Friday, June 26, 2015

Women in Blake Crouch's Wayward Pines Series

I'll be perfectly honest and admit from the get go that I had never heard of Crouch or his series until Fox decided to air the television series Wayward Pines, based on Crouches trilogy Wayward Pines. .  Whenever I discover that there is a print version of a movie or a television show that we are watching I try to read it because I believe that it gives a fuller picture of the story.  As wonderful as television and movies are, and for all of the progress in technology, there are simply some things that come across better with the written word.

I picked up the first book,  Pines after watching five episodes of the Fox series, certain that I had by then attained at least a basic understanding of Crouch's story and world. It seems that thus far at least, the show is pretty faithful to its source material.  This is good in many ways because Crouch takes a unique approach to his dystopia, particularly in this era where the zombie is king.  That said, in terms of gender, Crouch's Wayward Pines series is seriously lacking.

The Wayward Pines series is yet another dystopian story in which the straight, cisgender, White, able bodied male not only becomes a leader, but he is practically a saviour.  Time and time again, Pilcher brought Ethan out of stasis, only to have place him back in  stasis when Ethan refused to adapt to the community.  Ethan refuses to quietly go along and he above everyone else, gets the answers as to what is really going on with Wayward Pines.  It's the typical approach dystopians take because somehow authors who can picture the most fantastic scenarios, cannot seem to imagine a woman in charge, let alone being heroic.

With the exception of one female character, the women all exist to nurture Ethan, uplift Ethan, teach Ethan a lesson or simply follow his rules.  They are so wrapped around Ethan that they don't seem to have a personality of their own.  This is particularly true when it comes to Theresa, Ethan's wife.  When we first meet Theresa, it's been a year and half since Ethan has disappeared.  Theresa is vulnerable, lonely, grieving and desperate. Without a doubt, Ethan is everything to her and she is desperate to hold onto the memory of him.  She talks repeatedly about the hold Ethan has over her.  For his part, Ethan is certain that had Theresa been unfaithful instead of him, their marriage would have been over.  Theresa is absolutely willing to forgive him anything because at the end of the day, they both acknowledge that Theresa loves Ethan, far more than he loves her.  Immediately, this fact creates an imbalance of power in their relationship.

Only in the most egalitarian of relationships is parity ever reached in heterosexual relationships.  Theresa gives up everything to be a wife and mother and at the end of the day, that's all she really is.  She doesn't act to defend herself unless it's a life or death situation and even then, she's counting on Ethan coming to the rescue.  It never occurs to her that she might find a way to rescue herself.  The only thing that Theresa knows for sure, when she is given a choice between Ethan and his boss, is that she was meant to be a nurturer and it is for that reason that Theresa chooses Ethan. Theresa actually chooses to take a secondary role because that's natural to her.   When Theresa learns the truth behind Wayward Pines, she commands Ethan to fix it, once again not giving any thought as to what she might do.  When Theresa and Ben are on the run from Abbies, Theresa comforts her son by suggesting that Ethan will save them. So. not only is she naturally a woman who stands behind her man no matter what, she has absolutely zero agency.  She is a cardboard cutout trope.Theresa is a damsel waiting to be saved and or noticed.

The first woman in this series in whom I had any hope at all is Beverly.  Beverly is the only ally Ethan has when he first arrives in Wayward Pines.  Beverly has managed to survive for a year inside the tiny town and she knows something is desperately wrong.  The first time that Beverly tries to escape, it's with one of the Secret Service agents that Ethan has been sent to Wayward Pines to find.  Beverly however is unwilling to give up and is the first person to let Ethan know that there's something really wrong with this town.  She even manages to save Ethan from a surgery on his brain.  For all of her bravery, Beverly ends up dying and the process becomes a lesson to Ethan about the pointlessness of trying to escape.  To Ethan, Beverly comes to symbolise everything he has lost and is desperate to get back to.  I think that one of the worst parts about Beverly's death is the fact that Ethan spends such little time mourning for her. Yes, he didn't know Beverly very long but she counted on him to help her escape or at the very least discover the truth.

Then we have Kate, a former Secret Service agent. By the time Ethan stumbles into town, Kate has already been in Wayward Pines for 12 years.  In that time, despite her great skill and training as a secret service agent, Kate has not managed to find a way to escape, or the secret behind what exactly Wayward Pines is. Somehow, Ethan manages to find out in short order after being in town.  Kate's one act of dissent is to help lead the rebellion with her husband.  And what does the rebellion do? Why they get together, drink, talk about the past and dress up.  That's all that the highly skilled Kate could manage.  If that were not enough,  when Ethan does think about Kate, he never really thinks about her skill and instead references her beauty and affair they had which could have ended his marriage, had Theresa had even a minor backbone. When Ethan turns his romantic inclinations from Kate to Theresa, it's because he's finally interested in being a good husband now that they find themselves at the very end of human civilization.   Kate will however always represent the one that got away.  That's all that she can ever be because we learn next to nothing about her. 

Finally we move to Pam, the psychotic nurse.  When we first meet Pan she is saccharine in her attempts to assure Ethan that he is fine and in hospital after having survived a car accident.  Pam is the last person who can pull off the nurturing role and quickly devolves into the psychotic that she is.  It is interesting that Pilcher chose Pam to play the role of nurse and therapist given that she is the antithesis of nurturing - an exact mirror opposite of Theresa. In her background story, we learn that Pam was a homeless teen, who had a run in with Pilcher which changed her life.  She's absolutely grateful to have been chosen by him to restart humanity. More than anything though, Pam is absolutely power hungry and devoted to Pilcher, which quickly makes her Ethan's enemy in a way that even Pilcher cannot be. It's telling that Pam is the only woman in this series to have any characterisation and that is only because she is a secondary antagonist in this series.  Why is it a woman who is powerful, capable, and rejects the roles of love interest and nurturer had to be in that role in the first place? Pam's characterisation reads almost as a punishment reifying the warped idea that no good can come of a woman who steps outside of traditionally women centered roles.

It is further problematic that Pam is insane and violent.  It makes her a trope when it comes to gender and a trope when it comes to mental illness/disability.  Pam is such a zealot, that she practically foams at the mouth at the very thought of a public execution.  Pam is the illogical, dangerous and sadistic counter to Ethan's grim determinism, morally balanced, rational role.  It's scripted right along gender lines.  It makes Pam the representation of the "crazy bitch" trope.  Pam is meant to be unsympathetic, causing us to want to route for Ethan and his drive for the truth. 

There are many elements to Crouch's series that are enjoyable but his treatment of women is certainly not one of them.  Crouch managed to create a fascinating dystopian world and still had his characters in specifically genderized roles.  Theresa never becomes more than a wife and a mother, Kate is the lost love, Beverly gets fridged to teach Ethan a lesson and finally, there's Pam, the "crazy bitch."  All of them are dependent upon Ethan in someway.  In Pam's case, handling Ethan might finally prove to Pilcher that she is ready for a stronger leadership role.  For Theresa and Beverly, it's all about Ethan being their white knight and saving them and for Kate, he's the great leader there to accomplish what could despite being in Wayward Towns for 12 years and having the exact same training.  Ethan, the great White, straight, savior gets to be many things, to many people. while the women around him are one note characters, whose only relevance is their relationship with him.  Crouch's lack of good female characters is definitely a downside to this series and while their trope laden roles are common, that doesn't make them any less disappointing.