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Prime Time Women on TV

ccupaiuolos Icon Posted by Christine Cupaiuolo

June 23rd, 2007

Cross-posted from Women’s Voices for Change

In an article titled "In the Prime of Their Time" that ran in The New York Times on Sunday, Alessandra Stanley writes:

Older stars who once had to resign themselves to playing frustrated spinsters or docile moms are suddenly flaunting their ripened sex appeal on television. It’s not "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" anymore. This season marks the summer of hot cougar love.

It’s an interesting piece about the diversity of television roles for women over 40 — though Stanley does seem to be stretching by tying all the characters together with the term "cougar." (And really, if there’s a term that needs to be dismissed from popular culture, like, yesterday, "cougar" is it.)

What these characters have in common is intelligence, independence and intrigue. That and the fact that their sexuality has yet to be erased.

Kyra Sedgwick is the veteran of the group; she returned this week for her third season as Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson on "The Closer," which airs on TNT.

New series starting in July include TNT’s "Saving Grace," which stars Holly Hunter as an Oklahoma sheriff; Lili Taylor plays a therapist on the Lifetime series "State of Mind"; and Glenn Close, who was terrific on "The Shield," is a litigator on the FX series "Damages."

"All of these series permit actresses with narrowing options in Hollywood to broaden their range on the small screen by tapping into baby boomers’ reluctance to sit back and let a younger generation take over the dance floor," writes Stanley.

While I’m definitely cheering the increased number of complex characters, I’m also saddened by the limitations on these roles that Stanley astutely observes. Noting that Sedgwick’s character was inspired by Det. Superintendent Jane Tennison, the middle-aged heroine that Helen Mirren so wonderfully inhabits in the British series "Prime Suspect," Stanley writes:

All these new series fall far short of "Prime Suspect," a drama that not only was ahead of its time but still stands out. Ms. Mirren’s lonely, workaholic, alcoholic heroine was far more prickly and flawed than any American equivalent — and far more compelling than any of her successors.

Ms. Sedgwick’s Brenda can be abrasive and socially gauche, but she is also pretty, feminine and endearing, more Chris Evert than Billie Jean King. American producers and writers seem unable or unwilling to push a female character to the personality extremes allowed their male counterparts, be it Sgt. Andy Sipowicz of "NYPD Blue" or the lovably unlovable grouch Dr. Gregory House. […]

Unlike Tennison, Brenda balances, however teeteringly, the demands of her career and love life; she doesn’t drink vodka to ease the pressure either. Her worst vice is candy.

And then Stanley brings us back to earth entirely — by pointing out the role played by the heavens above:

Holly Hunter, on the other hand, is not the least bit ladylike on "Saving Grace." The premiere episode opens with Grace, naked, having vigorous sex with her married partner, a strapping young buck who seems far more missish than she about their sexcapades. "I can’t do this anymore," he says. "It’s over, it’s the last time, I mean it." No does not mean no to Grace. "If it’s the last time," she replies, out of breath, "can’t we at least finish?"

She dates younger men, smokes, drinks heavily and slugs mashers who hit on her too aggressively. But unlike the real-life bad girls who are prodded by MTV and Oxygen reality shows to behave as badly as possible, Grace is held accountable by TNT for her excesses. As the title portends, "Saving Grace" involves spiritual rescue. An angel, in the form of a redneck named Earl, is sent to set Grace straight and give her one last chance at redemption: "The Closer" meets "Touched by an Angel."

Ouch. I’ll have to wait to see "Saving Grace" before deciding if the "spiritual rescue" adds anything other than condescension, but I’m already a bit biased. Can anyone think of a similar male character whose lifestyle is critiqued by an angel offering redemption?

One new series I’m glad media critic Jenn Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, is watching so we don’t have to is NBC’s "Age of Love," which had its debut Monday night. Imagine a dating competition like "The Bachelor," but in this series the women are divided into two teams: cougars, who are all age 39 to 48, and kittens, who are in their 20s.

Australian tennis player Mark Philippoussis, who is 30 and was previously engaged to an 18-year-old  before deciding to try his luck at finding a wife on national television, was stunned by the unexpected twist. "It was like throwing some piranhas in, like, the deep end with me!" he said of meeting women older than him.

Pozner, who writes and lectures frequently about portrayals of women on reality TV, admirably dissects the first episode, which sinks to new lows in just the first 10 minutes — yet with NBC promising a new level of "catfight" in the promo ads, chances are it will only get worse:

– in this "experiment," one man has all the agency while dozens of women in their 40s and their 20s are expected to fight amongst themselves like children for his attention

– single women over 40 are portrayed as pathetic, lovelorn losers (despite their accomplishments in life)

– women in their 20s are portrayed as sexy, nubile sirens (desirable as girlfriend material despite being depicted as ditzy and dumb; they even pose them against poles, get it?)

– the narrator promises that "the claws will come out" as "each week, you’ll see young verses old in a battle for love"

"Age of Love" host Mark Consuelos (who is married to Kelly Ripa) told TVGuide.com that when "Age of Love" was pitched to him, he thought "it was really, really cool." He also said that he wishes the show was called "Cougars vs Kittens."

Fortunately, there are plenty of other shows for us to watch.

Plus: For more on Stanley’s article and women on TV, read this excellent post at The Crone Speaks. An excerpt:

As Stanley also notes, other British TV shows have been the inspiration for shows here in the US. I can’t help but wonder how Hollywood would marginalize Diana of Waiting for God. (Granted, Diana is a much older character than what is being discussed in this article, but "Diana" is a strong woman that went after what she wanted, and she isn’t going to shut her mouth just because she is old.) Wait, strike that. I don’t want Hollywood screwing around with a Diana.

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