The Cheerleader Won’t Save Herself (or It’s Man Devouring Man, My Dear, and Who Are We to Deny it in Here?)

I was all set to write a fairly frustrated post about gender representation and identification in Heroes, and how a show that seemed to hold so much promise could go–for me at least- so very wrong. And then the season finale was just so good that I’ve had to completely temper my argument.

So, instead of a post about gender representation, misogyny, and even anti-Semitism in Heroes (and I’ll still have to touch on those topics) I find myself writing (much less provokingly perhaps) on seriality, ideology, unevenness and expectation. And of course fan engagement.[1]

Now, normally I proclaim myself to be a fan of uneven televisual texts. It’s part of the reason I love serial television–I love the ups and the downs, the horrid lows and the sublime highs brought about by too many episodes a season and shifting groups of writers, The organic unpredictability of serial network television makes a program like, say, Smallville (which I’ve written about quite a bit)–or Heroes, as it turns out–a wild ride. Smallville used to be a testament to the transcendent possibilities of unevenness. Only because it had the possibility to be so ideologically problematic could it also reach the highs of celebrating otherness and queerness as the thematic heart of the show. Now it’s reverted to celebrating normativity and condemning otherness, and that’s the price we have to pay for having a show that queered Superman and imagined the value of his friendship with the misunderstood, ambiguous Lex Luthor.

For some reason, the uneveness of Heroes does not inspire the same devotion in me. Perhaps it’s because it initially seemed to hold the promise of total crafting, of narrative complexity thought through from beginning to end. But along the way it’s offered us extremely problematic gender representations (and, I feel, though perhaps this point will end up being highly contested) troubling ethnic representations as well.

One of my grad students wrote a thought provoking paper this semester on the females in Heroes, examining Claire and Nikki as final girls. He pointed out that Claire and Niki are the only two central heroes who don’t embrace their powers as something special but rather see them as monstrous. I’m inclined to agree.


Though Claire and Niki both turn out to be central, they aren’t the heroes who fight the final battle. That’s reserved for Hiro and Peter, two characters who I do adore, but also two characters who easily latch on to cultural mythos about heroes, mythos with just happen to be rather gendered.

Now, Nathan complicates this reading slightly. He’s clearly ambivalent about his otherness, rejecting it rather than embracing it, seeing it as standing in the way of his potential role as significant player/leader in the (what we at first think is a) patriarchy.

But by the end, Nathan sacrifices himself for the greater good, embracing his otherness as a tool to do the ultimate good. He is THE central sacrificial figure, decentering even Claire, despite the predominance of Save the Cheerleader, Save the World. Turns out that that catchy tag line was just one necessary but not all that pivotal step along the way. Similarly, Nikki’s embrace of her otherness/monstrousness may enable Hiro to get to Sylar, but it’s still secondary in terms of the central plot; it’s only primary function is on a personal level allowing Niki to come to internal and familial peace.

So gender wise, in terms of empowered alienated female characters, there’s not so much going on here. Despite having a super-powered cheerleader, this show is no Buffy, with its multiple female heroes. However, though Heroes doesn’t quite rival Buffy in terms of multiplicity of queerness–it does come a bit closer on that front. Certainly each of the characters for whom we’re rooting fall outside of normal expectations and (gendered? I’m not so sure…) dichotomies.

But then there’s Sylar. Here’s this show with multiple, engaging “others,” and yet the villain is—uncontrollably, inexplicably, flatly evil… Or at least it seems that way through much of the series. He sees himself as a Darwinian force, playing his destined role. And then, when too far in the game (for my taste, at least) we suddenly get some background, who does it turn out is to blame? Why his smothering, over-protective, thick-New York accented (read, I am pretty damn sure, Jewish) mother, who wants too much for him and yet can’t bring him back from the edge when she has the chance. She was right out of It’s a Mad Mad Mad World in terms of emasculating women. (And even if she’s not intended to be Jewish, I still feel that the representation of both her and Sylar call upon common cultural notions associated with Jewish mothers and sons, women and men, and while yes maybe this show engages with stereotypes at times to dismantle them, I *definitely* don’t feel it is doing anything so progressive with Sylar and mom.)

And then, in the same episode, we get the reveal about the Petrelli Matriarch. Turns out she too is calling the shots, pushing her son to make highly morally problematic choices, against which he finally rebels. Was it really just me who noticed that she looked more and more like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate as the final episodes unfolded? So the women who were the power behind the power in this show are forces who stood in the way, up until the very last sacrifice, of the men who with the proper guidance, wouldn’t have screwed up so badly. Now that’s some problematic gender representation, if you ask me!

