Heroic Couples: Brainy Women and Big-Hearted Men

A trend I’ve been watching with interest and hope is the pairing of a scientific-minded woman with an emotional or intuitive man in TV shows and movies. The iconic example is the pairing of Dana Scully, the skeptical  medical examiner, with “I believe in UFOs” researcher Fox Mulder in The X-Files. This quickly became a television trope and led to similar pairings in procedural dramas. In Bones, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan  believes only in that which can be proved by empirical evidence which often puts her at odds with FBI agent Seeley Booth’s openness to concepts like faith and God.  In NCIS, Special Agent Jethro Gibbs relies primarily on his intuition to solve cases, but knows he needs the backing of the hard evidence provided by his forensic specialist Abby Sciuto.

A variation on this theme is the no-nonsense policewoman who pairs up with an intuitive man. In Castle, detective Kate Beckett at first pooh-poohs but eventually comes to depend on the insights of novelist Rick Castle (who knows how stories work!). A new show, Perception, pairs a female FBI agent with a professor of neuropsychiatry who is himself schizophrenic and has hallucinations that point out to him the things that his logical conscious mind has missed. NCIS also covers this by pairing up Tony DiNozzo, who like Gibbs operates from intuition, and Ziva David, a former Mossad agent who wrote the book on “no nonsense.”

Several recent science fiction shows like to give us a gentle man who falls in love with a strong, no-nonsense, kick-ass warrior woman. In Farscape,  astronaut John Crichton falls for the Peacekeeper soldier Aeryn Sun; reluctant warrior Lee “Apollo” Adama loves Kara “Starbuck” Thrace in Battlestar Galactica; and happy-go-lucky starship pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne marries former rebel soldier Zoe Alleyne in Firefly. In each case the woman helps the man become more of a hero, while he teaches her how to be more empathetic and trust her feelings.

I’m also noticing that movies often pair the no-nonsense or scientific woman with an action hero. The Avengers series of movies give us not one but three examples: The Hulk and Betty Ross, who in the latest Hulk movie is a professor of cell biology; “Iron Man” Tony Stark who is balanced by his logical and efficient personal assistant-turned-lover Pepper Potts, and Thor and Jane Foster, an astrophysicist. In these cases, the heroes are all physically strong men who rely on their strength and tend to act on impulse; the women often help curb their initial impulses and get them to think.

All this goes against the traditional idea of the hero and his princess who waits in the castle while he goes out and does his heroic thing, as well as the old idea of men as the logical, even heartless ones and women who help them to be more in touch with feelings. Our culture is playing with these ideas, turning them inside out and reversing them. Judging by the popularity of these shows, people are ready for that.

For the past 2500 years, Western history has demonstrated a divided attitude towards the masculine/ rational/ logical as better than the feminine/ emotional/ intuitive, but in the last half-century or so, we’ve begun to see that we need both ways of being. I hope and believe that this trend in our culture is not just about validating  women’s intelligence, but men’s ability to be intuitive and compassionate – and making the point that we all have these capacities. When we embrace and integrate all of our abilities, regardless of gender, we all do better.

8/17/12 – just saw The Bourne Legacy, which gives us yet another example of the brainy woman (Marta the research scientist) paired with the action hero.

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