WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Goodbye, Girls: TV closes the book on smartest female characters left…

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

May 17th, 2007

Can I just share a brief lament that this spring finale season brings with it the loss of some of the last remaining positive scripted female characters out there?

I just read that the CW in all its bottom-line wisdom has decided to kill Veronica Mars, a series in which a whip-smart, confident, clever, powerful (and in-control sexy) young woman solves crimes, saves lives and balances her private detective duties alongside her classwork, dating angst and money trouble. She was the non-paranormal legacy of the dearly-departed Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. (Whom I also miss — Buffy was one of the subjects of my very first post-college column, headlined, “Thwack! Pow! Yikes! Not Your Mothers Heroines” - the article, for Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, focused on Buffy, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Lisa Simpson as the 1997 TV line-up’s best/only positive role models for girls).

Just like the CW made the wrong decision last spring to give the overrought, hyperemotional, Christian-right-pandering 7th Heaven an 11th season rather than renewing the critically acclaimed, nuanced family drama Everwood, the network is once again choosing marketers’ cash over quality content, cheating viewers by keeping the girls-are-pretty-and-stupid “reality” shows The Pussycat Dolls and Beauty and the Geek on air while killing Veronica.

(This, by the way, is what made The TV Set’s satiric “Slut Wars” so dead-on funny.)

Sadder than the cancellation of Veronica Mars (which was, truthfully, hit or miss in its execution) was the saw-it-coming but nevertheless disappointing wrap of the Gilmore Girls, which was perhaps the last remaining scripted show on television that I could regularly recommend when journalists, students or average TV viewers asked me some version of the question, “You’re always going on about how poorly media portray women — are there any shows that do represent women well?”

So, here’s my obit not only for this one charming little show but for television that actually wrote women well once in a while (ie, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Cagney & Lacey, Murphy Brown, Xena, Buffy, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars) but doesn’t seem interested in even trying any more.

Goodbye, Gilmore Girls — I’ll be glad to be rid of your annoying “la la la” singsongy soundtrack filler, but I’ll deeply miss your array of female characters who were all written to be smart, quirky, witty, competent, supportive of one another, fabulous, flawed and vulnerable in their own, unique ways, not carbon copies of one another, and totally unlike the depth-less parade of empty-headed hotties on teen-angst melodramas, put-upon but resigned sitcom moms, and perfectly coiffed, stark-featured, mini-skirted DAs on one after another procedural crime drama (not to mention the inane hot-tub and harem dwellers on reality TV).

Into that shallow, superficial and sexist landscape seven seasons ago, writer Amy Sherman-Palladino thrust a small army of funny, fiery, fast-talking women reminiscent of those fast-talking dames back in the day, like Roslind Russel and Katherine Hepburn in all their bantery, black-and-white splendor. There was:

* Emily, the rich, elitist, controlling, bigoted yet still somehow endearing grandmother;
* Lane, Rory’s rebellious, closeted rock star best friend;
* Sooky, effusive, meticulous, clumsy and cute chef, business partner and friend of Lorelai;
* Paris, the socially inept, zealotous academic;
* Miss Patty, aging sexpot children’s dance instructor with markedly adult anecdotes;
* Liz, the flaky jewelry designer and bad-mom-turned-good; and,
* Babbette, the comic-relief-providing neighbor who gossiped for good rather than evil.

Critics loved Gilmore Girls and, for good reason, have spilled most of their ink on the powerfully written dynamic between the close and well-crafted characters of hip young mom Lorelai and precocious teen Rory. I’m already breaking my promise to myself that this would be a short post, so I won’t tangent into the amazing performances of Lauren “Emmy Voters Must Be Deaf and Blind” Graham beyond mentioning that if I could make any fictional character I’ve ever seen on film or screen materialize to be my best friend, it would be Lorelai. Instead, I’ll mention just a few things most reviewers and critics have left out — like, the fact that I can’t remember another television show where such a rich array of female protagonists and supporting actresses were allowed to co-exist without being portrayed in competition with one another for the attention of male characters (hello, Ally McBeal), as stereotypical cliches (I’m talking to you, Everybody Loves Raymond’s Patricia Heaton and Doris Roberts), or as perpetually unhappy if they’re single (here’s looking at you, Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha). Or, how about the brilliant way in which Sherman-Palladino used visual real estate to insert subtle progressive commentary into her show even though it was, on the surface, an apolitical young adult dramedy, from characters wearing tee shirts bedecked with peace signs or pro-feminist slogans on them, to anti-war and other lefty posters in the background on dorm walls? It was nothing you’d notice if you weren’t paying close attention, but enough to make it clear exactly where these characters stand politically over the life of the series… a distinct difference from most television worlds which are constructed with the notion that political apathy is and should be the norm.

As Veronica and the Gilmores go off to their celluloid graves, what can we look forward to in the way of women on TV? Well, let’s see… there’ll be pole dancers (Pussycat Dolls — in Gilmore’s time slot, even!), desperate, ematiated billboard-babes (America’s Next Top Model), brainless beauties (Beauty and the Geek) and, apparently, cross-generational teams of pageant queens (a new mother-daughter team-themed beauty competition called Crowned: The Mother of all Pageants)… and that’s just the CW, the net that nixed GG and VM. If you prefer your femmes mutiliated in ever more disturbing fashion each week, you can tune in to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on NBC; if you like your diverse cast of female doctors dispensing sex and gossip as much or more than medical advice, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy will do you fine; or, if you’re a fan of cinematic schadenfreude, there’s always another Bachelor sifting through another harem of twenty-five would-be Cinderellas with low-self-esteem issues and accute wedding ring lust, selected specifically by ABC for their propensity for on-camera humiliation.

I’m doing my part, in particular by working on a book on reality TV as cultural backlash against women, and in general by directing Women In Media & News, the national women’s media analysis, education and advocacy group I direct, which sponsors this WIMN’s Voices group blog. You can do your part by supporting feminist independent media projects (like Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture magazine, Ms., Women Make Movies and the Center for New Words’ annual WAM! Women, Action & the Media conference), and, of course, by supporting Women In Media & News and WIMN’s Voices (it’s almost scary how far we stretch a buck). And, of course, you can create your own media — there are many ways to start, but WIMN’s Resource Guide for Media Activists offers links to some great beginnings.

[Update: I forgot to mention that there are a couple of strong female characters in ABC’s Ugly Betty. I shouldn’t overlook the exceptions to the rule.]

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