I was a huge Remington Steele fan back in the day. It was the one show I had to watch each week.
I loved the premise: a woman trying to make it as a private detective figures out that she’ll be more successful if she creates an imaginary boss–a decidedly masculine boss. She cobbles the name together out of things in her office and Remington Steele is born. In many ways, it’s a sheer stroke of genius. Young, pretty, and female, Laura Holt probably didn’t inspire confidence in the sort of people who needed an private investigator. By creating an imaginary boss, she could present herself as his representative, could defer unpleasant decisions until she could speak with the boss; she could even make the boss the bad guy if the situation warranted it. It was a great plan, right until the time a con artist walks into her life and takes Steele’s identity. Laura is in the uncomfortable situation of not being able to out him without outing herself as well–and the con man needs a place to cool his heels. As premises for romantic dramedies go, this one was more clever than most.
I wanted to be Laura Holt. I admired her gumption, her classic sense of style. I wanted her shoes. I had a crush on Remington Steele. I loved Brosnan’s accent, I loved the banter between the characters. In fact, I think it was this show that made me fall in love with banter. It was like watching Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies, which was appropriate, given Steele’s ability to find similarities in each case to old movies that he loved to watch.
I enjoyed the show so much that I was delighted to run across it on DVD. But watching it again proved to be a big mistake. With hindsight, I remembered that Brosnan wanted out of his contract to play Bond (though really, he was far too young at the time–his is the kind of attractiveness that gets better with age) and was upset when they wouldn’t let him go. Despite being good actors, this situation strained the working relationship between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, and it clearly shows in their romantic scenes together, at least to my more mature eyes. The banter feels more like bickering, and the plots, meant to reflect some of the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, seem dated and cheesy now.
And then there’s the premise itself. Laura Holt can’t be taken seriously in a man’s profession without pretending to have a male boss. Despite having trained and apprenticed for her career (as she said in the opening narrative each week), it was usually Steele who solved the case, by recalling an old movie with a similar set up. So not only does Steele move in lock, stock and barrel into the identity she created, he’s better at solving crimes than she is, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of thing lately. A while back I came across a NYT post by Fay Weldon, titled “Writer of a Certain Age.” She spoke of her long experience in television and the theater, as well as that of a writer. It was an extremely well-written and eye-opening essay.
It was also bloody depressing. In it, Weldon spoke of truisms in the various entertainment industries in which she’s worked–and in nearly all cases, the only time a women was considered important and worth listening to–be it in television, theater, or novels–is when she is young, pretty, and the love interest for a male lead.
Worse, Weldon seems to imply in her post that if you are so unfortunate as to be ‘a writer of a certain age’ and female, that you should really take advantage of the internet to lie to your fans and create a false persona like Remington Steele. Take a gender neutral pen name. Or if you acknowledge that you are, in fact, a woman, take this opportunity to pretend to be younger, thinner, prettier than you really are. Ouch.
Discussion at the time of this post among my friends led to whether or not we thought bias still existed against women writers in this day and age. I laugh now when I think about the fact we even questioned this. In light of recent events here in the U.S. to strip people of their bodily autonomy, to grant guns more rights than I have now, it seems particularly ironic.
There’s a blog post titled Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants, which seemed to parallel Laura Holt’s dilemma: she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman. It wasn’t until she took the pen name James Chartrand that her freelance writing business took off–and she was able to pay off her mortgage. The discussion among my friends turned inevitably to gender neutral pen names. In the thriller/mystery genre, a gender neutral pen name is almost mandatory–just look at J.D. Robb versus Nora Roberts. I argued that this was more about branding, about allowing your audience to know by your pen name what kind of story to expect. However, it is definitely the convention to take a gender-neutral pen name in the mystery genre, even in the cozy division, which is written and consumed largely by women.
It’s one of the reasons, when I decided to branch into cozy mysteries, I also took a gender-neutral name. In part to distinguish the mysteries from the paranormal romances in a manner the average reader could spot at a glance, but also because that was simply the norm.
You will hear people say as long as the story is written well, they don’t give a hoot about the gender of the author, and since I feel that way myself, I believe people when they say this. But I have to wonder, especially in light of Weldon’s post. Of her recommendation to be anything other than what I actually am. Believe me, that post made me wonder if I’d made a serious mistake by going with a feminine pen name, and whether I should delete all my previous posts on aging and sexuality. Whether I should be someone other than who I really am. Because writing isn’t just a little hobby for me. I need it to help pay the bills.
