How Bones Went From Strong Women to Throwing Us All Under a Bus

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.

For seven seasons now, Bones has been one of, if not the single best example of, strong female characters on television. Two weeks ago, all that changed.

You may have heard of The Bechdel Test, which states simply that a movie passes if it has:

– Two (preferably named) women in it
– Who talk to each other
– About something besides a man

If you haven’t heard of it before, you’ll likely be surprised how hard it is to think of popular movies that qualify. And if you add a preference that they be strong, smart women, the list gets short. (You can, however, look through this list of movies to see who passes. Also see the TV Tropes page.) If you then try to move the test to TV shows, the list becomes really, incredibly short.

Bones, however, has always more than excelled. The show’s titular character is herself strong, brilliant, and exceptionally independent. She has three doctorates–anthropology, forensic anthropology, and kinesiology–and speaks seven languages, among a whole host of other fascinating skills. Her best friend and coworker, Angela, is equally strong, brilliant, and exceptionally independent, in her own ways. Add to all of that when Cam became head of the lab in season two, and it’s a show full of women talking about a whole lot more than the drama of their love lives–even though that comes up from time to time.

What, after all this time, could in one episode change the entire spirit of a show? Even if you don’t watch it, you could guess: Bones had a baby.

Two weeks ago, we left off with Bones having her baby in a barn. The next episode was a fast-forward of about six weeks to the day when the previously hyper-rational Bones returns to work. To recap what happens in this episode (spoilers, obviously):

– Bones has Booth use his FBI connections to illegally obtain the Jeffersonian’s day care director’s master’s degree transcript.
– Bones threatens to have said director fired if she doesn’t send her a picture of the baby every half-hour (because as I’m sure you’re aware, people caring for infants have nothing better to do than take and send pictures of them all day).
– Angela repeats her previous infraction of bringing and hiding her own baby in the office, which is not allowed.
– Upon discovering that Angela has already done it, Bones latches on to the idea and swears to sneak her own baby into the lab every day.
– Oh, and they solve a crime in a grocery store. Then buy organic baby wipes from said store while hauling away the criminal.

Meanwhile, Cam, who already had been vacillating between strong professional woman and neurotic mother, spent the episode entirely in neurotic mother mode, trying to prevent her 18-year-old daughter from dating one of the squinterns.

There’s already a serious lack of successful working mothers on television. How many times have you seen a joke about baby spit-up on a suit or a storyline about the mom who just can’t get it all done, sigh?

Sure, it’s better entertainment for rational, unemotional Bones now to fall apart when she has to leave her baby at day care. But read how show creator Hart Hanson recently described the current situation in a conference call with reporters:

As Stephen said, we have to contend with who’s going to take care of the baby and how is Brennan going to juggle her being a mom living with Booth–how is Booth going to juggle her and the baby and do their jobs. But they’re still doing their jobs.

How they’re going to juggle it and do their jobs? Well, let me see if I can work out how this would go in real life. Bones is exceptionally well-paid, and although Booth makes significantly less, he should be doing OK in the paycheck department as well. And they have on-site day care at work, which Booth assures her is one of the best day care centers, with a day care director who has a master’s degree in early childhood education (she struggled with her nutrition course). So to “still do their jobs,” they’re within walking distance of their baby for most of the day, can visit and feed her whenever necessary, and have plenty of resources to afford this exceptional care. It’s a rough life.

Do Hanson and the others who work on Bones have any clue how far above and beyond that is compared to what most working mothers have available to “still do their jobs”? Or how many women of childbearing age face workplace situations in which managers assume they won’t return to work or won’t be as productive after they have children? (Hello, sneaking your babies into a forensics lab.) There are laws that hold your job (some jobs) while you’re on maternity leave, and the 33-year-old Pregnancy Discrimination Act. But that doesn’t mean that motherhood–or even potential motherhood simply by being a woman of childbearing age–doesn’t lead an employer to look differently at a woman come time for promotion, raises, and career growth.

In the end, the three strongest women on television have been downgraded to the cliche of working mothers who can’t handle the combination of job and parenting. Thanks for nothing, Bones.

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By day, Ruth works to make open source software communities better. The rest of the time, she makes things, which means her husband and kids know to watch out for stray sewing pins and to ask before eating anything made of fondant.