thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

A Ghost of Herself: Supernatural Femininity on “Being Human,” Season 1

In gender, race, Uncategorized on December 13, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Sarah Todd

One day, I hope, I’ll get the chance to sit down and chat with a supernatural character from popular culture. Maybe  Angel and I will toast Guinnesses at a local Irish pub and we can laugh about his fake accent. Maybe I’ll trick Edward into inviting me into his bizarre bed-less Neomodern home where he still lives with his parents even though he’s a hundred years old, the weirdo. Regardless of how these talks happen, I’ll ask them all the same question: What’s the big deal about being human?

If contemporary supernatural stories are to be believed—and obviously they are, you ridiculous Muggle—vampires, werewolves, ghosts and the like constantly bemoan their superpowered state. They’d give up immortality, lightning speed, and some pretty solid defense systems in a heartbeat if they could become ordinary people again.

But being an ordinary person isn’t always that great! Yeah yeah, maybe humans have souls and they get to grow up and grow old and die, which is all very natural and salt-of-the-earth and so on. But often the trope of the supernatural being who longs to be human seems like:

a) a form of self-flattery (that vampire may be beautiful and eternally young and strong, but we get sunshine… and death!)

b)    an easy way to introduce conflict into the plot

On one hand, I get that an outsider’s perspective can maybe help us to understand and appreciate our own lives more. That’s why Buffy = free therapy. But on the other hand, some days, when things look bleak, I really think I wouldn’t mind being a werewolf.

Of course, George (Russell Tovey) of the BBC series Being Human would probably take exception to that perspective. George is a werewolf, as well as a smart, neurotic Jewish bloke living with his friends Mitchell the vampire (Aidan Turner) and Annie the ghost (Lenora Crichlow). The supernatural trio attempt to live among humans and lead regular-style lives: they take jobs, fall in love, and drink copious amounts of tea. But members of the supernatural world won’t seem to leave them alone, and neither will their own alternative instincts (i.e. growing hair in strange places, wanting to suck your blood, etc.).

So far, I’ve only watched the first season of Being Human. (Three seasons are available on Netflix; a fourth season is scheduled to air next year.) While I enjoy the show’s witty moments and unexpected plot twists, I’m not sure I’ll be coming back for another season serving. My reason? The show’s treatment of Annie the ghost.

In the case of George and Mitchell, Being Human makes an effort to show how the characters’ supernatural identities complicate their personalities. George is both a sweet nerd and a primal werewolf. Mitchell is a caring, compassionate friend and a cold-blooded killer. But Annie’s identity as a friendly ghost has no flip side or contradictions. She’s kind-hearted but fragile and somewhat agoraphobic, often reluctant to venture outside the house. Overall her personality displays many of the traits associated with ultra-traditional femininity—she’s sweet, retiring, emotional, and fundamentally tied to the domestic realm (her home) by both her agoraphobia and the fact that she died in the apartment she currently inhabits/haunts. As Mitchell explains to Annie, her presence in the realm of the living is dependent upon the apartment and her connection to her two roommates. Were the apartment, George, and Mitchell to be destroyed, Annie would simply disappear—dissolving into the air like smoke.

So, let’s get this straight: the show’s main female character is invisible to all human beings and so insubstantial in her own right that her very existence would fall apart if the two dudes she lives with/mothers/has occasional romantic tension with and her house went away? I… have some objections.

[Spoilers in this paragraph! Beware or skip ahead a few] Two additional factors make the show’s representation of Annie even more problematic to me. First, Annie is revealed to have been in an abusive relationship with her fiancé Owen, a hot-headed, controlling sociopath who eventually killed her. There is something deeply unsettling about the way this show portrays Annie as a victim of domestic violence. Again and again, it emphasizes how delicate she is even after death. When she attempts to haunt her former fiancé, she fails miserably. The show plays her haunting for laughs as lovable Annie over-dramatically tries to play the role of bitter, avenging ghost. But the humor in this scene strikes me as tone-deaf at best and actively regressive at worst. The one time this season that Annie tries to take full control of a situation on her own, she falls flat. Furthermore, the scene reasserts the power dynamics of the abusive relationship as her ex-fiance laughs in her face and taunts her about how he cheated on her, killed her, and got away with it. Annie says nothing, merely sinking down onto the stairs.

Although Annie eventually succeeds in truly frightening Owen and possibly driving him mad, she does so only with the protection and back-up of Tom and Mitchell, the werewolf and vampire. In her final speech to Owen—what ought to be her moment of triumph—she primarily talks about why he should be afraid of the men in her life, who flank her on either side, arms crossed.

There’s a question you haven’t asked yourself yet. If I exist, what else does? You think you’re the big bad wolf? You should see George on a full moon. You think you’re a cold-blooded murderer? Mitchell was killing 80 years before you were even born. Don’t you get it yet? I’m just the tip of the iceberg; I’m good cop.

Somehow the threat of being the tip of the iceberg doesn’t quite read as character evolution. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think every story about women in abusive relationships has to end with the woman giving an empowering speech to her former abuser. But I do have a problem with the way Being Human frequently casts Annie as a victim while emphasizing how powerful her male friends are.

The additional factor that troubles me is that because Annie scans as non-white (the actress who plays her, Lenora Crichlow, is multiracial), the show’s choice to make her an intangible, retiring ghost restricted largely to her house seems to play into, rather than critique, the general invisibility of non-white women within the media and popular culture. Furthermore, George and Mitchell (who are both white) encourage Annie to leave the house and stop making tea that she can’t even drink, but Annie prefers to stay inside and act as a homemaker. By making Annie  a character who generally chooses cooking and cleaning for others over leaving the house or living an independent (after)life, the show taps into problematic media representations of women of color who selflessly do domestic work for white families while asking nothing for themselves. In this paradigm, these women  are “a part of the family” but have no voice or power within it and no life outside of it.

Were Being Human to handle Annie’s invisibility and feelings of powerlessness in a different way (and it might, in later seasons–feel free to tell me, Being Human fans!), her storyline could become an interesting commentary on representations and experiences of women, rather than a weakness of the show. But from what I’ve seen so far, the show positions Annie as a beautiful, victimized, cloistered ghost without much significant exploration of how the circumstances of her existence might lead her character to change over time. Instead, her character falls into the classic victim/doormat pattern identified by  Shirley Maclaine.

The stories we tell ourselves—that we’re go-getters fighting our way to the top, or damaged goods who can’t be loved, or struggling artists or elite intellectuals or loyal partners or bad-ass roller derbyers (derbyists?)—have an huge impact on how we conduct our lives. And one of the primary ways we learn to tell our own stories, and the stories of people we know, is by hearing, reading, or watching other people’s stories get told. That’s why the story Being Human is telling about Annie, as of season one, bothers me. In a show about people struggling to get in touch with their humanity, the writers aren’t locating the individuality and agency that could make this ghost come alive.

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  1. love this! i am curious, have you seen the american version? if so, is it similar in its treatment of annie? and her relationships, etc. ps sarah t, i am obsessed with friday nights right now … obsessed!!

  2. I haven’t! I’m curious about that too. And hurray for FNL obsessions. Do you mist up at the credits?? I do.

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