I’d always assumed that the romance genre got the least respect in the publishing world because by and large, it is considered a woman-centric genre. Lord knows, romance writers in general are considered the lowest of the low when it comes to ‘real’ writing. Turns out sci-fi and mystery writers also come pretty low on the ‘respect’ list, compared to the literary giants of the fiction world, which is sad because on any given day I’ll take a good mystery or sci-fi story over any self-indulgent, introspective Grand Literature novel. But I digress.
One of my friends pointed out this 2013 article to me on Literary Sexism: Still Pervasive and Real. It bears reading. While the beginning is about a critical review and the author’s response to it (which may not make a ton of sense if you aren’t familiar with Mary Gaitskill‘s essays and fiction), read it all the way through. There are some links to some searing examples of ongoing bias toward women. It’s enlightening as well as disheartening. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the pie chart graphs of the number of books reviewed by male versus female authors.
It seems to me that we should have come farther than Remington Steele by now. I’d like to point to one of my favorite television heroines, Kate Beckett from Castle, and say we have come a long way, baby. But then I recall how much Stana Katic’s appearance changed over the seasons of Castle and how little she resembled a NYPD homicide detective by the end of the series. The character was remade into a fashion model instead. And Castle usually solves the crime, too.
It is tempting here to say that Remington Steele was a bad, wrong message to send to impressionable young women. But that would be only partly true. I recall not all that long ago getting very angry over someone lambasting Star Trek: The Original Series on Twitter–commenting on how sexist, nationalist, racist, etc. the show was. I tried to point out that for its time, it was groundbreaking stuff. That yes, the women wore mini-skirts and go-go boots, but it was the first show that depicted a black woman in a role other than that of a maid or a cook. That it tackled big issues. That it envisioned a future in which we’d solved so many of our problems by working together instead of trying to kill each other. The Twitter Hater wouldn’t listen and I had to drop her from my feed. She couldn’t understand that it took those very baby steps taken in Star Trek fifty-six years ago to bring us forward to the kinds of diversity and equality we see in roles for characters today. Especially in the Star Trek universe itself. I’m loving Strange New Worlds. It has the classic Star Trek vibe and the writing and acting are outstanding. But the thing that struck me from the beginning was how many female characters there were. They aren’t just there for window dressing or to bring the Captain coffee, either. They have positions of power and play important roles on the ship and in the stories being told. I’m seeing a greater representation across the board as well. Not every actor has a chiseled jawline or perfect waist. Characters are differently abled and across the gender spectrum. Number One wears freaking nail polish (you know that’s my thing!!). The irony is now many of the Star Trek bros were livid when Discovery featured a Black, female lead and that now the franchise is somehow too woke for them now. Um, did they ever really watch the shows they claim to love?
I can’t find the article but I remember reading once that if there were more than a certain (very low) percentage of women on a television show, male viewers falsely exaggerated the numbers in their head, assuming there were more female characters than there actually were. Let’s not forget, either, the outrage that occurred when Ghostbusters was remade with a female-led cast (people howled about having their childhood ruined, utterly ruined, I say) or the hate the most recent Star Wars trilogy received for daring to make a female character the main focus of the story, and casting both Black and Asian actors to play significant roles. (My issues with the latest Star Wars trilogy have nothing to do with Rey being the lead and more to do offering last minute redemption through an act of love for an–in my eyes–irredeemable character. But that’s a discussion for another day…)
I have to give that same kind of credit to Remington Steele. It was groundbreaking in its way as well, giving us a strong unmarried female heroine who had an interesting career and did exciting things. Laura Holt was smart and independent and I wanted to be her. She was one of the first characters I can recall to influence me that way. That’s exactly the sort of baby step that was needed back then. It gave us Kate Beckett, Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer), Rizzoli and Isles, Captain Sharon Raydor (Major Crimes), and Peggy Carter (Captain America). I could go on. It’s getting better. We’re seeing better roles for women, more older women in good roles. But the numbers are still pretty small compared to the good parts for men. The fact that men got all the best parts and best lines was one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to male characters my entire life. Men still outnumber women 2:1 in movie roles.
Growing up in a world of Laura Holts, I expected to not be taken seriously at first. To have to work twice as hard to earn less money. To have to cleverly work around the system to get what I want. To be passed over for promotions, not the least of which is because it was assumed I wouldn’t be dedicated to my career because of the mythical children I never intended to have. But that’s not really the worst of it, is it? The roots of misogyny run deep, thriving on racism, ableism, homophobia, and Christian Nationalism–I’ve yet to see one stand without the others–and while we were busily pruning off the heads visible in the light, the patriarchal plant was sending runners out in all directions. We are being stripped of our rights as human beings with each passing day.
It’s tempting to give up. To bow my head meekly and put on the robe. But I refuse to do that. And I have Laura Holt to thank for it.