There are a lot of reasons to love Bones, the show. This blog published 100 of them, in fact. One of the reasons I love the show, though, and encourage my teenage daughter to watch it with me, is because Bones is a particularly interesting show for women. It subverts and even obliterates television tropes about female characters and how they behave.
The first and most obvious example is the Smurfette Principle. No, it’s not the reason Brennan hates Secret Santa. In this context, the Smurfette Principle is the tendency among works of fiction with an ensemble cast to have just one female character. It is of course a reference to Smurfette, the sole female in all of Smurfdom. (By the way, Smurfette was genetically engineered by Gargamel in hopes that a female would cause such dissension in the all-male Smurf society that they would fall apart and thus make them more susceptible to attack. There’s some subtext for you!)
Since season two, the ratio of male to female major characters (named cast members in the credits) on Bones has been 50/50, a ratio not found in any other procedural except Castle, which actually has ratio of five major female characters to three major male characters as of its fourth season. Brenda Leigh Johnson of The Closer might be an incredibly strong and powerful female character, but Brenda Lee, you are a Smurfette.
Then there’s the Bedchel test, which is a litmus test for well-developed female presence in TV and film. It poses three simple questions. Does the show or movie have more than one female character? Do they interact with each other? Most importantly, do the female characters have at least one conversation that is not about men? Brennan and Angela do talk about men. But they also talk about animal rights, Angela’s struggles with her job, art, and whatever topic is raised by the case of the week. Cam and Brennan talk about work more than anything, but we all remember the touching conversation they had about Michelle in The Doctor in the Den as well. Angela and Cam discussed the slave ship victims in Shallow in the Deep and they too often discuss work.
So Bones passes the Smurfette test and the Bedchel test. What’s next?
Of the three major female characters, two of them, Brennan and Cam, hold the positions of authority within the show’s universe. Their gender is virtually irrelevant in terms of their success. Brennan, for example, is referred to as the best forensic anthropologist in the world, not the best female anthropologist in the world. Booth objects to Brennan performing certain activities because she is not a cop, not because she is a woman. “The gun goes first,” he tells her (not the guy, the gun.) And speaking of guns, while gun ownership is an issue for Brennan due to her “shoot first, warn later” philosophy, in times of danger Booth has never been hesitant to give Brennan his own weapon (insert your own gun as penis metaphor here).
Those times of danger, by the way, are equal opportunity. Another trope Bones frequently subverts is the Damsel in Distress. In a typical DiD scenario, a female character is in danger, forcing the Hero,with or without the help of the rest of the cast, to rescue her. Brennan is in danger about once per season, but minus one exception, she does not simply wait to be rescued but fights very hard to rescue herself.
In season 1’s Two Bodies in the Lab, Brennan would certainly have been killed had Booth and the SWAT team not arrived in time. But the fact that they had time to arrive was due to her tenacious fighting, even while bound. In season 2, she and Hodgins essentially saved themselves in Aliens in a Spaceship. In season 3, Brennan dismissed wounds from a bomb full of human teeth as a mere “flesh wound” and continued working the case. In season 4, Con Man in the Meth Lab, she got shot in the arm, an injury she again dismisses, and goes about her business. Season 5, Harbingers in the Fountain, she takes a scalpel to the forearm, and placidly yanks it out to apply pressure to the wound.
The near-car accident in season 6’s Doctor in the Photo is the only time Brennan is truly a damsel in distress and rescued entirely through someone else’s efforts. But, a recurring theme of that episode was that Brennan was not acting like herself.
What makes Brennan’s occasional forays into danger unique in procedurals is the lack of a sexual element or explicit scenes of violence. The most damage Brennan has visibly suffered was probably her assault in Man in the Morgue. She is shown covered in blood, but fully dressed, and is quickly cleaned up. We never see her being struck or hit. Olivia Benson from SVU, Brenda Leigh Johnson from The Closer, Catherine Willows from CSI have all been victims of rape or attempted rape. Jane Rizzoli is impaled by serial killer, The Surgeon (which we see in a flashback). Detective Eames, from Law and Order Criminal Intent, is captured by a serial killer, partially undressed and strung up on a hook, then repeatedly tortured. Emily Prentiss of Criminal Minds is repeatedly hit by a cult leader in the episode Minimal Loss, then tied to a bed.
The violence that is inflicted on the actual characters is nothing, however, to that which is inflicted on the “victim of the week.” The victims on Bones are usually well past the point where they even look human. Gross? Maybe. But not nearly as disgusting as the long, lingering camera pans up and down the scantily clad bodies of living or recently murdered victims (usually young, nubile and female) that you see on Law and Order SVU, CSI (in all its incarnations) The Closer, Criminal Minds, Homicide: Life on the Street, NCIS, etc that essentially fetishize violence against women.
