Friday, September 9, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Clayborne (Au Service de la France)

Here is a fact: When I was fifteen, my cat died. Or she ran away. We've never been entirely sure, but even money is that the leg we found in the driveway was hers, so she probably died. Still, the uncertainty bothered me and for years after that when I saw a cat with her same coloring, I couldn't shake the nagging sensation that this was my cat in a stranger's photographs, my cat on the side of the road, my cat in that movie over there. But I'm pretty sure my cat died.

Here's another fact, not altogether unrelated from the first: When I watched Au Service de la France this past spring, I fell in love with Clayborne, one of only two female characters in the show. I loved her and I looked for pictures of her and I thought of all the brilliant and incisive things I would write about her when I finally gave her a Strong Female Character Friday. I thought about how important she is for feminism and why we needed a character just like her and how progressive the show was for having her.

But after a summer to think about it, I've come to the conclusion that I was seeing Clayborne everywhere like I used to see my cat everywhere. I was seeing shades of her that the writers had never bothered to invent, dreaming up complexity and agenda where there was really just a sophisticated boob joke. Just like I couldn't shake the nagging sensation that my cat was still out there, I was blinded by the magical delusion that somewhere, somehow, this was a progressive character who was a step forward for the representation of women in television.

My cat is dead, and Clayborne really isn't a particularly impressive character.

Still, she's worth talking about, if only to diagnose exactly why she was so appealing and why I think there's a lot of potential in her and in the characters like her. So let's get down to the facts.

Au Service de la France is a French sitcom you can watch on Netflix and that I did watch on Netflix earlier this spring/summer. It's a period piece about French spies in the 1960s, and I'm going to use the French title in this article not because I think "French is a more elegant language" or anything, but because I think the English title (A Very Secret Service) kind of stinks.

The show is essentially a workplace comedy about a young, attractive, naive young man, Andre Merlaux (Hugo Becker), who is hired to be a part of the French secret service and quickly discovers that it's not all beautiful women and expensive hotels and daring chase scenes. There are also expense reports.

Most of the humor in the show comes from the French gently poking fun at themselves, either by exaggerating their importance in world affairs or plotlines where the agents are too busy squabbling about who pays for dinner to catch a terrorist or a running gag about one agent who has fathered so many children by different women that the agency has a policy in place for how to deal with kids showing up and claiming they're his. You know, French humor.

But there is an overarching plot of sorts, mostly centered around Merlaux and his rise in the agency, which happens concurrently with his romantic successes as he woos the lovely Sophie (Mathilde Warnier) and dodges her father the Colonel (Wilfred Benaïche), who happens to be Merlaux's boss at the spy agency. Again, pretty classic stuff.

Clayborne (Joséphine de La Baume) is one of the only other female characters of note on the show then, and the only female character who does not function primarily as a love interest. While she and Merlaux do sleep together, it's not a romantic engagement and instead part of an operation*. In the story, Clayborne's role is really that of the experienced agent for Merlaux to look up to. While all the other male agents are bumbling around and squabbling and turning on each other, Clayborne just does her job, and does it well. She's basically a state subsidized femme fatale, and it works for her.

I want to make it clear that despite my pessimistic dead-cat opener, I really do like Clayborne. She's fun, in an understated way, and very much a female power fantasy. But this is where we start getting into the problems I have with her character, and there are a lot of those.

For starters, while Clayborne is rightly lauded as being the sole female character who is no one's love interest, she is defined by her sexuality in a way that is less "liberated woman" and more "liberated woman which means we can stare without feeling bad". A plot point in the first episode involves all the men staring at her breasts to marvel at a new bra she bought (and charged to the agency) because they don't understand why it cost so much. A later storyline involves her succeeding with a mark entirely because of how she looks naked. 

Clayborne is a modern woman who owns her sexuality, sure, but it's also one of the only things we know about her, which is problematic. The reason it really gets problematic as the series goes on feeds into the other really big problem with the character: she's there to be looked at, not to function as a character who could tell the story.

