From Homeland’s Carrie to Hunted’s Sam: why are smart heroines always such an emotional mess?

We can't have capable, well adjusted women in TV dramas, can we, says Alison Graham, because that would upset the whole order of things...

Security operative Sam Hunter in Hunted (Thursday BBC1) turns people’s faces to mush when she bashes them with fire extinguishers and is adept at hanging from beams like an angry bat as she kicks her foes to bits. But, bless her, she has such a special relationship with the motherless wee boy she looks after as part of her cover-story. That’s because, as we see in endless flashbacks, something awful happened to Sam’s mother when Sam was a child that has left Sam eternally watchful and damaged.


Honestly, she might just as well knit skirts for tiny kittens, or weave blankets for fairies from angel hair, such is the obvious message – Sam is a tough and violent woman, but don’t be scared because at heart she is an emotional mess. So she can’t be that frightening, can she, really? Don’t run away, male viewers!

This is the new stereotype for clever women in television dramas. Look at Carrie Mathison in Homeland (tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4). A brilliant, intuitive CIA agent, the only intelligence expert who knew kidnapped US soldier Nicholas Brody had been turned by his captors into a potential terrorist. But yes, Carrie is damaged and terribly fragile. She has serious mental health problems and cannot form good relationships (she foolishly and unprofessionally fell for Brody in the first series).

The message here is one that has drifted far, far away from the days when women in TV dramas were merely decorative or stupid or both. Carrie and Sam are clever and driven, but they have to be driven to the point of derangement because, in a twisted way, it makes them unthreatening to audiences. The message is being telegraphed that they are strong, but they are weak at the same time – they are not “normal” women. They need vulnerabilities otherwise we’ll all be scared of them, won’t we? And we can’t have scary women in TV dramas, can we, because that would upset the whole order of things? Besides, ladies, that’s what you get when your relationship with work is the real love of your life.

This kind of portrayal isn’t confined to complex thrillers. Admittedly it’s not on the “deranged” scale but in the detective series DCI Banks (Wednesday ITV1), Banks’s partner DI Helen Morton (Caroline Catz) is a highly intelligent woman who is probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum because she is hopeless in social situations and needs guidance with responses to her colleagues. Shades of The Bridge’s Saga Noren here, I think. And in the medical soap Monroe (Monday ITV1), brilliant heart surgeon Jenny Bremner (Sarah Parish) is so chilly and emotionally closed down she finds friendly communication with her patients difficult and she is driving her partner away.

Of course strong male characters are routinely emotionally messed up, but this only adds to their attractiveness, apparently. Back to DCI Banks, where the detective, a miserable sod with “issues”, has women dropping on him like caterpillars. (Morse was the same: compliant females would pretty much fall on him from trees even though he was a morose git.)

Monroe (James Nesbitt) – a brilliant maverick neurosurgeon with a hopeless personal life – still wins everyone over with his charm.

If this all sounds whiny, well hard luck. Yes, women, we’ve made giant strides, but until television stops treating us as slaves to our emotions, we will forever be hobbled.