thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Under Her Wing: Fraught Female Mentorship in “Damages”

In gender, Uncategorized on January 21, 2012 at 7:15 am

Sarah Todd

Onscreen, female mentors are few and far between. As this article from Jezebel observed a few months ago, there are plenty of film and television examples of male mentors helping develop the talents of both men and women–Giles, Haymitch, Gandalf, Robin Williams as the over-involved psychologist in Good Will Hunting, Jack Donaghy, Ron Swanson, Coach Taylor, Mr. Schue, Obi-Wan Kanobi I guess (I’ve only seen Star Wars once and I fell asleep).

By contrast, I can’t think of any examples of a female character in charge of showing a younger male character the ropes. And while I can think of a few female characters who mentor other women, it’s probably no coincidence that the first two who spring to mind are at least a little evil.

There’s Sigourney Weaver’s backstabbing executive in Working Girl, and Meryl Streep’s icy editor-in-chief in The Devil Wears Prada. These ladies have many priorities: retaining power and influence, maintaining a high standard of professional excellence, designer fashions. Providing thoughtful and supportive counsel to women in their field is not high on their lists of things to do.

Given that Hollywood has a long and storied tradition of depicting ambitious, successful career women as socially inept workaholics, bullies, and/or shrews, it’s no surprise that female mentors often get stuck with the fuzzy end of the representation lollipop. Outside an office setting, the field is a little more generous to female mentor characters: Miranda Bailey of Grey’s Anatomy has a heart of gold beneath her tough outer labcoat, as does Maggie Smith as Mother Superior in Sister Act and as Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter. Bold, warm-hearted Tami Taylor of Friday Night Lights mentors half the female population of Dillon, TX quite successfully. Notably, the professions of these female mentors are all centered on helping others: surgeon, nun, professor, guidance counselor/principal. Perhaps the television and film industries believe audiences will find sympathetic female advisors more acceptable and believable outside the business sector.

By and large, when a female mentor character is onscreen–particularly if she’s wearing a suit–chances are that most people in the audience aren’t wishing they were in her mentee’s shoes. Well, probably they like her shoes themselves. Shoes for professional movie women are awesome. They’re all smart and spike-heeled and they seem like they’d make very impressive and authoritative clacking noises across freshly polished floors.

I’d certainly want Rose Byrne’s shoes on FX’s Damages. Damages plays into many of the conventions of the Hollywood scary-lady mentor tale. Glenn Close is Patty Hewes, a brilliant, calculating lawyer with an easy-breezy attitude toward ethical and moral scruples and disbarrable offenses. Rose Byrne plays Ellen Parkins, her determined, eager young protégé.

[So many spoilers ahead! Just stop reading now if you care about that because a veritable Minesweeper of plot reveals is to come.]

Even if you’ve never seen the show, you can probably deduce many of its basic plot points from the description above. Does Patty torture Ellen with inexplicable mood swings and insufferable workloads until she’s at her breaking point, then give her just a smidgen of approval to keep her on the hook? You bet. Does Patty shatter Ellen’s innocence? With a sledgehammer. Does Ellen finally get fed up with Patty’s B.S. and make a principled stand? She does, many times over.

Don't let Patty get to your head, Ellen.

In the two and a half seasons I’ve watched so far, Patty has committed any number of egregious offenses. She invites Ellen to stay at her empty apartment and then hires a hit man to kill her. She orders an underling to kill a dog in order to get a witness on her side. She inadvertently leads to the murder of Ellen’s fiance and then takes on, as a client, the man directly responsible for the murder of that fiance. She blackmails, bribes, fires, and threatens numerous others.

Despite all this, Patty isn’t so much evil as evelle. Evelle is a word my friend Coty made up in college to describe someone who’s not actually cruel so much as  slippery and crafty and opportunistic and dark. You can root for an evelle person, even though they’ll sometimes do bad things. Catwoman is evelle, and so are Julie Cooper and Miranda PriestlyDolores Umbridge and Miss Minchin are straight-up evil.

The relationship between Patty and Ellen is more complicated than it first appears. With her even voice, burning eyes and tiny Mona Lisa smile, Patty is a stone-cold enigma 99 percent of the time. But occasionally that 1 percent slips through enough to reveal that she’s taken a genuine interest in Ellen. You don’t extend 4 am invitations to dinner later in the week to people you regard as mere worker-ants soon to be squashed, for example. And over the course of the series, Ellen starts to show her own steeliness and serious ambition. You don’t accept the 4 am dinner invitation with a flickering, satisfied smile if you’re not interested in the game your mentor’s playing.

As it turns out, Patty and Ellen are not so different after all. That revelation, in The Devil Wears Prada, is cause for alarm. Damages, on the other hand, seems to root for Ellen’s gradual transformation from innocent associate to hard-edged lawyer. She doesn’t become Patty. But she learns how Patty thinks, and she begins to think that way herself. “I lied too,” we hear her tell Patty over and over again, emphasizing the ever-narrowing moral gap between them. (Damages uses a flashback structure, revealing the details of a season-long story arc in increments, so that certain lines and images show up in almost every episode.) Patty has shown Ellen how to lie and how to be ruthless. More importantly, Patty has taught Ellen how to win. The two of them always care about winning more than anyone else does. For that reason, they’re strongest when they’re fighting on the same side.

Patty’s no picnic, but the show is sympathetic to her even as it relishes her more dastardly turns. She’s admirably great at her job, a point on which the show never sways. As a mother, she and her sociopathic teenage son appear to be engaged in a decades-long, high-stakes game of chicken, which earns her some pity points. She’s humanized by her love for her dog and for her devoted elderly uncle, and by that special flinty sorry-I-tried-to-murder-you-once affection she has for Ellen. Refreshingly, the show also suggests that she can both be a powerful lawyer and have a happy marriage. The marriage ends, but not because of Patty’s job.

What with all the Machiavellian scheming, Damages can’t be said to be a positive representation of female mentor-mentee relationships. But it is a complex one. And after all, nurturing bosses who are invested in helping the talented people who work for them don’t exactly rev the engines of tense pyschological thriller-dramas.

Yet even as I make that claim, I wonder if it’s true. I get the impression that the relationship between the characters played by Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes on Homeland–by all accounts a terrific and highly suspenseful show–could be described exactly that way. I don’t believe that a woman would get cast in Patinkin’s role. And I don’t believe that a show about a male mentor would feature a theme song, as Damages does, that consists of the lines “When I get through with you, there won’t be anything left.” The theme song tells us that Patty Hewes doesn’t develop talent–she devours it. The fundamental premise of Patty’s approach to mentoring is that once you work for her, she owns you. That makes for gripping television, but it’s a story that’s been told before. The world could use some new ones.

  1. Hey– I’ve been watching Damages as well so it’s great to see your take on exactly how their relationship breaks down. I get the impression that you haven’t made it to season 3, which might be off-base, but I’ll be curious to see what you think of the progression after a certain point.

    Also, the dog thing—the flip-side to that dog-caring coin that we saw in season One was almost enough to make me stop watching the show 😦

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