11 January 2011

Maverick TV: Breaking the Rules yet Upholding the Status Quo

Who was it that said he didn't have time to write a short letter so his correspondent would end up getting a long one? Well, today, it is me. I am already late on this post, and it's been percolating as a post since before this blog was even a thought of a blog. And I've found a way to overexplain what I mean in every single paragraph. And being late, and tired, I am going to take the easy way out and put a jump in, instead of editing.

You know him. Well, you don’t personally know him. You know of him. You’ve totally seen him. He’s the star of your favorite movie or television show. He’s also the star of your mom’s favorite television show, and most likely your little brother’s, too. You’d probably be sleeping with him right now, except for the fact that he doesn’t actually exist. He’s the maverick!

“Maverick” is defined (on dictionary.com) in three ways. It’s an unbranded calf in the southwestern US. It’s a particular kind of cruise missile. And it’s “a lone dissenter, as an intellectual, an artist, or a politician, who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates.” In this case, I’m talking about that as relates to entertainment, specifically television, because “the Maverick” has become a stock character. Not just a stock character either: he’s become a stock star. He’s Gregory House on House. He’s the Doctor on Doctor Who. He’s Richard Castle on Castle, Cal Lightman on Lie to Me, Nate Ford on Leverage, Patrick Jane on The Mentalist, Mal Reynolds on Firefly, Fox Mulder on The X-Files, Geoffrey Tennant on Slings and Arrows, Jimmy McNulty on The Wire. Trust me, you’ve seen him.  (He’s not new, either. You’ve met him before as Sherlock Holmes, d’Artagnan, Robin Hood.)

Earlier this week, Cracked.com did a whole piece on things that are true about smart people on TV that are epicly not true about smart people in real life. I have very mixed feelings about Cracked, which is occasionally funny and insightful and occasionally all “rape is hilarious,” so I’m hesitant to link there, but this article falls mostly into the first category. And they do mention some things that I want to reference here, most notably: the smart guy on TV who is also – kind of a jackass.

He has excuses, though! He is handicapped by his own unbelievable brilliance. He can’t play by the rules! He can’t be bounded by rules! Rules infringe on his awesomeness, and here is the kicker: he is so very awesome, he can afford not to play by the rules. If a normal person tried to get away with one tenth the stuff these guys pull on a regular basis, they would be fired by the end of the day, if not imprisoned or deported. Not our Maverick, though: the rule-abiding folks need him. He is better at his job than any number of them put together, because he hasn’t lost his creativity and doesn’t compromise himself by following social norms. He’s too honest, too good, too precious to pin down.

He’s a very attractive character, and not just because he’s often played by Nathan Fillion.  I want to be like that, the viewer thinks. I want to tell those assholes just what I think of them, and I want to be so awesome that they can’t possibly retaliate! Dude, are you kidding? I have that want pretty much every day, and I had it many times a day when I was working retail. I love the maverick, so much so that all those examples are from shows I’m personally familiar with. (I’m sure I missed a bunch of great ones ‘cause I’ve never seen Law and Order or NCIS.)

But there are two big lady-business problems with the maverick as a TV trope, even leaving aside the problems he presents by himself. One, he’s almost never a she. And two, he usually brings along some lady baggage, in the form of his rule-abiding friend.

Point the first. I named ten examples of mavericks over the last fifteen or so years of TV, just off the top of my head. I could probably keep going, if I started getting less picky about my definition and my time frame. (Chuck’s a doof, but could fit. You could make an argument for Dexter – I assume, anyway; that show creeps me out – or for Remington Steele, or Peter Bishop on Fringe, or any number of people.) How many can you name who are female? I came up with one  really strong example -- Veronica Mars, on her eponymous short-lived TV show -- and a couple of honorable mentions. Buffy, from her also-eponymous, rather longer-lived TV show, breaks all the rules and makes her own, and she can’t be fired. But she does face some nasty consequences, and more to the point, she doesn’t make her own rules because her brilliance can’t be expressed any other way. She makes her own rules because she has several sets of rules being forced on her from several different sides, and she has to make her own rules in order to compromise well between them. Sue Sylvester on Glee is a delightful maverick, but she only gets half credit because she’s the villain of the piece and uses devious tactics to stay in power instead of being too awesome to get rid of (except in the meta-sense).