What I mean is that while Merlaux is the main character, the other characters all get moments when the story shifts to their point of view, and we see their version of events for a while. This is good. What's not so good is that Clayborne never really gets this treatment. Instead, she is completely other-ed from the story. Narratively, she is entirely object and never gets a moment to be the subject. So while the story can tell us how liberated Clayborne is, because it never shows us the world from her perspective, we are left with the lingering taste that she's there to be looked at and nothing more.

This is even more heightened by the one scene we do get from her perspective: a blink-and-you-miss-it horror movie scene where Clayborne is trying on clothes in a dressing room (because as a woman, her two functions are shopping and being in her underwear when the camera is nearby) when a hitman bursts through the door to kill her. The camera cuts out as Clayborne, seemingly terrified, is held powerless against a wall by a man who wants to hurt her, and also she's in her underwear.

The story cuts back in later with the two men who hired the hitman congratulating themselves on getting rid of her, only for Clayborne to casually stroll in, looking fabulous, and dump the hitman's eye in someone's drink. Badass? Hell yes. But narratively subjective? Not even a little bit.

See, this is what I was getting at above. When I first watched the show, this scene fooled me into feeling like Clayborne was a progressive, feminist character. I was all over it. Look at her not giving a shit! Look at her being so confident and competent that they don't even need to show it! Look at her showing everyone up and looking good while doing it!

What I missed, and what I suspect a lot of viewers will miss, is that by cutting the scene on the scantily-clad terror and skipping right to the eye-dropping-into-drink the show is telling us that the parts in between don't matter. It's saying that the part where Clayborne fought the hitman, the part where she ripped out his freaking eyeball, wasn't important enough to show on screen. It's saying that when she gritted her teeth and mussed up her hair and bit and scratched and punched and ripped her pretty silk stockings didn't look nice and so they skipped it. It's saying that the parts of Clayborne that make her human aren't worth showing us on screen.

Instead, they gave us the titillating bits. The underwear, the fear, and the comeback, but without any of the messy human subjectivity that comes along with it. 

That's cheating.

I think that Clayborne has the capacity to be an amazing female character, but only if the writers are able to write her like a person and not like a sexy lamp. And really, this article is for more than just fans of Au Service de la France (because I know there are probably only three of you reading this). It's for anyone who's loved a female character, only to wake up one day and realize that there wasn't much worth loving in the first place. Not that your love was even misplaced, just that there was almost nothing there.

I want real female heroes to look up at, not cheap knockoffs like Clayborne, who walk and talk like the real thing but never make the grade. For sure she's appealing, I mean she's a terrifying lady spy in the 1960s who doesn't need a traumatic backstory (or any backstory) to explain how she got the job and why she's so good at murder. She just is the best and no one questions it. That part I love.

But there are so many female characters who win us over with their unquestioned badass-ness but can't follow through with narrative subjectivity or even personalities. We need more. We can't be satisfied by these rice cracker characters anymore. We have to admit when a female character is cooler in our minds than on the show, and then insist that reality catch up to our desires.

I'll be honest: I want more Clayborne. But I want it subjectively. I want a show from her perspective about her being a badass French spy, like a 1960s Continental Agent Carter. I want the story to take me deep into Clayborne's head, instead of leaving me watching her with longing and no small amount of confusion. I want more Clayborne, but only if she gets to have a voice.

If she doesn't, then what's the point? I don't need her for gratuitous underwear shots - I can get those anywhere. I don't need her for casual badassness - I've got Nikita and Agent Carter and Black Widow for that. I don't even need her for liberated sexual agency - I've got Trish Walker and Jessica Jones for that.

What I need is a Clayborne who gets her own part of the story, and that's the one thing I can't get anywhere else.

One final thing: you might notice that this article is pretty low on pictures. Well, that's because when you google Clayborne (more specifically, when you google "au service de la france clayborne"), this is all that comes up of relevance. All of it. Every last piece. And I want this to hammer home what we've been going over. Clayborne isn't a minor character in Au Service de la France because she's not a character at all. She's a statue, she's a sexy lamp, she's a particularly attractive piece of scenery. But she's not a character. 

That has to change.

*Sensitive viewers might want to skip that episode, though, because it's pretty dang dubious consent on both parts and involves some deeply shady shit.


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