Monday, September 19, 2011

Gwen Cooper: Action Chick Done Right (Eventually)

I sense you feel strongly and will back away now.
I adore Torchwood’s Gwen Cooper, but I didn’t always.  I started out the series hating her guts.  From her irritating laugh to her self-righteousness to the show’s insistence that she be the moral conscience when anyone could see that that job was really Jack’s…She was not my favorite.

It’s a problem I’ve had with a lot of action heroines.  Despite their toned bodies, pithy quips and attractive love interests, they leave me cold.  Because they are not real women.  Real women have mortgages and families and at the very least menstrual cycles.  I want a little consistency, some weight, something that matters.  Gwen Cooper started out with the rest of them for me.  Just another action chick with a gun and a pair of tight pants.

And then a funny thing happened.  Gwen grew up.  Right before my eyes.*

(A tiny bit of background before I start: Torchwood is a spinoff of the highly popular BBC show Doctor Who.  It stars Captain Jack Harkness, a time-traveler from Doctor Who who was given immortality by accident, and is now searching for the Doctor to find out why.  He runs Torchwood, a group of alien-hunters working for the British government, scavenging the detritust that comes through a rift in time and space that runs through Cardiff, Wales.  Gwen, a Welsh policewoman recruited into Torchwood, was added as the protagonist when producers realized that Jack might not be terribly relatable.)

Season One:  Gwen was an annoying, self-righteous bitch who was more than a little hypocritical.  While she was off criticizing everyone for their jaded reactions to (for them) typical work situations, like a young girl possessed by a sex alien or child-snatching faeries, she was cheating on her long-term boyfriend with a variety of people.  Most notably, she cheated on Rhys, the fiance, with Owen, her sleazy date-raping co-worker, while knowing that another co-worker, Tosh, was in love with Owen.  Yikes.  And all of this is without even mentioning the weird relationship between Gwen and Jack, her immortal time-traveling boss.  They shared secrets, talked about their lives, and were closer to each other than they are to their respective significant others.  (Jack is in a casual relationship during the first season with Ianto, his secretary).  All of that is normal for best friends, but perhaps not for coworkers who occasionally send searing looks at each other, and sit at each others bedsides.  Needless to say, Gwen bothered me a little.
You also seem to care deeply about this call.

But she had fire.  I liked that.  Sure she was annoying as all get out, but she cared.  I like that.  I just wanted it without all off the baggage.

Season Two:  Gwen got better.  A little.  She became cooler.  She was still a self-righteous bitch sometimes, but really only when the situation called for it.  When she discovered that her boss was keeping an entire subset of missing people on an island to keep them from upsetting their families, she was outraged.  Upon discovering that he had very good reasons for this, she was still outraged.  That was a little annoying.  Like I said, she only got really angry about the things that mattered, but Gwen’s rage was still a little much.  However, she was pretty awesome too.  This was the season that Gwen finally told Rhys what she does for a living: hunt aliens.  He’s shocked (but admits it does explain a lot about their relationship).  Why it made me like her more is that suddenly, Gwen had to face up to her past decisions.  She had a real relationship, one in which she shared fully.

There are not nearly enough shows where women have that kind of relationship, I’ve found, and especially not in genre television.  Gwen had started down the bad path in season one by mistreating the one character point that actually made her interesting, and it was incredibly heartening to see her get it back.  Gwen and Rhys matter.  She’s dominant, alpha, incredibly kickass and far too attached to her guns, while Rhys runs a lorry-driving company.  He’s sweet.  He loves Gwen and cares for her.  I’m sorry, but we need a lot more of that.

Season two was the season where Gwen and Rhys got married, reaffirmed their love, and where Gwen learned precisely how badass she could be.  Very.

Children of Earth and Miracle Day:  Children of Earth isn’t exactly Season Three, but actually a miniseries.  And it is amazing.**  In this, for the first time, I loved Gwen.  She was still flawed, still judgmental, but she was brilliant.  Incredibly badass (I mean breaking into secure facilities with a van and a pistol badass), vulnerable (finding out that she’s pregnant when the whole world’s children are suddenly threatened), and finally blissfully real (having to have the conversation with Rhys: do we want to have a baby in a world like this?).  For the first time, I looked up and saw a real woman on the screen, and I liked her.  Even when she wasn’t perhaps being good, or nice, or even agreeable, she was so very very real.

And about your baby.  I'm gonna go now.
The same goes for Miracle Day, which was sadly quite a bit crapper than Children of Earth.  Gwen was amazing.  Her daughter now several months old, she was a lioness with a cub and nothing, NOTHING was going to keep her baby from her.  But more than that, she continued to be a fully realized character, faults and all.  Her daughter was in danger.  Her husband kept trying to help, but their relationship was strained as she had to fly all over the world to help Jack, who Rhys had never liked to begin with.  Her father was terribly ill.  It all mattered.  There is a moment when she and Jack finally really talk, and Gwen reveals something personal and also a little horrific.  Referring to Torchwood’s overwhelming death-rate: “They died,” she says, “and I didn’t, and it only made me feel more special, because I survived.”  It’s awful, what’s she’s saying.  But it’s so fucking honest.

It made me love her.

So, yes, Gwen Cooper isn’t perfect.  She’s self-righteous, judgmental, a horrible planner (my friends and I have started calling terrible plans “Torchwood Plans”), and a right bitch sometimes.  But she’s real.  She’s loyal, she’s fierce, and she’s brilliant.  And it only took them two seasons to get there.

This is a face that cares.  Clearly.
Gwen Cooper is played by Eve Myles.  Torchwood was created by Russell T. Davies, and the show ran on BBC 3 and Starz.  Do check it out.

*Point of note: If you haven’t seen Torchwood, and want something more sturdy than my vague summary to go on, please see the wikipedia article here or the official site here for more information.  Or just watch the show.  You could do worse.

**WATCH. IT.  It will be the best thing you have ever seen.

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