It doesn’t keep me from loving so much of this show, of its strengths and its subtleties, and I really do respect that the final episode didn’t simply comprise of Hiro vs. Sylar is a drawn out battle, but rather added much ideological complexity to the patterns that had caused me to throw things at the TV previously. I’ll be back for the second season, but I feel the ever-lurking danger that Sylar will be reborn as equally flat and morally unambiguous, and this show will continue its dance of exploring otherness while othering women.

In the meantime, I’ll be very interested to see what fandom does with Heroes over the summer, because I have no doubt that the emerging fantexts will reveal resonances in the source text that I’ve somehow missed altogether. And one thing that fandom makes clear—strong female characters does not necessarily equal identification on the part of female viewers. In fact, when it comes to female-fan favored texts, sometimes it seems like the less women (strong or otherwise) the better. But that is a topic for another post.

I wish that Heroes *could* find a way to better represent and integrate female characters. In a season where we’ve lost Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars, we’re sorely in need of compelling young female characters. Are they all auditioning for Pussycat Dolls or America’s Next Top Model? While those two shows are fascinating and far from ideologically simplistic in their own right, we need to take note that in the upcoming season, the predominant representation of young women would indeed appear to be in transformative contest/judging reality programs. And I’m just not sure that Claire and Niki can fill the gaps left by Lorelai and Veronica.

[1] For a little bit of history–I started out adoring Heroes, and wrote a post back in the fall (which I’ve just reposted here) about the acafan love for Heroes, which I certainly shared/share, versus the growing fannish powerhouse that was/is Supernatural. I saw these two programs as indicative of the gender divide in acafandom and fanboy vs. fangirl culture (topics which of course have become rather popular of late.) The gendered fannish identity of those two shows may be somewhat more complex now, but that’s a post for another time.

4 thoughts on “The Cheerleader Won’t Save Herself (or It’s Man Devouring Man, My Dear, and Who Are We to Deny it in Here?)

  1. kbusse says:

    I finally finished tonight (one mad week of mainlining : ), and upon rereading your piece, the thing that struck me most is (unsurprisingly) the familial that pervades everything.

    You focus on the (monstrous?) mothers of sons, but I’m wondering about the fathers of daughters. I mean, both fathers to Claire change mid-course (turning from evil to good), and the driving force of both D.L.’s and Matt’s actions (and Ted’s to a degree) are their kids; even Suresh takes on surrogate fatherhood in the last episodes. So, I wonder whether the absent mothers might also be part of the issue here with Niki noticeably present in all her ambiguous monstrousness.

    Also, the emphasis on the future and the driving motivation of protecting the children brings up other interesting ideological forces, though, doesn’t it? [insert Edelman icon here]

  2. lstein says:

    That is some intense Heroes viewing you went through!

    So interesting that you bring up the absence of Mothers. In my Teen TV scholarship I’ve written about the absence of parents (either absent from the screen or absent from the families, as in Roswell, Buffy, DC, etc.) –a key factor in envisioning adolescents who must struggle alone to face their own alienation. And Heroes on the surface seems to similarly follow this thematic set up–isolated heroes must come to terms with their own difference, alienated from their families, not literally adolescents but metaphorically so. However, instead of absent parents, you’re right, here for the most part we have absent mothers, with fathers for the most part nobly guiding the way. When mothers are there, they’re ambiguously monstrous. If anything, this is the flip side of Buffy, where Buffy’s mother does her best to guide the way, while any father figures who attempt to intervene (either in Buffy or Faith’s life) are revealed to be monstrous. Instead on Heroes we have mothers endagering innocent children, often with misplaced love. So yes, highly problematic from both the perspective of gender and familial/childhood ideology.

  3. Jonathan Gray says:

    One thing I’ve been thinking about in relation to Heroes, though, is about quality of acting as something that often doesn’t get enough props in examination of representations. Claire and Nikki are good examples here, since Claire, I think, is remarkably good at times, while Nikki is atrociously bad (I find it such sad irony that we get TWO of the worst actor in the show!). So, to add to your points about the writing and representation of their characters, I think Nikki (at least for me and my own judgment on the acting) becomes an even worse female role, whereas Claire(‘s actor) redeems the role and adds layers of depth to the representative level of her character by being reasonably skilled at doing what she’s doing.

  4. lstein says:

    Hey Jonathan–I absolutely agree. Performance goes a long way to establishing subtelty or complexity, to a degree independently from the writing. So Hayden Panettiere’s embodiment of Claire gives us so much to work with–she seems like a character full of potential even when she’s kept on the sidelines by the script. Meanwhile Ali Larter… well, yeah, I groan every time we cut to a Nikki plot, and I’d be hard pressed to say whether that was because of the writing or the performance. I mean, the *idea* of Nikki–a woman repressing her monstrous strength–is certainly an intriguing one. The way it plays out feels trite and stereotypical and a bit painful to watch.

    But then I groan every time Sylar comes on the screen too (and that may have much to do with performance as well as writing also)…

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