Tuesday, August 14, 2012

the female mentoring relationship in 'Damages'

I've been watching Damages on Netflix lately.  It's totally addictive and.. I don't know.. kind of lascivious.  But addictive.  And more to the point, it was recommended to me by my friend Netflix because of the previous interest I've shown in programs with strong female characters.
Glenn Close as Patti Hewes = the strongest female character.  Ever.  Cutthroat lawyer, willing to do whatever it takes to win, trusts virtually no one, constantly scheming to catch filthy rich, corrupt businessman in their lies and conspiracies.  And she does it--she's wildly successful. Conspiracy on top of conspiracy.  The depth and extent of the crime she prosecutes seems to justify just about every sort of criminal means, including attempted murder. 

But, at the same time, I think she’s an incredibly sympathetic character.  She doesn’t hold back her emotions, and as manipulative as she can be, there are some times when she lashes out in pure, raw emotion—anger, grief, shock, betrayal, even love.  I admire that and am drawn to it.  I love it when people are real.  She’s the classic ends-justify-the-means, kind-of-evil-but-for-a-good-cause antiheroine.

The other, more sympathetic character, maybe the true hero, though it’s hard to tell (only in season 3), is Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne).  While Patti is a seasoned, middle-aged lawyer, Ellen is in her twenties, pretty fresh out of law school and somewhat innocent, maybe even idealistic in the beginning.  Working for Patti, disillusionment comes pretty quick.  Among other drama, the first season is essentially the story of Ellen’s violent disillusionment. 

The most interesting story to me, underlying the considerable legal drama, is the relationship between these two.  From the outside, the relationship has the potential to be one of mentorship, and I think it is that.  But it’s also pretty twisted.  I mean, Patti tries to have Ellen killed in the first season, because “she knows too much.”  The second season is all about Ellen trying to get revenge, and they finally confront the whole issue at the end of the second season, in a situation in which Ellen finally (briefly) wields all the power. 

So the part of me that roots for Ellen was all like, “Yeah, you get your revenge girl!” but the part of me that sympathized with Patti and loved her for being vulnerable had my heart broken a little. 

This relationship is so compelling to me, because of two things simultaneously—mentorship, and tension.  This mentorship by an older, experienced version of myself is something I’ve always wanted.  But this particular relationship is so incredibly full of tension, for obvious reasons. 

And I read into it my own tension—the tension that happens as a result of 1) desiring, needing some kind of female guidance, someone to open my heart to, who will open their heart to me and who will be the wiser one, but 2) having no precedent, no venue for such a relationship, and not having any reason to trust that it’s even possible.  I’m pretty sure that all of the potential female mentorship relationships I’ve ever had were sabotaged (in some cases obliterated beyond recognition) at least in part by this tension, this need for female guidance, driven to dysfunction by fear. 

For so much of my life, I’ve been convinced that this dysfunction of mine is totally my own fault, totally unique to me, and pretty weird.  Sometimes I’ve thought it must mean I’m a lesbian.*  But these days, having steeped myself in the ideas and perspectives of Mormon feminism, and having seen the incredibly overpowering influence of patriarchy for what it is, I think I can't be the only woman who struggles with finding women to look up to, and finding the right way to get close to them and learn from them.    

And Damages is totally capitalizing on what I see as a massive cultural blind spot.  I desperately wish there were more TV shows, movies, novels that explored non-sexual female relationships…  Just to explore!  Just to imagine what’s possible, to work through what’s problematic, to get beyond the tired trope of patriarchy about cat-fighting women,** and take female relationships seriously.    

*These days, very happily married to my favorite person, who’s also my favorite MAN, I’m pretty sure I’m not a lesbian.  But I’m very sympathetic to the idea that sexuality is a spectrum.  For a few years there, I think it was possible I could have swung the other way.        

**For what it’s worth, even though the two heroines in Damages really are trying to kill each other, cat-fighting doesn’t fit at all.  This relationship has so much depth.  These women really see themselves in each other, and there’s potential for so much reciprocal benefit, and honestly, for so much love.  Though of course the kind of sisterly/motherly/Zion-like love I’m talking about won’t get ratings like murder will.  <shrug>  The potential is there.