Why Do Writers Keep Making Smart Women Dumb?

We’ve all seen it or read it way too often: a smart woman character, amateur detective or not, suddenly does something totally stupid and you shout at the TV screen or want to throw the book across the room. There should be a name for it because it’s not just what aficionados call “femjep,” it’s worse: it’s a combination of sexism and cheating the audience or readers. The writers take a character we know to be highly intelligent and subvert her intelligence for the sake of the plot.

The latest, best example I’ve seen was on Scandal, which features the brilliant, dynamic Washington, D.C. political fixer Olivia Pope. She’s fierce and fiercely intelligent, a brilliant generalissimo who can multi-task her way out of situations that would leave us ordinary folk paralyzed and possibly even comatose.

Lots of people had been abducted on the show–recently it was her turn. She was terrified and threatened, but for the most part unharmed, not starved, tortured, sexually abused, subjected to solitary confinement, or raped. All in all, not the most horrific circumstances imaginable.

olivia

For years Scandal fans have admired how her quicksilver mind can out-think anyone, but guess what happened when she was put into a dismal prison cell with a stranger? Instead of being instantly suspicious (why is she sharing a cell?), she was warm, sympathetic, and curious. I’ve watched countless movies and TV shows where the other prisoner is always a plant or spy who’s there to elicit information, yet Olivia went all soft and huggy, and she far too easily confided her biggest secret to him: that she was close to the President of the United States and he would do anything to find her and free her.

It was grossly unbelievable. This woman is always thinking of motives and secrets and chess moves. Nothing that’d happened to her has been enough to shake her habitual acumen. (And when that cellmate was dragged off and shot, because it happened off-camera, you just knew he wasn’t dead.)

Fans of the show have long admired her lightning-fast impulses and brilliant planning that make her almost a superhero. So at the point in the episode when she finally makes her escape, she grabs a guard’s gun and shoots him, but then drops it! She only takes his keys and runs for the locked prison doors.

That was even more ridiculous than her becoming confessional with her cell mate. But it was obviously forced on her character for script purposes so that she wouldn’t shoot the guy waiting for her when she burst out of her prison. Guess what? That man was her former cell mate. Could the clichés pile any higher?

Twice in one show, the writers turned a fast-thinking, amazingly intelligent woman into the basic dumb female in a thriller. All they left out was mindless shrieking. And the move was deeply, unconsciously sexist. I doubt they would have let a man drop the gun while making an escape.

Lev Raphael was The Detroit Free Press crime fiction reviewer for a decade before moving to radio and online reviewing. His 25th book is Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and police militarization. You can check out his books on Amazon here.
Follow Lev Raphael on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for this excellent article on character consistency.

    In my own writing, I try hard to at least make the behavior make sense by showing a pattern of it somewhere. Showing a character’s vulnerability must have a foundation and a source, or it breaks the suspension of disbelief.

    Kudos, Lev, for posting a great writing resource. 🙂

    • Thanks, Jess. You’re so right about vulnerability. It has to be established somehow, somewhere. It can’t just be dropped in where and when a writer needs it to fill a plot hole.

      I’m glad you stopped by.

  2. Right on, Lev:
    I responded in the same way to her dialogue with the cellmate, and her dropping the gun. Pathetic, plot-convenience writing. But then, in a larger sense, her ongoing romance with such an obvious asshole as the President is, discredits her and the entire premise of the show.

    • I would disagree there: her one major weakness/character flaw is her love for the Prez who she’s also invested a huge amount of time in electing, though Jake is hands down a much better match. 🙂 But the show often telegraphs what’s happening, as when she was dancing–as soon as I heard Stevie Wonder sing “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” I knew she’d be snatched.

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