I am trying not to make this about my own fannish tendencies. I am trying to separate my distaste for the character of Sara Ellis (White Collar) about the character herself, not what she’s going to do to my preferred ‘ships. Please bear with me while I argue with a man who will never listen to me because I am but one fan of many, and apparently now a minority.
So, here on the Hollywood Reporter article about the Season 4 finale and the roadmap for Season 5, I wrote:
I guess I have Issues around Sara because I don’t buy her as genuine. Even Neal, for all he’s a con, has a core that we’ve come to see. Sara seems a little too perfect for Neal, perfect-on-paper, and the relationships that have really compelled me to keep watching have all been imperfect: Peter and Neal. Peter, Neal, and El. Mozzie and the Suits. Diana and Neal. I suppose I’d also like to see Neal find happiness with someone a little less posh; come on, he’s got to be capable of seeing past a (questionable) hairdo and a designer label! Someone a little more like the rest of us, I guess. Even June has that down-to-earth thing going that makes her fabulous. She can glam it up when she has to, but it’s not all we see. What is Sara, if not a doll for Neal to play with when he needs her?
I want to explore those ideas a little more in-depth. The characterisation of woman on television is not a bad indicator of what we still think woman should be in reality, if we had all our dreams come true.
White Collar already had three brilliant women to work with before Sara was introduced: June, Neal’s landlady, whose husband had been a con himself; Elizabeth, Peter’s wife and the most loving, open person on the show; and Diana, part of the White Collar team at the FBI, who is partnered with a woman outside of work. (N.B. I don’t think it was ever explicitly stated that Diana’s a lesbian, so I’m not going to label her until the writers put that word in her mouths. Please correct me if I’ve missed an instance.) Two of these are women of color, which is fabulous. One of these, whatever her actual self-definition, falls into the LGBTQ category. Between them, I’m having a hard time seeing where women can’t relate. We’ve covered race, sexuality, and socioeconomic status (well, for people with jobs, anyhow).
But none of them were ever possible love interests for Neal, and come to think of it, Neal, like every other man we’ve met so far on this show, appears to be straight and looking for the love of a good woman. I have a problem with Neal having to be straight. Bisexuality happens. Hi, there. [waves from the wasteland] I also have a problem with Neal having to have a love interest to be interesting. I’ll cover the former first, because it’s easier.
Neal Caffrey, international man of mystery, is already interesting. He’s an ex-convict working as a consultant for the FBI in New York City. He lives in an apartment I’d sell body parts to acquire. He has friends in high places, low places, and every kind of place in between. He bought a bakery. I can’t describe him in terms of good or bad; chaotic neutral is more accurate, with tendencies toward chaotic good — mostly Peter’s influence.
The relationships he is building after a long period of not having any real ones, even with his own family, can be just as fascinating as romances, if not more so. As things stand, Mozzie’s the only person to see him through all of his troubles. Even Kate was unreliable. Now he has Peter and Elizabeth willing to back him, and to some extent, Diana and Clinton Jones (also a character of color! This gets better and better!). Diana’s hotel room bonding moment with Neal was more genuine and affectionate to me than anything I’ve seen between Neal and Sara Ellis.
And I’m left wondering why Neal’s love interest, if he has one, has to be female. Diana’s some flavor of LGBTQ, but she’s also in the background. Why is the lead necessarily straight? Making us so you can say “we’re queer-friendly”, but relegating us to the background, is tokenism. I don’t care how awesomely real Diana is; she’s not driving this story. Neal is. Why is it impossible to imagine his love interest might turn out to be a man? He’s already demonstrated that he lives outside social norms. Is it such a reach that he should be bisexual? We know Neal likes the ladies. That doesn’t preclude him liking men. Contrast Neal with Callie Torres (Grey’s Anatomy) — Callie, very much a main character, has had significant on-screen relationships with both women and men. Until Mark Sloan’s untimely death, she was co-parenting their daughter with her partner Arizona.
Is it okay for Callie and Diana to be with women because they’re women and women are somehow less upsetting in that context?
Keep all that percolating in the background while I explore just what upsets me about Sara Ellis.
She’s not as real as the other women on this show. Her characterisation is shallow at best. I still have no idea what makes Sara tick, and I’ve been watching since the beginning. We know more about June than we do about Sara, and June has had far less screen and plot time. Worse still, there’s no tantalising hint to make me want to know more. Who was she before her career? What made her choose the life she lives?
She’s almost ridiculously pretty. Notice that Diana, June, and El are all atypical beauties, but beauties nonetheless. Sara is a stereotype. Sara is a mannequin. This is not making her any more relatable. I actually find the 24/7 glam uniform kind of absurd. Everyone’s got a sweatpants moment. This is reality. A little deshabille goes a long way, and I don’t mean artfully rumpled hair while wearing a man’s shirt. That’s still a perfume ad. Since I can’t find anything to relate to in her character, I have to look for external cues, and I come up empty. Even Neal has his messy artist moments, when he’s so caught up in his work that he lets himself go. Why is there no analogue for Sara?
She’s one-dimensional, and something of a token. Sara has never actually felt like an integral part of the plot. She’s never been Sara for Sara. She has always been Sara for Neal. She got shoehorned in as The Love Interest, and if she didn’t have the first two problems, I’d be willing to suspend disbelief. Alas. She isn’t significant to anyone outside the team, only Neal. Her relationship with Peter and Elizabeth is for Neal’s sake and, once or twice, the FBI’s. She has no other lasting links to anyone but Neal, and Neal is a con man who’s been out of prison for a relatively short time. She should be better-connected. Does she have parents? Friends? I don’t buy “loner” given what we’ve been shown of her personality. She can at least fake “outgoing” long enough to socialize with more than Neal and, sometimes, Peter and El. She has no life outside of the part she plays in Neal’s, and if she’s supposed to be his main love interest, that’s a problem. He’s falling in love with a doll, an ideal. Even Neal is not that shallow.
And I don’t think there’s any fixing this.
It’s too late to change Sara now. She’s stayed too one-dimensional for too long for me to buy that she’s going to be anything but one-dimensional for the show’s run, unless new dimensions are forced upon the character in the same way the character was forced into the plot.
I tell love stories. I have been telling them for a good fifteen years. These are all aspects of characterisation I have learned over those fifteen years… since I was twelve. Seeing the kind of character I would have written at twelve is a little disconcerting, given Jeff Eastin is supposed to be a professional. I know about characters who resist the writing; I was trying to give one of my universes a believable antagonist based, believe it or not, on a real woman. I found, to my dismay, that the woman in question came across as badly as Sara Ellis. I might know who she is, and have experiences with her, but translating her onto the page results in a caricature. Since the character isn’t cooperating, I have to change the story and how she fits into it. I’m not sure Eastin is willing to do that. I have also changed main characters who didn’t work as they were. You have to be ready to do all that when you’re trying to turn your ideas into people.
On a final, somewhat interesting note: I ran Sara through The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test, trying to be as generous as I could to her — which meant, again, putting aside some of my own feelings. She scored a 57… on the second run, because of the “freakishly high score” of 72 the first time around. (I’d inadvertently tested her twice on some of the same questions.) She’s still off the scale.
Make of all that what you will.