(There’s Bones, of course; some people see Dr. Brennan as a sort of female maverick, since she is brilliant but has no time for social skills. But they overlook the fact that the world of the show is Brennan’s world – most of it takes place in her lab, and most of the cast is made up of her scientific associates. They have their own social rules and norms, different from those the outside world, and she fits in perfectly there. The real maverick in Bones is Agent Booth, who comes in and disrupts the world of scientific study with his gut feelings and guesses of motive. He has a hard time interacting socially with the scientists, and he is the one they can’t get rid of, since he brings them their cases.)

So we’ve got a 10:1 ratio, or higher, of male to female mavericks. That is already a bad ratio, and I’m not even sure it’s the correct one. You’d need a huge maverick-naming marathon session with someone who has much more pop culture at their fingertips than I do. Now, any ratio that favors one sex so heavily over the other is a little worrying, but not necessarily bad. I haven’t looked up the ratio of men to women for CEOs or serial killers, but I bet they’re equally lopsided, and, hey, I like being of the non-serial-killer gender. The reason I point it out, though, is the place the maverick holds in our consciousness.

Because the maverick is a cultural preoccupation. Having studied one or two other eras, and noting their cultural preoccupations, I feel pretty confident saying that the maverick is one of ours. And it’s easy to see why it’s attractive. There’s a feeling in the country right now of a sort of long-term boringness. (Maybe I see it that way because I’m in my twenties myself, and that’s supposed to be when it hits. Maybe not.) That you go to work, day after day, and you do the same thing, and you earn your health care or whatever, and you have kids, politicians screw you over, and it’s a little too close to the dystopia of The Giver for our comfort level. And so one of our fantasies, as a culture, is to break out of that, by being so awesome that the “boring” rules – that are usually in place for fairness and safety reasons – don’t apply to us anymore.

(I’m talking TV here, but don’t imagine that I couldn’t do a whole other post on this preoccupation and how it contributes to the approximately 8 million superhero movies that come out every year, half of which are origin stories. And it doesn’t take a lot of lefty intellect to link it to the Tea Party and Sarah Palin either, with all that that implies – especially given recent events. But again, whole other post.)

So when it’s seen in that context, well, that ratio becomes a little more disturbing. Men break out of the rules and are brilliant and devil-may-care. Women have another role. The maverick comes pre-packaged with a ready-made sidekick/nemesis/romantic interest/all of the above. She is the Rules-Abider, and she is there to make him look that much more awesome.

There is no maverick who doesn’t come with this friend. Think about it, and sing along if you know the words. Lisa Cuddy (with a backup in James Wilson). Amy Pond and her fellow companions. Kate Beckett. Gillian Ford. Nate is a special case; since he’s changed sides, he can almost serve as his own -- but he’s also got Sophie ready to pick up his slack. Carrying on: Teresa Lisbon. Inara Serra. Dana Scully. Ellen Fanshaw. Rhonda Perlman, for the lady; there are plenty of other cops who fill this role for McNulty. The ladies have them too: Veronica has Wallace, Buffy has Giles, and Sue, of course, has Schue.

Why? Because the Rules-Abider-Friend (from now on to be known as RAF) is absolutely essential in showing exactly how mavericky our hero is. If he could just break the rules without someone noticing, who cares? Talk about low stakes. I do that every time I roll through a stop sign when there are no cops around. (Not when I borrow your car, though, Mom, don’t worry.)

To qualify as a maverick you have to a) break the rules vigorously and often and b) be so good that you can’t be got rid of. The RAF is there to make sure the audience sees both of those things. Every time the maverick breaks a rule, there’s his RAF. “You can’t do that!” these observant friends cry. “Are you crazy? I understand why you did it, because I’m empathetic, but I’m also practical, so I can see it will never work, and you’ve just ruined your last chance to ...”

Lo and behold, however, the maverick’s crazy stunt has worked! The RAF is aghast, and though she is usually in a position to do so, does not punish the maverick. “Shape up next time,” she tells him, “I can’t protect you forever.” The RAF has usually gotten ahead in life by following the rules. She’s smart too, but her intelligence works within the rules, instead of outside them. She’s always used the rules to get ahead, she’s become exceptional in her field by following the rules. The maverick is there to shake up her world, as he shakes up ours, and she can never control him, whether she wishes to or not.

