NYTW: Blacklist’s overall plot is subtly sexist

Will Hyde

“The Blacklist” is another crime/detective/spy TV series in a long lineup of the same genre. Though the story may seem tired, “Blacklist” finds new angles to tell a familiar story. The show follows Raymond “Red” Reddington, a criminal extraordinaire who decisively joins the FBI to cleanse the world of unknown career criminals. Red, a man with a plan for everything, uses the FBI to bring down obscure villains under the strict condition that he is partnered with the newly inducted FBI profiler, Elizabeth Keen. 

As the series progressed, viewers were invited to piece together Red’s complicated endgame, as he consistently uses his blacklist to eliminate criminal competition or gain useful, illegal resources. The show is clearly heavily focused on the elaborate plans Reddington manipulates the FBI into completing.  

Though “Blacklist” succeeds in portraying Keen as a more-than-capable agent, the larger plot is perhaps subtly sexist. Keen spends much of the first season under direct manipulation of her “father figure” Red, while slowly discovering her husband, Tom, is an impostor. The second season isn’t much different. Keen is greatly influenced by all the men in her life— almost to the point of absurdity. When she isn’t fighting mostly male criminals, hounded by the omnipresent Reddington, stalked by her fake husband or ordered around by her boss, Harry Cooper, Keen spends her remaining time surrounded in the FBI’s masculine atmosphere. 

Keen seems unable to define her life, career or personality without the addition of one of the many men in her life.

“Blacklist” isn’t an overtly female-oriented show. With limited regular characters, the series lacks more than a handful of female agents or villains. But, the show makes up for monotonous male leads by casting Keen as the foil to Red’s criminal persona. Keen shares many aggressive traits with Red. She is brazen, quick witted and unusually intuitive. 

Additionally, Keen takes most of the screen-time as the series is primarily split between her and Red’s perspective. Keen also takes the lead on most of the cases, despite the risk—she is seen front line of some of the most horrific and creative illegal enterprises the team takes down. In nearly every episode, Keen is almost killed, fights her way free or otherwise outsmarts her enemy. Elizabeth Keen is one of the most well-rounded leads in this TV genre—she is shown to be physically threatening while also using clever, inventive methods to succeed.  

“Blacklist” does little to add multiple female leads to primetime. In addition, the series’ overarching theme features less-than-progressive interactions between the only lead female and the many male characters in her life. Despite the larger picture, “Blacklist” doesn’t come across as intentionally backwards. The show does a fair job developing Keen into the tough, gun-toting agent she currently is. 

The series also manages to add minor female characters in the FBI with specialized, complex skills unique to their male counterparts. “Blacklist”also brings larger-than-life feminine forces in the criminal underworld— viewers will recall intricate characters like the slave dealer Floriana Campo, the corporate terrorist Gina Zanetakos and the free-agent assassin Vanessa Cruz. Though the series is limited by a small recurring cast, the show manages to make good use of what women are involved in the plot.