The new hero in TV town is a woman

August 18, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

An outsider dressed in black rides into an idyllic looking community. The outsider wants only to rest and then move on.

But there's trouble in the community. The town-folk are being terrorized by thugs. Before long, the outsider is drawn into the trouble, fighting for the town-folk and urging them to stand up and fight for themselves.

Sound familiar? Like the plot for the classic western "Shane," starring Alan Ladd?

It is. But it's also the plot of a made-for-TV movie called "Shame," which stars Amanda Donohoe and airs at 9 tonight on Lifetime, the cable network targeted to women.

On it's own, "Shame" is a powerful film about rape, with compelling performances by Donohoe, as the outsider who teaches empowerment, and Fairuza Balk, as the teen-age victim who tries to fight back.

But "Shame" is also part of a growing number of films and television productions casting women in mythic roles that, literally, for ages had been exclusively the province of men.

Last summer's "Thelma and Louise" is one example. Another example is scheduled to appear on CBS next month. The new series, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," stars Jane Seymour as a doctor in the American West of the 1860s. And more shows with women in roles that were previously male-only are in the works.

Much has been written and said about "Thelma and Louise" as a female version of male-buddy films, such as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." But there was also another parallel that was less noticed: Thelma and Louise as outsider/heroes on the classic Hero Quest.

This is the stuff of psychiatrist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell. But, in all the hero myths through the ages, which they analyzed and documented, only men got to be heroes -- at least in Western cultures. In "Thelma and Louise," though, women tried the hero archetype on for size.

That's also what's going on in "Shame." The film is set in the modern-day Pacific Northwest, not the 19th century frontier of "Shane." And Donohoe plays a prosecuting attorney from Los Angeles, not a noble gunfighter, like Ladd.

But those are only the trappings of time and place -- what Campbell called the masks that the archetype appears in at different times.

Director Dan Lerner said that what attracted him to the Lifetime project was that "the lead, a role that had been typically male, was played by a woman." And the filmmakers are playing with gender from the opening shot.

Instead of riding into the community on a horse, like Shane, Donohoe's character, Diana Cadell, rides into town on a motorcycle. But, at first, all we see is a figure in black leather and black helmet on the motorcycle. There is no way of knowing the gender of the rider. It is not until she parks the bike and raises the visor of the helmet that we see it's a woman.

Cadell, who is on a private odyssey, has stopped in the isolated town to repair her cycle. While she is at a garage on the outskirts of town, waiting for parts to complete the repairs, she meets a teen-age girl who has just been raped. Cadell winds up defending the girl and trying to prosecute the girl's assailants both legally and with her fists.

Some of the film's best moments are its most violent, when Cadell literally slugs it out with the rapists. There's an energy or excitement in seeing someone you expect to be the victim turn the tables on her attackers. It's the same feeling some film-goers had when first seeing the scene in the parking lot at the roadhouse in "Thelma and Louise," which ends with Louise blowing away the man who was about to rape Thelma.

" 'Shame" is a story of a woman who empowers a young rape victim to strike back against her attackers," said Pat Fili, the senior vice president for programming at Lifetime. "Lifetime is committed to the emerging female empowerment."

Jung didn't use the word "empowerment" in his voluminous writings. But near the center of his psychoanalytic theory was the conviction that there was a tangible psychic energy in archetypes and that when an individual recognized such an image in a dream, a story or film and connected with it, the individual was actually charged up with that energy. That jolt of positive energy is available for viewers of "Shame," just as it was for film-goers who saw "Thelma and Louise." And, surely, that's a kind of empowerment.

And the process need not include violence, as it does in "Thelma and Louise" and "Shame." "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" is not about about violence. It's about woman-as-healer as opposed to women-as-nurse-and-assistant-to-healer.

Seymour acknowledged that the series is about a woman in what was previously a male-only role, but insisted that "Dr. Quinn" not be misinterpreted as a story about a "woman trying to be a man."

"I am thrilled that there's going to be something on TV that my children can watch, that they can see Mommy doing something that I think is communicating the image of women as I feel women deserve to be depicted today, rather than being sex objects," Seymour said recently in Los Angeles. "I like the idea of a woman who's . . . more than just a survivor. She's a woman who's strong, courageous and who deals with adversity with the best of feminine instincts."

'Shame'

When: Tonight at 9.

Channel: Lifetime.

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