Television shows with a male mentor holding a clear position of power over a female character are nothing new. This specific relationship has existed almost as long as TV itself. Often this dynamic was even portrayed between married couples. Programs like I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and I Love Lucy showed that even though the star of the show wasn’t a man, the character with the power in the relationship was. In fact, in I Dream of Jeannie, the titular character referred to the male lead, Tony Nelson, as her literal, capital-m Master and only had to cross her arms and blink to make his wishes come true.
Fast-forward about half a century and this trope hasn’t disappeared but it’s certainly changed. Contemporary television shows are now portraying this type of relationship from a feminist perspective. By using such an overtly patriarchal character dynamic, these TV creators and writers are free to play around with the ways we expect men and women to interact with each other, especially when there’s a power differential between the two.
In the first episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon meets her new boss Jack Donaghy. Jack enters his first scene by literally kicking down a door, and we quickly learn that he has connections to the Bush White House, cares about social status, doesn’t think a show is worth airing if men aren’t watching it, and that he’s working with something that is 5 inches, “but it’s thick”. In the same scene we get an eerily accurate description of Liz—“New York, third-wave feminist, college educated, single and pretending to be happy about it, overscheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for a week.” We are very quickly shown how different these two characters are from each other. It isn’t until a few episodes later that Jack officially becomes Liz’s mentor but it’s clear right from that first scene that their relationship is going to be built on conflict.
Jack represents the old boy’s club and is shown mansplaining to Liz so often that they might as well have called it Jacksplaining. Show creator Tina Fey used Jack (as a foil for Liz) to satirize the old boy’s club that has, throughout history, stood in the way of the feminist movement.
Making the male mentor character the boss in the relationship doesn’t necessarily make him a better employee than his female counterpart. Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation succeeds as a feminist character because of how proudly competent she is. Ron Swanson, Pawnee’s own lovable libertarian, provides Leslie with a male mentor that’s not actually there to teach her how to do her job. In fact, if anything, he’s usually hindering Leslie’s productivity. In this case, the mentor-mentee relationship can portray the too-prevalent-to-be-coincidental occurrence of a male director that can sit on his ass while a female employee makes sure the ship runs smoothly. The show avoids characterizing Ron as a simple buffoon, though, by adding a fabulous twist to the hyper-masculine Swanson: he’s a feminist. The character would, of course, never use the word to describe himself but the Parks and Rec writers have, on numerous occasions, shown that Ron values equality and is drawn to strong, assertive women. Ron’s two ex-wives, Tammy 1 and Tammy 2, are both powerful, commanding characters, much like Ron’s mother (who also happens to be named Tammy). Diane, his third wife, is played by ex-warrior princess Lucy Lawless and any scene that includes Ron having a frank conversation with his two new step-daughters shows his interest in empowering people regardless of gender.
In both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars, the male-mentor character fulfills a fatherly role for the female protagonist. While the mentors’ political beliefs or personalities aren’t necessarily juxtaposed with the mentees’ (like in 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation), conflict arises instead from a more familial place. Here we see the mentor often portrayed as being overly protective. Keith Mars spends much of the entire series telling Veronica to stay out of harm’s way. Giles, on the other hand, trains Buffy to handle danger but is frequently seen worrying about her and wondering if he’s “raising” her correctly (see 80% of his solos in the musical episode, “Once More With Feeling”). But how strong can a female character actually be if she’s always shown with an authoritative man standing over her?
Show creators Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) give their characters agency by using the male mentor–female mentee character dynamic as something to rebel against. The father-figure motif is perfectly suited for this. Buffy and Veronica are both constantly rebelling against the orders of Giles and Keith. Veronica is especially notorious for using her detective skills (taught to her by Keith himself) to go behind her dad’s back to investigate a crime she’s not supposed to look into. In this sense, the male mentor is used, often simultaneously, as an obstacle and a stepping stool for the female character’s growth.
All of these male mentors represent the old guard. By creating these characters, feminist writers can deal with an issue that has existed since women started entering the work force on a larger scale. The male-mentor trope is a great way of expressing the frustration faced by many women as they butt heads with the various patriarchal systems in place to keep them down. Perhaps the day will come when that situation isn’t interesting or relevant enough to warrant portraying over and over again on TV. But we’ll never get to that day by simply crossing our arms, blinking, and wishing it into existence.