Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Question Nobody Asked: The Funnier Woman on "Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law"

It's a crying shame both that writers need to be asked to introduce a female character, and that there are women who want a sadistic comedy show have a "redeemable" female character. Both things apparently happened to Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law; the audio commentary for the episodes "Trio's Company" and "The Birdgirl of Guantanamole" tell the tale. Apparently the writers had people bugging them to introduce a regular female character, with some difficulties involved in doing so. And then, once they introduced her, it was asked who the "redeemable" female character was.

Part of this can be blamed on the original Hanna-Barbera source material, which was light on female characters, but I wouldn't be surprised if the writers for Harvey Birdman had the same blind spot as their predecessors from the sixties and seventies: that magic and insidious condition where half the human race has to be consciously "added" to a creative work instead of appearing naturally in the planning stages.

I don't support writers being pressured to add things it didn't cross their mind to add. That's not how storytelling should work. However, I think it's worth looking at the underlying attitudes that cause that particular "blind spot", and how said attitudes are demonstrated with the female mains that were eventually added to the cast of the series.

The two regular female characters are Gigi (voiced by Debi Mae West) and Birdgirl (voiced by Paget Brewster). There's also Debbie (Grey DeLise), Harvey's resigned secretary, but she doesn't get to do much.

Gigi appears first. Originally a heroine from The Galaxy Trio, the companion series to the original Birdman cartoon, here she is a personal trainer who enjoys bed-hopping but for some reason won't sleep with the title character, just using him for money and rooming. According to the commentary, Gigi's introduction lead to some women asking who the redeemable female character was to contrast her.

I mentally shudder every time I hear that anecdote. It's one of my personal blind spots, but I can't understand why another woman would be concerned with female characters being "redeemable" above the male cast. Making female characters be morally superior is sexism, because it puts them in straitjackets, constraining the possibilities of character.

That's not to say it's easy to defend Gigi. I've got no problem with female characters who love sex, but Gigi just isn't that interesting. If you don't think a high sex drive is a comedic flaw in itself (I don't), Gigi is pretty much flawless, in that she has no problems manipulating Harvey and doesn't fail at anything else. In a show like Birdman, crippling flaws are important to making us laugh at the characters, like Harvey's stupidity, Reducto's fixation on smallness/shrinking, or Phil's arrogant weirdness. If a character doesn't have flaws, they come off as bland.

Because Gigi is always successful and receives no mocking or comeuppance, she is of that bland type. And she's also a character who's reacted to, instead of having reactions, becoming less of a character. She's only there to make Harvey look stupid, and that's not even a unique role. It's no wonder she gets reduced to a background prop in later episodes, or in "Mindless" she takes pretending to be a mother over having sex—she never was that important anyway. Gigi, in short, is someone who exists outside the main dynamics of the show lots of the time, and is free to be changed or ignored.

Furthermore, I always see this toxic undercurrent to Gigi, that her behaviour is the result of some writer's frustrations with women or what they believe women are like: manipulative gold-diggers who use men like tissues. I have no evidence to back up this assertion, but this feeling gives Gigi's scenes an uncomfortable cast and makes her even less appealing.

Birdgirl, now, she was the second regular female character they introduced, and a much better effort. Originally Birdman's one-shot female sidekick in the old cartoon, now she's the daughter of Harvey's boss and a wannabe super-lawyer with her own set of problems.

Most people probably remember that Birdgirl is used for creepy jokes, like the running gag where her father doesn't recognize her in disguise and constantly and loudly hits on her, or those panty shots resulting from her short skirt. I'm not comfortable with these aspects of Birdgirl's character, but at least there's more to her. 

Birdgirl's main gimmick to me was never the incest or the fanservice, but that she tries to be the moral centre of the show, and fails utterly because she is so over-eager and temperamental. She thinks she's living in a traditional superhero story, and is always ready to spring into action, only to screw up again, and still not realize the comedic conditions she exists under. And when she becomes boss of the firm for a short while, Birdgirl also shows she can be an utterly ruthless boss ("KA-DOWNSIZED!" and "Openit!"), and that goes well with her insanity.

In short, she's fun and flawed in a way that Gigi isn't. Despite her good intentions, Birdgirl actually IS a funny character, who feels like part of the actual cast, instead of the product of some writer working out their issues with women. She interacts with the other characters, actively participates in stories, and reacts to things rather than being reacted to. I wouldn't go so far as to say the writers were trying to make fun of the moralizing role of female characters with Birdgirl's characterization,  but Birdgirl is a nice alternative to Gigi, for all these reasons.

(I also love her character design. That woman's business suit over the superhero just looks cool and weird, no matter how many jokes there are about her short skirt.)

Even if I'm opposed to executive pressure, Birdgirl's a pretty fun result. Writing this blog post has reminded me how much I like her character. Maybe there are other characters in the series who are even funnier, but Birdgirl is the one that I actually "like". She stands head and shoulders above Gigi, even if this means people get to look up her skirt.

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