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.

3 thoughts on “Why Woman-Centric Television Matters

  1. Sorry I’m just getting to this. I completely agree that TV is changing for the better with more roles for women. Outlander isn’t a real winner for me however. In my opinion, in the book she’s more relatable to the audience. In the series she just seems ungrateful and cold at times. The character has changed too much from the book series for me to get me to really enjoy the series. What you said about OUAT I agree with whole heartedly. I do however think sometimes that the stakes aren’t so great, but that’s less of a character development problem and more of a plot device problem. Emma is my favorite character pretty much because she has so many levels, thief, sheriff, mother, daughter, friend, magic, and more. And thought she has hook, it’s never her sole identity. The writers on the show have even gone so far as to have the female characters say things along the lines of ‘making their own destiny’ and such. Game of Thrones I dearly love so I maybe biased. I understand your feelings about season 5. However, since as you pointed out they’ve been on a somewhat upswing, they had to take a hit at some time. You can’t have the good without the bad. I knew it was coming for Daenerys since she had to have some challenge coming for her since she was doing well as a ruler. Sansa’s storyline was unexpected for me (as I haven’t read the series), but marrying into the Bolton family did mean she was going to have a troublesome marriage. I don’t think they had to film it the way they did. But I get why he raped her. Cersei I feel deserved it. She’s an evil b***h. Arya I feel is building herself up at the house of black and white. If she becomes no one then she can avenge her family like she’s planned to the whole time.

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    • I have a review of the first DVD release of Outlander on my blog. I read the first book years ago, but not the rest of the series – so I didn’t have a strong attachment to Claire in terms of how I “wanted” her to be played. But part of why Claire gets points in my book is she is smart enough to not insist on bringing her cultural knowledge and bias into a time where that simply wouldn’t work.
      I also have a review of the latest season of Once Upon a Time. Regina is my favorite character because we’ve seen so much growth in her character. She’s gone from being the villain to being a hero – and I love that. I also love the fact that she’s an adoptive mother. Also, how you view Regina changes as the show goes on and as she grows as a character. When I re-watched seasons 1-3 last Summer on DVD, I noticed that virtually everything Regina does in Storybook is motivated by her love of Henry – even though at times she’s so over-protective she’s smothering him (in a sense). Which isn’t to say I don’t like Emma. I totally ship Emma/Hook – and you are absolutely right that they introduce Hook as a romantic interest without taking away Emma’s agency or making her any less badass. And she’s still very much in charge of everything.
      One of the things I was trying to do in the essay is keep focused on my subject: Women in Television. I didn’t want to get too easily distracted (which is so, so, so easy for me) going into the details of this show or that show. Besides I’ve either covered other shows in detail in other places on my blog or I plan to. Game of Thrones I really want to see what they do with Season 6. That’s going to make or break it for me. If I like season 6, I’ll buy Season 5, and probably re-watch the entire series. Not only reviews but several essays will be forthcoming from that (I have a list of topics in Evernote to tackle for Game of Thrones alone.) But if Season 6 continues down the “make the women pay for being strong and independent” rabbithole I might give up on the series entirely. At least one feminist television/culture website (the Marysue website) has already declared it won’t cover GoT – which I think is going way too far. But I was not happy at all about what happened to Deanerys. And I thought Cersei’s “punishment” was unnecessarily cruel – they never would have done that to a male character. From what I’ve heard from friends and even just “random posters online” is that Sansa’s storyline was different in the books – she didn’t marry Ramsey, and he raped someone else not her. Whether that was a method of collapsing a big book into something manageable for television, by combining a couple of story lines and having Ramsey do a Terrible Thing to a character we care about rather than one we don’t know (as I suspect, to be honest) or it was deliberate devaluing and exploitation of a woman (as some websites like TheMarySue have claimed) really remains to be seen – we have to see how it goes in Season 6 – was there a good reason for it in terms of plot and character?

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  2. She just seems to be moved around by the guys to me. She could assert herself more and I just feel she doesn’t. I agree that the Mary Sue took it too far. I think quite a few times they jump the gun. Such as with Whedon and the Jurassic Park clip. I understand where you’re coming from with Season 5. I’m interested in seeing what happens this season cause I felt 5 was more setup and a jumping off point. Really? I like Dany’s story this season. She goes to on top to having to realize what being a rule really is. Cersei’s punishment I thought was perfect. She was getting her just deserts. She’s squashed so many others over the seasons, this was the first time it hit her back. And I don’t feel that it’s just something they’d do to a female character. I heard that about Sansa as well. Though like you said, it will all depend on how it plays out next season.

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