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White Collar, a Word Please...

First of all, I love White Collar. It's a great show with a fantastic cast and good storytelling, and I count it among my top five all time favourites.

That being said, I have an issue. It's an issue that I (now) see with many shows, but I actually care about White Collar and that is why it bothers me so much with it in particular.



That issue is its treatment of women.

Now, White Collar has some great, strong female characters. They are powerful in their own right, they have agency of their own, and they more than hold their ground with the men around them. Elizabeth, Diana, Sara, June, Ellen.. they are all wonderful.

However, the underlying message in the actual storylines and the character arcs is that women are simply there. They don't affect the development of the male characters, and they don't provide context or shape to character growth. Almost all of the characters, even the awesome female ones, point to the male influences in their lives as the defining ones for them.

Let's start with Neal. Neal appreciates women, but he's never been affected or shaped by one. It was this decision by the writers that brought this whole issue to the forefront of my mind. Neal hadn't seen his father since he was three years old. He was raised by his mother and by Ellen, who both lived with him every day from that day until his eighteenth birthday. They were there, in person, for all of the relevant events of his childhood, adolescence and teen years, but Neal disregards any contribution they made to who he is. "She took care of me," he says of Ellen's influence on him through more than half his life. Later, in reference to his father though, he says "Who am I, if not my father's son?" My immediate response was "Your mother's son, maybe? Your own man?" Still, Neal credits his father's example (though he wasn't even there) with all of his choices since his childhood, first in wanting to be a police officer and then for becoming a criminal. Despite their presence in his life for his whole life, the women that raised him don't rate a mention. The show does say that Neal's mother was lost without his father (which seems to be contradicted by her having the wherewithal to proactively divorce James), so perhaps she was largely absent. The show makes a big point of Ellen being present, however, so I think it's a shame that her example wasn't worth Neal internalizing.

It could be argued that Kate had a profound impact on Neal, except that she had no actual effect on his personality or development. If anything, the reverse is true. Kate was not a grifter or forger until she met Neal, and Neal never grew as a person because of Kate. On the show, he's shown as being held back from growth by his continued pursuit of her. His other interactions with women are all respectful and lovely, but they also reinforce that Neal causes changes in the women around him, not the other way around. Neal met Kate at the same time as he met Mozzie and Vincent Adler, and he freely acknowledges their impact on his life: Adler is "the man who made me who I am today". Of the current characters, only Peter and Mozzie have had an actual personal effect on Neal that has resulted in change.

The other characters share this characteristic. Diana describes herself as "A diplomat's daughter", referring to her father, and the only strong role model she identifies is her male bodyguard, Charlie. Her mother is a non-presence. When we meet Elizabeth's parents, Peter is terrified of her father and her mother is a non-entity. June, while shown as being a wonderful power in her own right, is usually framed in the context of her husband Byron. Sara is the only exception to this, as she is framed as having been shaped primarily by the disappearance of her elder sister.

Only with Mozzie do I think that the backstory and the forestory of his influences converge appropriately. Unlike Neal, Mozzie had no female caregivers at all, and so identifies his main support and influence as Mr. Jeffries, the orphanage manager. This, at least, makes sense.

I loved Season Four of White Collar, especially how the team all completely gelled and began to work in concert in all aspects of their lives. Unfortunately the season mytharc about Neal's search for identity through his father also brought into sharp relief this fundamental underlying bias that I now can't unsee. :(

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
out_there
Nov. 26th, 2014 04:27 am (UTC)
Huh. I'd never noticed that before, but you're right. It kind of leaves me wanting to write/read a story where it's the female influences around Neal that cause some personal growth.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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