorist, Jane remained cool, calm and collected. She stayed touchingly devoted to her dad without failing to acknowledge just what a monster he was.

THE BAD: Can you say “human chess piece”? She wasn’t so much a character as a MacGuffin in the ongoing duel between Jack and her evil dad. There was even a lovely scene in which Jack bluffed her dad by having men in gas masks haul Jane, flailing and screaming, toward certain death inside a virus-infested hotel.

OVERALL: Still better than Season 2-era Kim.

Overly trusting sister, former Jack Bauer paramour.

THE GOOD: At no time did Kate attempt to bribe murderous arch-conservative yokels with brightly colored Euros.

THE BAD: Kate got a one-scene cameo at the beginning of Season 3, which mostly involved Jack breaking up with her via cellphone. Classy.

OVERALL: Kate who?

Short-lived love interest to David Palmer.

THE GOOD: Wendy Crewson’s not a bad actress in the least.

THE BAD: Dr. Anne spent her entire brief time on the show being defined only through her relationship with President Palmer. As a result, she failed to make any impression at all.

OVERALL: Doctor huh?

Terrorist associate, former prostitute/spy.

THE GOOD: Unafraid to give Jack an eyeful as she changes to accompany him to an interrogation. Greets intruders in her home at gunpoint.

THE BAD: Gal pal of a murderous superterrorist. Ex-prostitute turned Heidi-Fleiss-ish madam. Killed by gunfire in a preposterous helicopter attack. Barely onscreen long enough to make any sort of impression at all.

OVERALL: If you’re going to bring in a character just to add some sex appeal to the show, at least have the courtesy not to kill her off 15 minutes later.

Stupid girlfriend.

THE GOOD: Actress Agnes Bruckner looks very nice, if a bit too skinny, in a bikini.

THE BAD: Mostly exists to have sex with her idiot boyfriend, freak out, get captured, or scream.

Very smart doctor-people.

THE GOOD: Knew their stuff. Never freaked out. The one who used to be on NYPD Blue sussed out Jack’s entirely obvious heroin addiction in something like 20 seconds.

THE BAD: Turned up, said stuff, vanished.

Nudity-prone lesbian murderess.

THE GOOD: Did nothing evil whatsoever this season.

THE BAD: Didn’t actually appear this season. And given her failure to successfully poison President Palmer at the end of last year, it would seem that she’s not all that good at the whole murdering business.

OVERALL: I’m surprised that Fox would exclude a nudity-prone lesbian murderess from any of their programming.

Still dead.


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