As television morphed into our mini-feature film favourite, these short-spanned cinematic gems became the preferred way to pass the time. Stories developed under the feature film format – i.e. narrative based format – and television became more complicated, along with the characters. What was Seinfeld and Friends, is now Girls and Arrested Development. What were serialized dramas like Murder, She Wrote and Law & Order, are now story arched shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad. What were the short shorts of Daisy Duke and the defining haircut of Rachel Green is now the gusto of Peggy Olson and positive strength of musician Rayna Jaymes.
As progressive and supportive of the modern woman television seems to be, there are still slip ups that shouldn’t go unnoticed. There are sexist references that pull me out of the story. There are references to women as objects that make me question the show’s potential. It’s the female characters, however, that we find in these narrative-based shows who aren’t sexist and who aren’t weak that shine a spotlight on the moments where the show slips up and makes them so. I get so reeled in by strong, successful women that, in that fleeting moment they flaunt their chest at their boss to get something they want, I try my best not to yell at the screen!
I’d say it’s most damaging when these specific characters give up their positive exemplifiers for a cheap joke or convenient plot point that shouldn’t pass through the first draft. Just because misogynist and/or stereotypical characters are running rampant on other shows (ahem, Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, True Blood, Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls, Two and a Half Men, Sons of Anarchy… I’ll stop) doesn’t mean that female characters that don’t subscribe to this, are allowed to every so often or if it’s so convenient.
I’ve just begun season 2 of Suits… and I’m trying to convince myself to go on…
In Season 1, Donna, played by Sarah Rafferty, was a loyal and abrasive assistant. She stood up for herself, was funny, well-dressed, confident, and didn’t put up with backlash or bullshit from the lawyers she worked with. I was excited to see, perhaps, another Peggy Olson!
I liked Donna because Donna wasn’t submissive. Come the end of Season 1, however, I wasn’t fully convinced of her strength. It was as though the writers didn’t want to give her character a backbone because they wanted to opportunity to take it away if they needed to. Her being an assistant with no means of moving up in her career went unchanged, and alongside the two other female leads on the show – a quiet yet domineering head partner Jessica, and Rachel, a paralegal with similar screen time as Donna – nothing grandiose or promising was offered up on any scale.
And then I started season 2.
Episode 1 of season 2, Donna slipped, and not for the better. She asked Harvey if he wanted a tampon when he was being insensitive and then, shortly after, she got Louis to do her a favour by bending over his desk and exposing her cleavage (season 2, episode 2). Donna wouldn’t do that! I wanted to yell. But it’s a TV show. Still… I was invested, and I was let down (a big reason why watching the shows I mentioned in the third paragraph are difficult for me to watch). Damn you, Suits, for turning Donna – and the other women (even Mike Ross’s grandmother!!) into jelly. Damn you.
Peggy Olson played by Elisabeth Moss on Mad Men is a good case study for a strong female lead. She started out plain and somewhat frumpy but grew with the show to represent an assertive, brave, whistleblower-type who wasn’t sculpted completely out of fiction. This gives her a purpose. A truth.
Peggy represents a difficult time in history regarding the working woman, but does there need to be a real life shadow of a female character to write one into a show like Mad Men? I would argue not, but perhaps I’m being hopeful. Peggy’s character is based on the original “Mad Woman” Jane Maas who openly discussed the truths behind the show and working in advertising just as Peggy does. An article in The Hollywood Reporter says Maas’ critique of the show lies upon the advertising. The sex and sexual harassment on Mad Men was, apparently, spot on.
So history is on Mad Men’s side. Peggy is base d on a real person, but she is still donned with an incredible amount of masculine traits. Is this to allow her so much power, or a representation of the real Jane Maas? Either way, Peggy is a starlet, and it wouldn’t hurt to see more like her on scripted television.
Loved Donna, and love Peggy, but my number one female lead on scripted television right now is Rayna James on Nashville, played by Connie Britton. Britton has a way of landing roles that are seemingly enigmas. Rayna is positive, supportive, strong, and someone who wholeheartedly sticks to her convictions. She is open and aware, and she listens. This is perhaps my favourite part of Rayna (and I might add, Tami Taylor, her character on Friday Night Lights). Not only does she listen, but she’s polite. Even if she’s upset, she still takes the time to hear the other side. That might be a stage direction in the script, but Connie Britton is good at it, and good at being an example of what everyone should be practicing.
While I do believe that sexist and stereotypical stories/characters come from both male and female writers, I did notice far fewer female writers in the first season of Suits (there was 1) than Mad Men, Nashville, and Friday Night Lights. Shows require perspective in order to remain approachable. I have become a great deal more aware of the characters that represent and shape my identity because I can see and feel the effect they have on their audiences.
Are there any characters you watch that stand out, positively or negatively? As a writer, I’ve become critically interested in dissecting the characters people create. They represent a psyche, a sociological norm, and stand as a kind of testament towards what we, as audiences, are willing to accept. My standards are high. I want what I watch to entertain and teach me, not taint.