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5 TV Characters that Defy Rigid Gender Roles

Traditionally, characters have been written to fit into rigid roles that do not portray the true complexity of individuals. They are forced into rigid binaries: Homemaker or working woman? Sensitive woman or successful powerhouse? Masculine or feminine? With the presence of these characters on television, these dichotomies are now becoming void.

These five characters are revealed to have traits that do not allow them to be neatly categorized into pre-determined gender ideologies.


1. Clair Huxtable


The Cosby Show matriarch is a successful lawyer and mother of five who refuses to fit into a prescribed role. In one episode, she offers her husband and eldest daughter’s boyfriend, Elvin, coffee.

Elvin is surprised and states, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Huxtable. I didn’t think you did that kind of thing.” She replies, “What kind of thing?”

“You know…serve”

Serve whom?”
“Serve him.”
“Oh serve him? As in serve your man?”
“Well yeah.”
“Let me tell you something Elvin. You see I am not serving Dr. Huxtable. Okay? That’s the kind of thing that goes on in a restaurant. Now I am going to bring him a cup of coffee just like he brought me a cup of coffee this morning. And THAT young man is what marriage is made of. It is give and take, fifty-fifty. And if you don’t get it together and drop these macho attitudes you are never gonna have anybody bringing you anything anywhere, any place, anytime ever.”

Here, Clair Huxtable makes a powerful statement about the division of domestic labor in relationships. They consider themselves to be a partnership that involves equal effort from both parties. Apart from her stance on labor divisions, Clair also displays the ideal that women are not limited to choosing between career and family. Her character suggests both can be synonymous, especially with a partner who is willing to “give and take, fifty-fifty.”


2. Robin Scherbatsky


I’m not sure how many times we heard Robin Scherbatsky declare “I don’t want to have children” on How I Met Your Mother. Despite this, Ted Mosby and viewers continued to hope that Robin would change her mind. Surely she was just in a phase and was enjoying being young and free? But as she matured she would outgrow her “selfish” desires! Right?
Robin Scherbatsky was certain that her life goals were a successful career and travel. Though Ted attempted to sway her, Robin remained confident in her decision. Some may argue that she surely would have made a different choice if she did not later discover that she was unable to reproduce biologically, but Robin never chose to adopt or have children in any other alternative way.

When we first discover Robin is impotent, she says,

“So I can’t have kids. Big deal. Now there’s no one to hold me back in life. No one to keep me from traveling where I want to travel. No one getting in the way of my career. If you want to know the truth of it, I’m glad you guys don’t exist. Really glad.”

Robin had been telling her story to imaginary kids. At the end of the episode Ted says Robin didn’t become a mother, but she did become “a famous journalist, a successful businesswoman, [and] a world traveler, but she was never alone.”

Even when Ted and Robin eventually end up together in the final episode of the show, it is after both have been able to live out their dreams separately. While Ted had children and raised them to near adulthood, Robin spent years traveling and working. The future of the characters is up to interpretation, but I’d like to imagine that Ted’s children go to college at Wesleyan and he and Robin travel the world together. She spends her days working and he explores architecture museums. Still, one must question if the writers of HIMYM have forced this famous duo together despite their differences.

3. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren

Orange is the New Black is host to a diverse cast of women and while it is not on a television network, it’s form of entertainment is along the same vein.  Suzanne Warren, with her infamous bulging eyes, is a character that gathers the most viewer interest; Uzo Aduba, who plays Suzanne, even won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a series.

Suzanne appears to have a moderate social disability. She often hits herself, is delusional about her actions, and prone to violent outbursts. Yet her character’s psychological issues do not stunt her complexity. Suzanne craves love, as displayed by her deep loyalty to those who show her kindness. Her intelligence is demonstrated by her grasp and performance of advanced prose. She is also aware of her disability; Suzanne confesses that cleaning allows her to manage her frenzied thoughts and her time in the psychiatric ward. She is also aware that she is being treated differently as she asks, “Why does everyone call me crazy eyes?”

However, we never see Suzanne demonstrating a longing to be “normal.” She is a queer woman, who shows no preservations about her love for Piper and her sexuality. Her physical strength is not hidden. She does not fit into stereotypes, which demand she, as a disabled woman, desire an average social capacity that would allow her an alternative life.

We see her tell Piper Chapman,

“I used to spend a lot of time thinking how I could make you love me. Like, if I had long pretty hair, or if I made a chocolate cake with frosting, or if I had a green bicycle…the answer is, you’re not a nice person. You’re a mean person. And I used to think you was a yellow dandelion, but psshh… you’re all dried up with the puff blown off. And it’s not your fault. You are who you are, like I am who I am.”

Suzanne Warren’s self-acceptance is a defiance against heteronormative, sexist, racist, and anti-disability culture.


4. Brienne of Tarth 


The only female knight to have appeared in Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth is more skilled than many of the male knights she encounters. She even is able to impressively fend off a bear in an arena with only her sword. She does not, however, dismiss her femininity due to her physical strength. Upon being called “sir” she is irked and wants to be recognized as a “lady.” Despite Brienne’s confidence, others often remark about her plain appearance. In A Song of Fire and Ice Loras Tyrell and Jamie Lannister have this exchange:

Loras: “Draw your sword woman!”
Jamie: “Best hope she doesn’t. Or it’s like to be your corpse we carry out. The wench is as strong as Gregor Clegane, though not so pretty.”

As a woman in this world, Brienne is largely judged based on her appearance rather than her character. She is a severely loyal knight, who does not ascertain her sword to be a rejection or a definition of her womanhood.



5. Cristina Yang


The Grey’s Anatomy doctor is deeply unapologetic about her ambitions, career goals, and non-normative personality. Though her life at Seattle-Grace Hospital is riddled with romance and drama, it does not sway her from focusing on her career. Upon being complimented about her appearance she retorted, “Oh screw beautiful! I’m brilliant. You wanna appease me? Compliment my brain.”

Cristina Yang’s brilliance is unyielding. But she also admits to her vulnerability.

Her abortion in the eight season of the show proved to be a game-changer as her denial of motherhood fully embraced her life choices. In 2011, it was rare for prime-time TV to cover such a taboo topic. “I really wanted Cristina Yang to stay true to who Cristina Yang is. And I feel like that is a character who has never really wanted to be a mother,” said the show’s creator and Planned Parenthood board member, Shonda Rhimes to Vulture. “The idea that this woman would have a child that she did not want and resented for ruining her career and resented Owen for making her have [it] would have been hideous. [The abortion] made sense for the character.”

Yang’s choice sheds a different light on abortion, as many shows often try to combat pro-life and pro-choice stances. Yang’s ability to decide for herself reveals that she has the ability to be both strong-willed and honest, without losing touch of herself in the process.

The Cosby Show, How I Met Your Mother, Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones, and Grey’s Anatomy. The popularity of these shows can be attributed to many things, yet the authenticity of their characters is plenty to chose from. Complex characters reflect real people with intricate personalities. They remind us that we do not have be placed in boundaries that limit us.

The presence of these characters on television and their noncompliance to traditional gender roles can make us all hopeful about the future of the media.


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Written by Varsha Pandey

Writer Varsha Pandey's passion for social justice spurred her to join the Fembot team in 2014. She recently earned a degree in Biology and intends to pursue a doctorate in Pharmacy. Varsha hopes her interest in medicine combined with her enthusiasm for cultural politics will benefit her as a patient advocate throughout her career.

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