Okay. On the side of art, here, that’s a dynamic, high-stakes relationship to watch. (What did I say? Seriously like five of my favorite shows are on that list, and I bet five of your favorites are too.) Artistically, the RAF works beautifully. Sometimes.

It’s when you start to unpack it that cracks start appearing. Let’s not lie: the RAF is often a nag, and the maverick is often a jackass. If you follow the gender stereotypes, it’s insulting to men as well as women: it implies men can’t follow simple rules – that are, again, usually common sense – and are arrogant and rude. It implies that women can’t  see the forest for the trees, that they can only follow clearly laid-out instructions, and, in extreme cases that they yell at our mavericky hero for no bloody reason at all. (Hey, didn’t he just do something that worked?)

That stuff is there, under the surface, the memory of a thousand eighties sitcoms with the happy-go-lucky but doofy husband and his nagging, practical wife who can’t have fun. That’s nobody’s friend. But we’ve evolved! It’s 2010 now! They can learn to compromise – by falling in love.

Look at the list again and tell me how many of those couples weren’t linked sexually, or, if the show is still running, aren’t moving in that direction. Yeah.

You know who isn’t? Veronica and Wallace, who have one of the most platonic boy-girl relationships ever seen on TV. (Buffy and Giles aren’t either, thank God.) When the girl is mavericky, there’s no romance. When the guy is... well.

And hey again, because we’ve already established that smart-people-in-love is like my personal favorite trope ever of all time, which I don’t like admitting because it basically tells you everything you need to know about me, and I am no longer a woman of mystery. And some of the maverick-RAF romances walk the line nicely; that’s how I differentiate the shows I buy on DVD from the shows I quit watching after season one. But it is a line to be walked, and the reason is that the romance is more often than not, teaching the RAF Lady to mellow the fuck out. As she falls for the maverick (and she always does) she learns the value of winging it occasionally, of relying on intuition, of lightening up and letting her hair down. Of not being such a nag.

And from there, oh, my friends. We’re back to the good old days, where I have to put a mild trigger warning on this paragraph. Women just need to lighten up and appreciate the love of a good man, don’t cha know? And aside from being insulting (which it always is) and aside from being untrue (which it usually is) and aside from being gender-stereotyped (when men need to lighten up and get laid, it’s in movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it’s other men who tell them so, not women) – aside from all that, it contributes to everything in our culture that says women don’t even realize how much they need sex until they get some. And what does that justify? “It’s not rape, it’s surprise sex!” (Remember, playing by the PC rules is just a big pain in the ass for our mavericks!)

And that’s the way our culture – sometimes, not always – takes something interesting and debatable and made of compromise and re-sculpts it into more justification for telling the hos to shut up.

Look, like I said. Not every show that has a maverick follows this trope, by any means. (Your Mileage May Vary on any of the examples above. Personally, I love me some Castle, some Doctor Who, some Slings and Arrows, and my issues with The Wire and Firefly have nothing to do with McNulty or Mal. But then again, I had to quit both The Mentalist and House when they started moving in the romance direction with their leads. For the exact reasons I’m talking about here.)

Really, what I’m on about is that this is a case of a good and interesting preoccupation occasionally being turned into a justification for the status quo and a way for privileged people to  fight those who wish to even the playing field a little. When you're too awesome for the rules, who cares about all that PC bullshit?

The maverick is a fantasy, and that's great. We need that. But he's a person-fantasy that is so often -- even when done well -- made over into a white-guy fantasy. And sometimes, he really does get called on his behavior. And he learns boundaries. And he learns to respect things. But when you've set up a character that is everyone's rule-breaking fantasy, you have to walk a very careful line if you ever want him to follow any rules, or respect any boundaries. Too far either way and you've written yourself into a corner; the only question is whether it's the Unchanging Asshole Corner (House) or the Inconsistent Pussy-Whipped Corner (ironically, also occasionally House).

There are a lot of people smarter than I who write essays about things like how people in power, in entertainment, who we look up to, shape our behavior. I don't know enough about that topic to begin to link it to what I'm saying here. But if the maverick is a real cultural preoccupation, and I think he is, then he shows us our fears and darker sides as much as our fantasies and wishes.

I’m sure I haven’t begun to touch on half of what there is to say about this; I’ve spent too much time giving specific examples. Holler back in the comments.


  1. I quite like this post and largely agree with your critique, although I do think that a few of your examples are less one sided than they seem.

