Why Woman-Centric Television Matters

I grew up in an era of very male-centric television. I watched programs like The A-Team, Riptide, Magnum, PI, and in re-runs the Man from U.N.C.L.E., and I Spy, among many others, which featured entirely male casts. Programs with a female even co-lead were few and far between (Remington Steele was one I still remember fondly) and even those programs (Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Moonlighting, et cetera, even Remington Steele as much as I loved it) were often long form romances. Yes, there was adventure, there was a real, female, co-lead, but the program was as much about the romance between the woman and the man, as it was about solving crimes.

This male-centeredness extended to other entertainment media as well. After all, it was Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. The mysteries I read always featured a male detective.  That is, once I out-grew the always-perfect Nancy Drew. Movies had a distinctive male vibe – if they included a woman at all, she was a client, or there to be rescued, or the romantic co-lead. Even women with jobs on television and in film were often only there as the romantic interest, or even worse – as the hired help. There were a few exceptions, especially as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s (such as Birds of Prey in comics). SF and Fantasy also often featured stories that centered around men.

But today it is far different, and I would argue the female-centered nature of some (certainly not all) television is an improvement. It brings a new perspective to television, and it gives younger girls attainable role models. Examples of female-centered television on the air today include:  Outlander, Once Upon a Time, and even early Game of Thrones featured strong female characters. Outlander is, of course, a historical romance with a twist, and Claire is pretty much the only woman in it, apart from a few servants. Claire is trapped in a very male time, and she is frequently nearly a victim. However, Claire is also smart, talented, and a professional war-experienced nurse. So, Outlander straddles a line between being a modern romance for television, being a female-led show, and at times stepping backwards into bodice-ripping romance. Though, to give the show credit, every time Claire is attacked, it is shown as something horrifying rather than something she “wants”.

Once Upon a Time is a show that routinely passes the Bechel test (two women, who talk to each other, about anything other than a man). The women of Once Upon a Time are not princesses who sit around waiting to be rescued. They solve problems, and often are the ones doing the rescuing. In the recent Frozen storyline all the main characters, heroes and villains, were female, and male characters were secondary. The “Queens of Evil” story line continued this emphasis on the female characters leading the plot. The villains in that story were male – “the Author” and Mr. Gold – who had a reason for his actions. But the Queens were not a united group and not shown as “cookie-cutter” identical “villains” each had their own motivation, and in Maleficent’s case she had actually been wronged by Snow White and Prince Charming – and the audience’s sympathy swings to her fairly quickly. Once Upon a Time shows just how good television can be when women are given as much to do as men, without being The Strong Female Character ™ who really is no more than a male character with breasts. The Once Upon a Time characters have “female” concerns: their children, their home town, their husbands and boyfriends – but it’s written in a way as to not become a soap opera.

Game of Thrones is traditional Medieval fantasy, which is a genre that is traditionally dominated by men – not only as authors, but as characters. Women, if present at all, are often merely the prize the hero gets if he completes his quest satisfactorily. But in Game of Thrones, at least the first three or four seasons, characters start in the traditional roles: wife, mother, tomboy, princess, lover, queen, et cetera, but they grow and change, and not in the way we expect. Daenerys starts as a young, teenaged girl, sold into marriage – and is raped repeated by her husband. By the end of three seasons, she’s ruling three city-states, by herself. And most of the other characters also have long journeys of growth and change that are just as complex as that given to any male character in the genre. Season 5, however, remains a challenge – Daenerys has lost her entire kingdom; Arya has joined a weird cult – who seem set on killing her for breaking their rules; Cersei is stripped, her hair is shaved off, and she’s forced to walk naked and barefoot through the city of King’s Landing – with stones, rotten food, excrement, and other things thrown at her; Sansa is raped by her husband – the psychopath, Ramsey, who now rules Winterfell – it was a tough season to watch, one can only hope season six is better.

But getting back to the female-centerness of today’s television, even traditionally male genre programs, such as Arrow, feature not just a single “Strong Female Character ™”, but several women. And those women are complex, with different backgrounds. The Women of Arrow – Felicity (who rocks my world), Thea, Sarah Lance, Laurel Lance, Moira Queen, Nyssa al’Ghul, do not simply “fill a role” like their counterparts even a few decades ago did (mother, sister, girlfriend, etc) but are strong, complicated characters in their own right. And they even straddle the line between “good” and “evil” just like traditional male characters.

Although some behind-the-scenes positions, such as director, still remain elusive for women in Hollywood and in American television, women are getting more positions as television writers as well as producers. Although, “producer”, is a fluid term – often anything from a vanity credit for a program’s star actors, to a glorified accountant who pulls together the money for a project, and one that’s been open to women the longest, it has it’s benefits. But women are slowly getting other behind-the-scenes roles.

Most importantly, women-centric television benefits everyone. When a group who has been ignored and ostracized from a position is “allowed” in, suddenly there are new perspectives to the story. Suddenly, there is someone there who can say, “Now, wait a minute…” before a story is filmed and put out there for all to see. Suddenly, there is a new perspective, which means new stories, and new ideas. And those new ideas draw in new viewers and more viewers. New viewpoints from the previously silent majority with no voice, improves television.

Seriously, when has it ever hurt anything to bring women and minorities to the table, and give them a voice. Everyone has stories to tell, and television is a medium that should be open to as many voices as possible. That those voices are just starting to be heard improves the stories to be told – it certainly doesn’t harm them.