June Cleaver might be a little aghast, but also a little proud, if she saw the ladies who share the small screen with her these days.
For a recent piece on TakePart.com, I had to compose a list of some of the most groundbreaking female TV characters of all time. You know, the ones that took the small and imperfect steps toward more realistic (and meaningful) portrayals of women and a woman’s experience, that allowed for better and more multi-faceted female characters down the line.
Though TV’s impact on identity and society is not exclusive to women, women’s liberation and television share a special bond because they both came of age at the same time; for women, television helped define our roles in society, and how we saw ourselves.
But while composing the list, I felt myself searching for the story. I wanted to find a connection between how the first female crime fighter contributed to the first single mom, but it’s not clear change really works that way – it’s not linear, entirely. Who’s to say whether the first black actress, or the first fat actress, or the first single mother, or the first intellectual female tv character is most important? Is first really the marker of importance? Researching the women who graced our television sets from its inception to the present day obviously contained a lot of firsts, but also a lot of other women who have contributed to the very existence of characters like, oh, ya know, the entire cast of Orange is the New Black, or even the parodic historical female characters like Joan or Peggy on Mad Men.
Inevitably, sifting through the Maude’s, Amy’s, and Lavern’s of TV history turned up more than I could include – but also a contemplation on the traits I value that compose what I consider a “multi-faceted, strong, sympathetic, realist…etc etc etc” female character. It seemed like the story carved out a few areas of change that allowed for the characters of today to get written into existence – but perhaps the traits that I chose speak to me specifically, and not women generally?
Anyhow, the trends I saw emerging were in the areas of ass-kickers/crime fighting, diversity, humor, careers, and the internal self. For example, Wonder Woman helped America get used to the idea of a Powerful Woman, but she did nothing for acclimating us to bodies that didn’t look like, well, Wonder Woman’s. That job was for Cathryn Manheim, who screamed when she won her Emmy….
This process basically involved comparing the stripped down, white washed, most generic ideal of a woman that we all know so well, and comparing her with what I see as real. And it’s important to me that that Real woman exists on TV , because pondering what I thought of as the “whole woman” – which character best encapsulates me? – reminded me how much of our own identities are shaped by the media around us. Maybe I can only articulate that identity of myself as an ass kicker, a comedian, a (sort of) minority, a career woman, and someone with a perspective that deserves to be heard (if I make it so) because these are the female traits that gained headway in female characters on TV, as well. Who’s to say which shaped which, but I’m grateful for the Lena Dunhams and the Veronica Mars’, and I think you should be too.
Check out the full article on TakePart.com “11 of the Most Game-Changing Female TV Characters of All Time” here!