On TV, there's a new guard of heroines calling the shots. From chipper Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation to fractured Carrie Mathison on Homeland to narcissistic Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened, we see women anchoring our favorite shows. So what makes these characters so often cringe-worthy?
In The New Yorker, TV critic Emily Nussbaum took note of this new small screen female archetype, the Hummingbird:
They’re different ages; some are more manic, some sweeter or more sour...But they do share traits: they’re idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive. And most crucially, these are not minor characters. On each show, the Hummingbird is a protagonist—an alienating-yet-sympathetic figure whose struggles are taken seriously and considered meaningful.
At first glance, this seems like a mere gender shift from the lauded male antiheroes whom TV audiences have embraced. Think Tony Soprano, Dexter, Don Draper, and Walter "Heisenberg" White. And to some extent, it's true: Contemporary audiences love to root for the bad guy, so why not the overwhelmingly eager woman?
TV shows House of Cards and Parks and Recreation both point important real-world dynamics. While young men have a wealth of male mentors to choose from—as well as so-called old boy networks—young women have few gender-specific examples of what success looks like.
On these shows, we see two examples of young women looking up to a singular older, female role model: House of Card's cub reporter Zoe (Kate Mara) admires rich nonprofit chief Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) and Parks and Rec's city hall staffer April (Aubrey Plaza) has Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to thank for much advice and career help.
The Americans, a new FX Network spy show developed by ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, illustrates the unique physical and psychological dangers that threaten women in espionage, the military, and law enforcement. In addition to the expected danger incurred in shoot-outs and international arms deals, the show's lead female character deals with the very real threat of rape.
On the show, as in real life, institutional sexism allows sexual assaults to persist the military. The Americans shows that unfortunately, for women, being in sexually hostile situations has for too long been a part of the job.
On the sitcom The Office, as in real life, middle class working mothers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
They often face the choice of either compromising their career—working part-time or quitting altogether—or feeling like an absent mother. Men, on the other hand, are typically not held to the same standard. Rarely do employers worry whether their male employees will have children and scale back their working hours. Seldom do people worry whether men can "have it all." The Office paints a fairly balanced portrait of what it means when a husband and wife clash over their careers and their families. In the evolving relationship of Pam and Jim in the American version of the series, the married coworkers are equally responsible for their marriage's breakdown, and they should be equally responsible for fixing it—if it can, in fact, be fixed.
The show's central relationship echoes dynamics that feminist writers have pointed out for decades. This week is the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique, the book which so clearly articulated the tension between the roles expected of women in their work and home lives. Writer Stephanie Coontz spelled out the real-life statistics behind this continuing conflict this week in a great New York Times piece:
When family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work. But unlike the situation in the 1960s, this is not because most people believe this is the preferable order of things. Rather, it is often a reasonable response to the fact that our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals....Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.
On TV and in real life, there's a dearth of young women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While a few bygone shows exposed the barriers against geeks in general (think My So-Called Life's Brian Krakow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow, and Freaks and Geeks's Lindsay Weir), contemporary television shows fail to portray the bumpy path that exist specfically for young women male-dominated science and math career tracks. I say we need more characters like Willow.
Last week's episode of Parks and Recreation, "Women in Garbage", is fairly unique then, in showing women at work in a male-dominated career: takin' out the city's trash. In their own hilarious way, Parks & Rec focused on the fraught fight that needs to happen in order to undo a city's institutional sexism. In the episode, City Commissioner Leslie (Amy Poehler) discovers that very few women occupy jobs in Pawnee's public sector. She attempts to create a gender equality commission, but finds she's presiding over an all-male group—in April's (Aubrey Plaza) words, a "sausagefest."
In AMC's wildly popular Mad Men, administrative assistants are sexy secretaries in a male-dominated world. Sue in Veep and April in recent seasons of Parks and Recreation portray a slightly more empowering though still-tired trope: the sassy secretary. In real life, the role of administrative assistant is, statistically speaking, woman's work. But at a time when four out of ten recession-era postgrads are working whatever jobs they can, the reality is that assistant work has recently transformed from a job young women approach with ambivalance to a job that feels reliable in an uncertain economy.
It's surprising that we currently have so few female entrepreneurs on TV. In real life, women-owned businesses grew by 20 percent from 1997 and 2002. Sadly, the jump in female entrepreneurs hasn't been reflected on TV, which sends a dangerously inaccurate message to young female viewers. The lack of female entrepreneurs on television now suggests that men, not women, take care of business.
Onscreen, women struggle as unpaid interns but are saved by, in April's case, a surprise job opportunity in season two of Parks and Recreation. But in real life, about one in six 18-24 year-olds are unemployed and those who land coveted internships often go unpaid.