Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Lady Losers: The Plight of Female Characters on Lost

In his recap of “Dr. Linus,” the most recent episode of Lost, the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray points out the tendency for the show’s female characters to suffer:
I’m not usually inclined to do gender critiques of movies or TV shows, but man do the women on Lost ever get screwed over. Will Sun find Jin? Who will Kate end up with? Anna Lucia, Libby, Juliet, Shannon: all dead. And now Ilana… assigned as protector of Candidates, not a Candidate herself. Will the show address this disparity before the season ends?
Over the past six years, I’ve noticed this too. The female characters do seem to get dragged through especially awful hells, even in a universe when everyone seems to be enduring horrific personal tortures of one kind or another. And I’ve heard arguments that when the female characters aren’t getting killed off, they’re fulfilling some role that they base off a male character, as if a given man is the grand celestial body around which they simply orbit. (Kate and Sun, as Murray notes; Claire with Charlie and Baby Aaron; Juliet with Jack or Ben or Sawyer, depending on the season; Shannon with Boone and Sayid; etc.) It’s arguable, and I’m inclined to say that most of the characters — male or female — are motivated largely by people around them. But in an effort to decide exactly how I feel about these assertions, I’ve decided to write out my thoughts on the major Lost ladies — how they’ve developed, how the function on the show, and, if applicable, what awful end they’ve come to. Thar be spoilers, of course. In fact, there already are, in the A.V. Club excerpt. Sorry latecomers — Juliet’s dead. Surprise?

I figured this would end up being a lengthy chunk of text, as I seldom run out of things to say about Lost, so in this post, I’m going to tackle the one who is indisputably the most important female character on the show: Kate. In subsequent posts, I’ll get to the rest of the important women. And, in the end, let’s hope we all learn something about Lost, its creators’ feelings toward female characters, and the nature of women in action-science fiction narratives. Or something.

hey there, freckles

Kate Austen: The girl next door who blew up her dad, and in the original pilot script, the show’s hero. The Jack Shepherd role was originally planned to be played by a big star, only to bite it in the first episode, leaving Kate to lead the Losers off Four Toe Island. I think the notion of Kate being the show’s protagonist, at least at one point, is important. J.J. Abrams likes his female leads, as evidenced by Fringe, Alias and Felicity, and in some ways Kate could be a composite of the protagonists of the latter two. Like Alias’s Sydney Bristow, she’s an ass-kicking woman of action, but like the title character of Felicity, Kate also spends much of her time feeling romantically torn between two men. On paper, then, Kate should be the best of both worlds. To me, she’s not. She’s actually my least favorite character on the show. Frankly, I don’t care whether she ends up with Jack or Sawyer.

This is not a knock against Evangeline Lilly’s acting. She’s good, but the show’s Kate-centric episodes tend to revolve less around that crazy island voodoo than Kate’s bad relationships with men. On-island: I love Jack! No wait — I love Sawyer! Off-island: Her dad, Wayne? Blown to bits. Childhood sweetheart Tom? Fatally shot during one of Kate’s many escapes from the cops. Bank robber Jason? Shot in the leg by Kate. Almost-husband Kevin? Drugged and jilted. The only man in Kate’s life that she hasn’t yet screwed over is Baby Aaron, whom she took off the island when Claire couldn’t be found. And though she does seem to care about Aaron, I don’t think she or Claire have yet decided whether she took him to protect him or to save herself from the prosecution she’d face when she landed back in the U.S., where she still had to deal with those pesky murder charges. Clearly, if anyone was to condemn the show’s tendency to make the female characters define themselves in relation to men, they’d find ample evidence in Kate.

When Kate is paired with female characters, she’s less boring. For example, I have enjoyed her scenes with Cassidy, Sawyer’s baby mama and briefly the Louise to Kate’s Thelma. And Kate’s brief bond with Claire before the escape off the island has made for an interesting dynamic now that Kate has returned. In short, Claire wants to kill her, and I largely support Claire in this effort. However, one could interpret this tension as stemming from competing maternal drives, and that’s not necessarily the most female-empowering plot development. (“I’m doing this for my kid” is a less liberated motive than “I’m doing this for myself.”) But at least it takes the focus off Kate’s romantic life.

Kate and Juliet had their share of tense moments, many of which grew out of the former’s mistrust of the latter — an Other and an interloper among the 815ers. However, while Kate was wise to suspect Juliet of being a spy, Juliet was also a rival for not one but both of the men whom Kate loves. It made for the best romantic quadrangles since Buffy gave us Xander, Willow, Cordelia and Oz. So for every bit of strategy that motivated Kate in relation to Juliet, there’s an equal part of good ol’ Jerry Springer-style “Get your hands of my man.” Or men, I guess. I kind of always wanted the two to have a classic Dallas slapfight that would end with Juliet kicking the freckles off Kate’s face.

What do we really know about Kate? Despite her having more flashbacks and more screen time than any other female character, not much, aside from her bad relationships with men and her on-island habit to run off into the jungle — often following someone, whether stalking silently in the brush or running off to make an emotional plea of someone. No, after six seasons, I still don’t feel like I know Kate all that well. Nor do I want to. I do, however, have to give her credit for the act that made her a fugitive and ultimately put her on the plane that crashed on Four Toe Island: killing her dad. Rant thought I might that Kate is a woman who largely exists to cause various men anguish, I have to admit that she bumped off Wayne for all the right reasons. Kate’s mother, Diane, was in a bad relationship with an abusive drunk, and unlike Kate, Diane seemed unable to skip out and move on to someone else. Though she may have chosen a rather dramatic means, Kate liberated her mother, even getting her money to live on through Wayne’s life insurance policy. And for that act — one of mercy, in a roundabout way — Kate has been paying, both through legal persecution on the mainland and endless misadventures on the world’s worst tropical getaway.

Killing Wayne and leaving a long line of other damaged men in her wake are not the worst crimes committed by various Losers. However, as we found out early this season, Kate is apparently not among the list of Candidates — the lucky few who have a chance at becoming the new Jacob and presiding over the island… somehow. This frustrates me a bit because Kate is far from the most morally questionable Loser. Sawyer and Sayid are both Candidates, despite having done far more awful things in their lives — both on-island and off. Hell, even Shannon was a Candidate before she died, as evidenced by her last name on the wall of the Man in Black’s seaside cave and as well on Jacob’s magical Romper Room looking glass. Why should Kate be left out? I mean, I don’t like her and all, but she is the most prominent female character. At this point, her not being a Candidate seems to underscore the theory that woman on Lost may just matter less than the men. I hope it turns out not to be true. I hope Kate is missing from the list for good reason. And I hope, in the end, Kate pulls of some heroic feat that makes me like her more as a character.

I suppose, as with all loose threads on this show, we will just have to wait and see.

Next up: Sun and Claire, the two next longest-lived lady Losers.


  1. I hate Kate, I did not know she was supposed to be the lead, that would have made a whole different cookie of a show.

    But yeah, dead on with your review and POV

  2. Hey there! Glad to get some agreement. For what it's worth, the original conception of Kate was in her 30s, married, and a mother. Yunjin Kim tried out for that role, not the younger, single Kate. The producers liked Kim so much they wrote the role of Sun specifically for her.