Straight Trippin’: Strong Female Leads and the Clumsiness Crutch

25 Jul

I started watching The Newsroom this week. After having at least three friends show me (separately) Will McAvoy’s opening meltdown about American world rankings, I felt compelled as a liberal to watch our new messiah on his weekly soapbox.

And I love the show. Perhaps it’s because, as Emily Nussbaum hints in her New Yorker review, I “share its politics.” Or maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for fast-paced political dialogue and a good love triangle (who else is rooting for Maggie and Jim Harper?).

But as I watched the series, I noticed something unusually familiar: the shocking amount of clumsy trip ups scripted for the main cast. Will misses his chair, Mac falls over desks, and Maggie can hardly pick up phones. In the most recent episode, Jim gets hit by a door so often he bleeds.

Perhaps I’m merely underestimating the power of physical humor (sorry, Chris Farley), but these out of place gaffs don’t endear me to The Newsroom characters. Instead, I question their professional competency.

The more I considered the cast’s inability to walk (much less in a straight line), the more I realized that relying on clumsiness to humanize a strong female lead is a fairly common technique used in many major shows. Liz Lemon from 30 Rock‘s massive trip ups are a source of constant laughter. Although in season 1 the clumsiness could have been considered a mere quirky trait, by now Liz is known almost completely for her inability to move around the office and her dating neuroses.

Sarah Jessica Parker takes clumsiness to professional heights during I Don’t Know How She Does It. Her character, Kate Reddy, is so wholly not ready to complete any task (including dressing herself) that I don’t know how she does anything— including basic necessities like taking showers or eating. In this movie, the writers rely on clumsiness to  prove that Kate is fallible and overworked; however, as a viewer it simply makes me think she’s incompetent.

Klutzy female leads are so common in our culture that they’ve become a trope and have even secured their own Wikipedia page. Clumsiness serves to make women cute and endearing, and often leads to fortuitous romantic entanglements. Women can bump into men in movies and we will call it fate. The offending men find this bumbling charming, and one tumble leads to natural rom-com romance and the inevitable date.

Shana Mlawski published this flowchart of female tropes in Overthinking It. One of the tropes is called “Adorable Klutz.”

Even if klutzy ladies are a worn stereotype in our culture, who cares? I’m a self-described klutz; my legs are bruised from constant tripping over bed corners and once I even tore down my curtains while falling out of bed (both my feet were asleep. It’s not that uncommon!)

So as a clumsy woman, how can I find a TV trope that represents me distasteful? The problem is that clumsiness is used as a crutch for writers; otherwise strong, powerful women are infantalized by one “flaw” that serves to endear them to the male audience. Mindy Kaling talks about this trope in her New Yorker “Flick Chicks” article, bashing screenwriters for including a fake flaw for otherwise perfect women.

When a beautiful actress is cast in a movie, executives rack their brains to find some kind of flaw in the character she plays that will still allow her to be palatable. She can’t be overweight or not perfect-looking, because who would pay to see that? A female who is not one hundred per cent perfect-looking in every way? You might as well film a dead squid decaying on a beach somewhere for two hours. So they make her a Klutz.

The hundred-per-cent-perfect-looking female is perfect in every way except that she constantly bonks her head on things. She trips and falls and spills soup on her affable date (Josh Lucas. Is that his name? I know it’s two first names. Josh George? Brad Mike? Fred Tom? Yes, it’s Fred Tom).

The Klutz clangs into stop signs while riding her bike and knocks over giant displays of fine china in department stores. Despite being five feet nine and weighing a hundred and ten pounds, she is basically like a drunk buffalo who has never been a part of human society. But Fred Tom loves her anyway.

In addition to making Fred Tom’s love for the lead more palatable, the Klutz-Trope invokes The Protector instinct in men, making strong women in need of (masculine) care. Otherwise powerful women are therefore viewed as endearing children who need protection. Even if a woman is more powerful than a man, she still needs him in some small way, even if it’s just to pick up her books in the hallway. Cause women can’t bend down and stuff.

Although the klutz trait is less common in men, I will say that in recent years some shows strive to balance the physical gaffes. The Newsroom is one such show. Although Mac and Maggie are more clumsy than any of the other characters, Will can be seen tripping over chairs and other newsroom furniture. In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant inverses the trope by spilling orange juice on the cool and collected Julia Roberts.

I salute these clumsy men, who collectively prove that the female sex is not fated to fall and trip their way into the arms of men.

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2 Responses to “Straight Trippin’: Strong Female Leads and the Clumsiness Crutch”

  1. Danielle Black July 25, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    Although I laughed at the part where you said that “women can’t bend down and stuff,” I think you bring up a good point. I feel like, if a woman is too pretty and intelligent and successful, people think she’s a bitch (like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal). And so, clumsiness is a cute, endearing, flaw to make a character have.

    • Caitlin Garzi July 25, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

      Another great example! Sandra Bullock is super clumsy in The Proposal. All because she’s flustered by the love of her life, her employee who needs to regain his masculinity by watching her fall and trip her way through the movie!

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