The golden age for women on TV


Put aside your grumbling, just for a moment, about Mad Men's snub at this week's Emmy Awards. Yes, yes, it was a particularly good season of Matthew Weiner's 1960s-set ad world drama and should have been showered with statuettes (and while we're at it, as much as we all still love Ducky, I think we can agree that Jon Cryer's work in Two and A Half Men probably wasn't the most deserving winner of Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series), but there is still plenty to be happy about.


To wit, let's take this as a chance to celebrate the wonderful breadth of roles available for women on television these days.

Clare Danes in the first season of <i>Homeland</i>.

Clare Danes in the first season of Homeland.



Look at the nominations again: from Amy Poehler's cheerful bureaucrat in Parks & Recreation and Julia Louis Dreyfuss' put upon Vice President of the USA in Veep to Claire Danes' brilliant bipolar CIA officer in Homeland, Kathy Bates' acerbic criminal defence lawyer in Harry's Law and Elizabeth Moss' burgeoning feminist copywriter in Mad Men, it's a smorgasbord of dramatic (and comedic) possibility for actresses who might otherwise find themselves staring down the barrel of “wives and girlfriends” roles.


(Of course there are more rich roles for women outside of those represented by the Emmy Nominations, 'Game Of Thrones' array of impressive performances by actresses such as Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister, whose wine-fuelled discussion of Westeros gender politics with Sansa Stark in the Blackwater episode was thrilling to watch.)


Were they to make the jump from the small to the big screen, it's unlikely that so many of these actresses would be playing everything from Vice Presidents and small-town politicians to ad gurus or, in the case of Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie Emmy-winner Julianne Moore, Sarah Palin.


Earlier this week, my colleague Clementine Ford explored the Hollywood mindset that refuses to see female characters as essential to cinema: “[The Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media] interviewed 108 content creators from the leading box office family films made between 2006 and 2009, and questioned them about female representation in these films. They confirmed their own findings: that of all the speaking roles in these films, only around 29.2% of them were female. To put that into more context, for every female who was allowed to speak in a leading box office family film made between 2006 and 2009, there were 2.42 male characters given voices. More damningly, these figures have remained fairly constant for the last 60 years.”


Of the featured roles currently available to women in mainstream cinema, their diversity seems to be taking a backwards step. There are lots of “busy career woman who can't find a work-love balance” roles, maybe a few lawyers or bloggers, and inevitably plenty of career failure, so as to better facilitate being saved by love. 


(The situation is so dire that actresses have turned to screenwriting in order to create the roles they want to play, like Rashida Jones and Zoe Kazan did with Celeste & Jesse Forever and Ruby Sparks, respectively.)


On the small screen, on the other hand, the chance to explore a more nuanced character abounds, which goes a way toward explaining why so much TV is now flooded by “movie actors”, and why ticket sales have plummeted as more and more people realise they can be better entertained, informed and enthralled by staying home on the couch.


As Kyra Sedgwick, who recently wrapped up her time as LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson on <i>The Closer, said at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Emmy Roundtable, “The TV experience was amazing, and it afforded me the experience of delving into a character and growing with her. There's no other venue that you can experience that as an actor. It's deep and cathartic.”


Television has arguably been ahead of the game when it comes to a more diverse representation of women's work (or just women, full stop) for some time. Think of Laverne & ShirleyMurphy Brown, Roseanne, or the original independent TV woman, Mary Richards, who arrived in 1970's premiere of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and: “liberated TV for adults -of both sexes,” as TIME's 17 Shows That Changed Television put it. “Since Mary Richards was not a wife or a mom or a single gal defined mainly by her boyfriend, her self-titled sitcom was able to be a sophisticated show about grownups among other grownups, having grownup conversations.”


(By comparison, in 1970, the top role for a woman on the big screen was Ali McGraw's beautiful dying girl in Love Story.)


Time will tell whether or not we add Carrie from Homeland or Cersei from Game Of Thrones to the great pantheon of female TV characters alongside trailblazers, but one thing's for sure: there are plenty to choose from, which is more than can be said for the state of the multiplex.


Of course, for every Carrie on Homeland there are a dozen weepy, interchangeable soap characters concerned primarily with romance, and another two dozen fame-hungry reality TV “stars”: TV may be just ahead of cinema in terms of good roles for women, but it is not completely free from guilt. Indeed, the reality fame machine is far more injurious to women's minds and self-esteem than a hundred vapid Katherine Heigl flicks.


As Miss Representation notes, “These particular shows have been masterfully orchestrated to depict a cultural norm that directly impacts women’s value to society with the promise that the thinner you are, the prettier you are, and the more outrageously you behave the more successful and happy you will be. This skewed message sidetracks women off the path of empowerment, encouraging them to invest in fixing their outer-selves. Instead of deciding on a college and course of study, more and more women are investing their thought and hard-earned money into what cup size they should be.”


Strong ratings and awards season success for shows that feature impressive female leads could just be the counterpoint to the creeping dread of reality TV. Who knows, maybe those hypothetical young women Miss Representation speaks of have watched Homeland, Mad Men and Parks & Recreation are currently looking into studying international law, advertising or  politics.


  • I personally prefer a prior golden age of female heroes on TV - the mid to late 90s.

    Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess), Buffy Summers (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer), Sydney Bristow (Alias), Max Guevara (Dark Angel), Nikita (La Femme Nikita) and Captain Janeway (Star Trek Voyager).

    Now that was a true golden age of butt kicking heroines! Although very few of them got the recognition they deserved, either the lead actors or the shows as a whole.

    Date and time
    September 26, 2012, 10:31AM
    • All true, agree strongly. Also the stories and plots were entertaining. Now, they are dull and propped up by violence.

      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 2:33PM
  • I certainly agree, that TV is definitely leading the way in strong female characters. Buffy was always one of my fav female characters. She certainly kicked some butt along the way.

    As for Cersei in Game of Thrones, I wouldn't think of her as someone to look up to. She may be Queen but she is also in love with her brother and had 3 children from him. I much prefer Princess Daenerys. She is the "mother of Dragons" after all and is the rightful heir to Westeros. She also leads her people and doesn't take crap from anyone. A great heroine!

    It's really great to see women in strong roles. I do really like Carrie in Homeland as well but why do they have to portray her as somewhat crazy? Do strong women have to be nuts? Is Hollywood trying to tell us something?

    Anyway, I think we are definitely getting better TV shows than movies these days. All the best actors and writers are on TV not on the big screen where they seem to be obsessed with producing stupid comedies with Will Farrell or Ben Stiller with lots of fart jokes, aimed at 12 year old boys!

    Date and time
    September 26, 2012, 12:45PM
    • I agree that most TV is getting better about having strong female roles. It's just a shame not all of them are advertisted well. I don't personnally watch either Mad Men or Game of Thrones, but I find Law and Order - and its various sub branches to be some what encourgaing of strong women.

      Its a shame, that pay-tv has better shows but thats other issue.

      I only wish there were more cartoons with positive female imagery. I enjoyed Daria back in 90's but there is really nothing these days which comes close.

      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 1:55PM
      • Have you tried Avatar: The Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender?

        It has a fantastic female lead character and some great supporting female characters.

        There are also some shorts called "Super Best Friends" which are fun. And while both of the leads are male, there are a range of supporting "princess" characters in the cartoon series "Adventure Time" who aren't anything like the "princess" stereotype. There is also a female vampire who regularly appears.

        Date and time
        September 26, 2012, 3:46PM
    Comments are now closed