Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Real Women of TV: Feminist Icons of Current Television

Never has television been more exciting for female roles.  I have some problems concerning the theme of mentally unstable women who also happen to be badass at their jobs, like in Homeland.  The characters are seemingly complex due to the mental instability and anti-heroism, but I really don't think they are complex when it comes down to it.  May the days of anti-heroes be behind us, and let the real complexities commence, starting with shows like Orphan Black, Orange is the New Black, Parks and Recreation, Downton Abbey, Nashville, The White Queen, Major Crimes, Game of Thrones, and the recently debuted Masters of Sex.

Masters of Sex
The co-lead character Virginia is having trouble balancing her professional life and life as a single mother.  Not only does Virginia have to deal with subjugation of women in college and women in the workforce; but she must deal with women in both with children.  She is a huge part in developing a scientific breakthrough on understanding the human body during sex, especially the orgasm.  Dr. Masters did not progress in his studies without her.  She shows fortitude and determination, wanting to be considered a colleague, not just an assistant, and she acted like it.  Virginia is not badass; she is not mentally unstable; she only wants to be a good mother and a professional sociologist, all of which are going against her.  Other women in the series want to be part of something bigger than them, to further scientific discovery, to show men that women fake orgasms and can achieve one under the right circumstances.  Women can have pleasure, and there are multiple ways of pleasuring.  What does Dr. Masters do to get the female masters of sex?  Prostitutes.  And the lead prostitute Betty, though she doesn't run the brothel, knows how to make deals and knows when to set ground rules. ("Men get to yell in here for one reason and one reason only.")  She certainly doesn't take shit from anyone.  The best part is that the women see science as science but still can enjoy sexual freedom; however, Masters cannot.  He can't enjoy sex, and neither can his wife because she doesn't enjoy it.

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones may not be feminist at first glance, but with each season, more women gain more power and in a variety of ways.  Catelyn Tully Stark began her journey as the housewife destined to be confined to her feminine roles, but later she adopts the role of military adviser and treaty-maker.  She goes against law and her own king's/son's orders to rescue her daughters.  And bitterly she notes that the men do not see the women as worth, let alone as people.  Daenerys Targaryen similarly went through the phase of submission to her brother and her husband.  But later she becomes a juggernaut, a force to be reckoned with as the mother of dragons and the freer or slaves.  She does what is morally just while attempting to raise an army to gain what is hers: the kingdom of Westeros, of which no women has ever held claim.  But now many women want to take that throne, including Cersei Lannister, who always wanted power but never could have to due to her sex.  Now you'll have to wait for the future seasons when the Sand Snakes and Asha Greyjoy come to play in the game of thrones.

Orphan Black
The best thing about Orphan Black is clearly the lead actor Tatiana Maslany, but she portrays such diverse characters so authentically that I forget that they're the same actor.  That in itself is a feat, but Maslany portrays cloned women, each having different personalities.  However, each do not take orders from any man, though they may be watched by and tested on by men.  Sure, each one may be a bit crazy, but they found out that they're nothing but experiments.  Now they're trying to take control of their lives and retain their individuality, and they'll do anything to protect themselves and their clones.

Orange is the New Black
The large cast of primarily female characters hits all the right notes, as each character is fleshed out with flashbacks to create, for the most part, incredibly likable characters that we actually feel sorry for or relate to.  The lead character Piper changes drastically within the first season--scared privileged white girl in prison, clearly not fitting in, to knowing exactly how to play the prison system, both with the administration and with the inmates.  It not only provides a breadth of complex female characters, but it exposes the flaws in the prison system.

The White Queen
Leave it to period pieces to tell how women really should act.  Sure, many series romanticize love, and this one certainly does at first.  But it becomes more realistic, as we follow Elizabeth's viewpoint.  Every women on the show starts being naive and innocent.  Soon they all become vindictive and vengeful, aiming for the English throne.   The real power behind the throne was the women.  Elizabeth's mother taught her the ways of the Rivers women, who were lineage of river goddesses.  The women proved to be the real powers at politics while the men played at battle.

Parks and Recreation
One of the few comedies that showcases feminism on a regular basis is Parks and Recreation.  There's nothing I revere more than Parks, especially Leslie Knope.  She's the epitome of feminism and the ideal public representative, fighting for equal rights for women, which was a huge part of last season.  She set up committee for gender equality and establishing that females can do garbage pickup by doing the work herself.  See my previous post on Knope.

Major Crimes
Like its predecessor, Major Crimes revolves around Captain Sharon Raydor's time on the major crimes division, trying to balance leading the force, cuts in funding, making deals, protecting a witness she's come to see as her adopted son, and dealing with an estranged husband all while attempting steely resolve in such a brutal and sad division.  She quickly gained the respect she deserved within the first few episodes.  Now the division operates as a family, protective of one another.

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey takes place during the dying British aristocracy, but also during the suffrage movement and World War I.  Most importantly, the women take central roles in fighting their familial and societal expectations.  While the men were mostly trying to keep patriarchal tradition, the women were attempting to advance and change with society.  Even the elderly women are forward-thinking, and dangerously so with sharp tongue.

Nashville was created by Callie Khouri, who created some of the most cherished feminist films simply by having women be...people.  Every female character on the show shines with complexities and struggles while trying to maintain control over their own lives and careers.  It's that balance of work and home life that is reflected perfectly in Nashville.  Even Scarlet's gaining some backbone this season.

What other television shows provide a variety of complex and rich female roles?

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