This post is a considerable departure from my usual, but it’s something I’ve been chewing on for months and seems worth talking about.
In 2003, a TV show called NCIS came on the scene. NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service. It’s a shoot-‘em-up action crime show with heart, still in production after fifteen years, in my opinion because of the investigative-team-as-family theme at the center. Gruff ex-Marine Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is surrounded by a crew of coworkers, most of whom are at least a generation younger than he, nearly all of whom have serious trauma in their pasts, and between the moments of plot, Gibbs nurtures his little Gibblets (as fans refer to them) much like a tough-love dad.
One of the show’s most popular characters is Abigail Scuito, generally known as Abby (Pauley Perrette). When the show premiered, the actress was about thirty-four, though the age of the character was never stated. Abby is a forensic scientist with all but superhuman abilities, beyond brilliant, though it helps that she’s working with technology that seems to be flavored with a soupçon of sci-fi. She’s also deeply religious and exuberantly loving and passionate about hard rock and tattooed and pigtailed.
Abby Scuito is so compelling that some researchers credit the character with an upswing in young women entering the sciences. They call it “the Abby effect.”
I really love Abby.
At the end of season fifteen, Pauley Perrette left NCIS. There are some pretty sad rumors around the question of why. I don’t want to repeat the rumors because the truth is that we just don’t know. Someday we might.
In the meantime, I am grieving Abby. (No, the character didn’t die, but it’s clear she’s not coming back, which amounts to the same thing.) And as I’ve mused about this character—warm, sassy, faithful, smart—did I mention smart?—I’ve realized something. It’s not really Abby that made Abby so special. It’s the people around her.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to take anything away from this character. She’s unique on TV and fascinating to watch. But sometimes people talk about her and say things like “the world needs more Abbys,” and I think the truth is, the world has a pretty fair number of Abbys. Our problem is that most Abbys get squished.
When Abby dresses authentically, her coworkers appreciate her individuality, while many women in the world have to dress according to someone else’s code in order to be taken seriously.
When Abby teases her coworkers, they tease her back, then get down to business and listen to what she has to contribute, while many women in the world learn to play things straight because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously.
When Abby expresses her fears or shares about her personal life, her coworkers respect her honesty and respond in kind, while many women in the world don’t dare show vulnerability because this will be interpreted as weakness.
When Abby excels, her bosses recognize that and offer raises and promotions, while many women are consistently passed over because raises and promotions are more closely tied to golf course relationships than professional capability.
When Abby is smarter than her coworkers, they admire her and act on her contributions, while many women experience jealousy and doubt from the people they work with.
This is why I’m grieving Abby. It’s because I’m mourning the example of a workplace that embraces her: a workplace where an intelligent and highly competent young woman is automatically taken seriously and regarded with respect, where contributions are evaluated on their inherent value, where ideas are not ignored until a man repeats them, where it’s possible to be emotional and still viewed as rational because everyone understands that these two states aren’t mutually exclusive.
The very existence of Abby, in the highly respected professional position that she held, was frankly a fantasy.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Here’s what I take from knowing Abby:
Do I want to be like her? Yes, absolutely. I find Abby inspiring. I hope to be as smart, as hard-working, as kind, as authentic, as joyful, and as loving as she.
But more importantly, I want to be like Jenny Shepard and Leon Vance and Jethro Gibbs and Ducky Mallard and Tony/Ziva/Cait/Tim/Jimmy. I want to recognize and value all of those who cross my path for their authentic contributions to the community. And given the world we live in, that means working really hard to see and put aside my own prejudices and–sometimes–to point to people who are being overlooked and, when necessary, amplify their voices.
I’ll miss you, Abby.