    -Firefly mixes things up by having a larger female cast including a brilliant female antagonist in the YoSafBridge. The closest thing to an RAF in the series is Zoe and there was never a romantic relationship there (that was the torture talking, remember? The torture?). Simon also fits and there was no romance there either...sadly <_<

    -Fringe really puts the entire team in the maverick role and leaves Agent Broyles and Agent Francis (and poor Astrid) holding the bag. Although I won't deny that Peter probably most fits the bill, Olivia has certainly had many moments (and honestly probably has a better track record for being vindicated in her convictions than Peter).

    -House is really problematic in this regard, but credit where it is due, they did try (with debatable success) to shake things up with both Amber and Remy as strong female characters with a devil may care attitude who often manage to get away with things none of the rest of the team would (other than House himself). Even Cameron had her moments in season two and three (although forgot all of them due to magic plot convenience in season six, that was a little infuriating).

    However, you have hit the pervasive nature of the trope, its appeal, and its problematic nature spot on. Although there are such better dystopia (no, not only to compare our world to, also just flat out better) than The Giver...

    Now, ima go think about Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher some more. I'll be in my bunk.

  2. Firefly is definitely a more complicated show than a bunch of the others I've named. (I don't usually like arguing about it much because I don't seem to have the Firefly-loving geek gene that most people do. You should know that going in.) But the reason I used it as an example is the relationship between Mal and Inara. Mal considers himself a moral rule-breaker, and thinks that Inara is an immoral rule-follower. This is the basis for half their arguments. Inara often complains that Mal doesn't follow the rules, and Mal complains that Inara doesn't follow (his) moral code. He thinks the rules that Inara abides by are wrong. It's more complicated than the relationship between, say, House and Cuddy is, for sure. But it does boil down to rules and anti-rules. I would argue that Zoe isn't as good an example, because the rules she follows are Mal's, and so there often isn't a conflict. (When there is a conflict between Mal and Zoe, it's rarely related to Mal's position against society.) There are a lot of mavericky permutations and mixed relationships in Firefly, but Mal's and Inara's is played relatively close to the trope, I think.

    I haven't watched enough Fringe to see the examples you mention. (Does it ever pick up? I seriously tried season one and after four episodes I was so bored I had to stop.) So I didn't get to see Olivia get all rule-break-y, but I'm willing to believe she does. At the beginning of the series, she is presented as the one who got ahead within the rules, while Peter is the one who got ahead by staying outside them. (Again, they've played with it more, since Walter doesn't fit into the trope particularly well on either side. He didn't always play by the rules and it got him in much more serious trouble than he imagined.)

    Again with House, there definitely were permutations. I have a hard time unpacking them -- although I really should -- because I kind of hated Amber. I liked Remy okay, but she seemed watered-down in certain respects, and I still don't know how I feel about Cameron. Sometimes I liked her, and sometimes she seemed to only break the rules because she was chasing one of the boys on the team, which gave me a lot of pause. I watch House off and on, and so the journeys of the other characters don't always stick in my mind in great detail. What does is Cuddy being nominally superior to House and yet being completely impotent where he's concerned, and that's what bothers me.

    And, heh. I'm sure there are, Giver was just the first thing that came to mind...

  3. Crap, I wrote a whole response to this and then my computer ate it. Bullet points:

    -Firefly: I think Inara is more a force for order than a force for rules or even society (c.f. "Trash" "Jaynestown" "Heart of Gold"). I think though that it can be read multiple ways since her character arc was truncated so shortly in.
    -Fringe: Olivia gets things done within and without the rules with impunity. Peter probably breaks the rules more but it clearly has consequences (both emotional and physical) for him. And I think in terms of mavericksness the untouchable/superior nature is primary to just the raw number of times you break the rules. I mean, no one finds contrarians attractive. It does pick up in my opinion (am in the middle of season 2). Oddly both seasons start poorly and pick up as they go along. Kind of like Buffy in that regard: you need both the Monster of the Week episodes and the metaplot/big bad episodes to really get the full kick of a season. However, if you don't already like the premise and the characters, you probably still won't like it even when things click. And the science hurts >_< It is such a guilty pleasure.
    -I agree that Cuddy and Wilson have been sacrificed as characters to prop up the bulk of House, and even though Hugh Laurie is an avatar of awesome walking the earth, this makes me sad.