TelevIsm: The Competent and Awesome Ladies of Bones
Image: The cast of Bones throwing up playing cards. From left: TJ Thyne as Jack Hodgins, Michaela Conlin as Angela Montenegro, Emily Deschanel as Temperance Brennan, David Boreanaz as Seely Booth, Tamara Taylor as Camille Saroyan, and Eric Milligan as Zack Addy.
Since I’ve begun my stint here at Bitch, I’ve been watching a lot of Bones on Netflix. Are you ready for a surprise, faithful TelevIsm readers?
I’m kind of in love with it.
I spend a lot of time critiquing how ladies and folks of color are portrayed on television, but Bones is a rare show that consistently portrays their politically marginalized characters as competent, admirable, and worthy of respect and commendation.
Bones, for the uninitiated, is a dark comedy/crime procedural. It focuses on a team of crimefighting forensic scientists who solve the mysteries that human remains can pose. I love it because it’s an exciting, interesting show that showcases competent female characters who are fuel the ongoing plot and counter sexist tropes common to crime shows.
I am chiefly in love with Bones because it has an awesome cast of many competent and intelligent ladies. First, of course, is Temperance Brennan, played by Emily Deschanel. Called Bones by her partner, Seeley Booth, Brennan is the title character and the engine behind the show–she's the reason the cast of characters is together.
Brennan is awesome at what she does, and she knows it. She’s by her own estimation a genius. Brennan is justifiably proud of her intelligence and her success, and in a rare feat for ladies on television, she is not shown to be a bitch for liking herself. She is proud of her success as a writer, and loves attention and applause for her achievements.
Bones is hyper-rational and less than emotional. Though this emotional deficit might be framed as a failure in other female characters, Brennan doesn’t apologize for it. She likes herself just fine, her co-workers and friends like her just fine, and it doesn’t impact her work she has a (male!) partner to balance out her shortage of intuitive reasoning. This flipping of the typical script–intuitive emotional man with hyper-intelligent, logical woman–is not the usual assignation of adjectives.
Additionally, Bones matches her male partner’s strength on many occasions–she is well-trained in martial arts and often defends herself. Though he is typically masculine, she is sometimes the one who has to rescue him. She’s an action star, too–not just Booth.
Angela Montenegro is an artist who assists the team by reconstructing facial features primarily. She also assists the team on other matters, sometimes scientific, sometimes social. She’s a woman of color and a bisexual woman who is not othered by either of these qualities. She is a balance and counterpoint to Bones who brings unique and valuable qualities to the team. Like the other women on this show, she’s happy and satisfied with her work and pleased with the consistently positive reception she gets from her co-workers.
She’s a very skilled artist, and an amazingly talented geek. She has diverse interests. She’s kindly, sensitive, and perceptive, but she doesn’t fall into the “intuitive best friend” trap. She makes a great foil for Bones, but she’s her own person…She doesn’t fit into any of the easy boxes television has created for women, demanding that people view her as who she is. We constantly get to see her doing innovative and amazing things, and being appreciated for them. While we see her emotional side, Angela is not all about her emotions, and I like that.
You should really check out s.e.’s ongoing analysis of Bones– s.e. is much better versed in the show and points out a lot of issues with it that I don’t cover here.
Another well-developed, competent, fulfilled woman of color on the show is Camille Saroyan, the boss of the team. Cam is a good example of a woman of color in an authority position who doesn’t fall into any angry/uppity black women stereotypes. Cam has an interesting backstory–she is more flexible and less rigid than many of the characters on the show, casually mentioning following Phish for a summer in one episode. She’s sensitive to the needs of her team, who like and respect her authority even when they don’t agree with her decision. Women and people of color are not often shown to be such capable and worthwhile leaders, and Cam’s characterization is commendable.
One thing that all of the above characters share is conventional beauty. All of the above ladies are quite thin and quite lovely. It would be nice to see characters who don’t reinforce the beauty standard so mightily, but this is television. To the show’s credit, their beauty is occasionally shown to be a privilege, but their bodies are also sometimes policed (as happens with all women, conventionally attractive or not).
And there is one regular female character who varies from these standards: Caroline Julian. Julian is a lawyer and a woman of size. Though she looks much different from the beautiful, conventionally fit men and women of the Jeffersonian, her size is not shamed or ridiculed. On the problematic side, Julian is more demanding and “scary” than any of the other characters on the show, playing into the “angry black woman” stereotype that is often disproportionately applied to black women of size like Julian. However, she is also another entry of a character who is competent and framed as valuable.
There are a lot of issues with Bones, as with any show. There’s some ableism, some sizism, and some cissexism in different episodes. I’m only on my first watching of the show, and I’m only halfway through the fourth season. But it’s also a show that has a strong cast of excellent, competent female characters. The show refutes sexist tropes by placing women as competent holders of scientific expertise, legal authority, and physical prowess. Bones frames women as competent and worthy of respect from themselves and others, and that’s something to be commended.
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