The Girl in the Fridge featured a victim who was sexually assaulted; an assault that is sensitively verbally referenced but not shown. Compare that to an episode of CSI: Miami in which female victims are show wrapped in plastic and covered in honey, or an episode of Criminal Minds in which the victims are strippers, forced to dance for their captors, then gang raped and chased through a cornfield – all of which is shown to the viewer in slow and loving detail.
As gruesome as the bodies are on Bones, the show does not glamorize violence or the violent death of women.
The show does glamorize its female characters though. They are all physically attractive and those assets are occasionally on display. But so are the assets of the male cast members. By the end of season one, every character but Dr. Goodman appeared onscreen in some state of undress. For every moment Brennan’s cleavage is front and center, there is a moment when Booth is objectified or put on display (or put on a gurney and wheeled through the lab in just his socks and boxers.). You could argue that the ideal scenario would have no objectification, but this is a visual medium and the cast are pretty people and it happens. At least on Bones it happens equally among the male and female characters. In fact, I would argue that Booth is a far more objectified character, in terms of the comments that are made about his appearance by other characters (had Angela’s “you should buy a ticket on that ride” comment, for example, been made by Hodgins about Brennan…we’d have a whole different show. But probably still on Fox.)
Of course the show isn’t just about pretty people wielding guns and solving crimes and rescuing each other. It’s also about relationships. On Bones, the usual stereotypes about men and women in relationships are turned upside down. It’s the men of Bones who are eagerly searching for commitment and the women who are more practical and reluctant to “settle down”. We see this in all couples. Booth/Brennan, Hodgins/Angela, Sweets/Daisy and even in our brief glimpses of Cam and Paul. On the subject of children, we are given three different viewpoints: Angela, who has always wanted children; Cam, who has consistently said she does not want a baby, and Brennan, who liked children but did not particularly want them until she wanted to have a child with the specific person she loves.
The show is also sometimes about relationships that end and when they end on Bones there are no histrionics, no catfighting, no Alexis and Krystle tumbling into the fountain. Although Booth’s ex, Rebecca is sometimes used to conveniently explain why Parker is offscreen, she and Booth ended their relationship with a mature, reasonable discussion in The Truth in the Lye. Booth and Cam are former lovers that have remained good friends. Angela and Hodgins broke up and remained friends. Caroline Julian and her ex-husband chat amiably during Max’s trial. The love triangle of Booth, Brennan, and Hannah wasn’t really a love triangle at all, because everyone involved behaved like adults. Maybe that cost the show a little drama, but portraying Brennan as jealous or catty or bitter would have been such a disservice to her character. Two women fighting over a man is not drama, it’s demeaning to the women involved and to women in general. I had my issues with the Hannah storyline, but I am forever thankful that the writers did not pit Hannah and Brennan against each other in competition for Booth.
Behind the scenes, 59 of the show’s 134 episodes aired to date were written or co-written by women. When you consider that only 16% of television shows currently on the air employ women writers at all (according to the Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film) those 59 episodes represent quite an impressive statistic. Eleven of those 134 episodes have been directed by women. Consider that only 11% of all television episodes are directed by women.
There are things the show doesn’t do for women. The very real issues of sexism that Brennan and Cam would face in the hard sciences is completely ignored, for example. But Bones has never been a show with an Issue of the Week and I would never want to see the typical, pandering, Very Special Episode that other shows present to piggyback off of the current media firestorm. (“Tonight on Bones, Parker learns an important lesson about cyber-bulling!“). No, that doesn’t happen. It’s not that kind of show. In fact, the show presents a rather endearingly optimistic vision of society in which sexism, racism, homophobia and intolerance don’t really exist. Brennan is an atheist. Angela is biracial and bisexual. Cam is African American. We all know that in the real world, how these women are perceived and treated would be influenced by those truths. But in the show’s world, they are simply Brennan, Angela, and Cam, three complex women whose gender, sexuality, ethnicity and religious beliefs are simply one aspect of who they are.
Of course, the show isn’t perfect in its portrayal of women. The costuming department did women no favors by dressing allegedly serious journalist Hannah in a see-through blouse and having her act as though she thought it was an entirely appropriate garment to wear on the job. (Really, show? Really?) There have also been times in season 6, and in these first few episodes of season 7, that Brennan was in the rather concerning position of being taught a lesson in human behavior by a bunch of men. Those were eyebrow-raising moments for me. I hope “Brennan makes a relationship mistake and Booth forgives her” does not become the theme of the season. Booth and Brennan have always been portrayed as a very “equal” couple, giving and taking, supporting and accepting support, and I hope that equity doesn’t disappear simply because they are now in a romantic relationship.
But when the series is considered as a whole, when you look at the big picture (and all the little considerations that go into keeping a show on the air for seven years), and measure it against all the other
crap programming out there, Bones is an exceptional show for women. And it actually does well in the ratings! Even in the key demographic! Networks, take note.