Several generations ago Hollywood defined in narrow terms the way women should be depicted in drama and comedy. With rare exceptions they were secondary characters, appendages of the male protagonists who carried the plot. Even Katharine Hepburn, for all her energy and humour, fell into the pattern.
Her part in Woman of the Year, produced in 1941, was modelled on the great reporter Dorothy Thompson. A Thompson-like columnist, Tess marries Sam (Spencer Tracy), a sports writer. Soon their relationship begins crumbling and the plot turns blandly reassuring: Hepburn doesn’t understand her role as a wife, Tracy feels neglected and Hepburn is forced to change.
Television producers didn’t see anything wrong with that. In the 1970s the Mary Tyler Moore Show won many awards by depicting television’s first unmarried female employee. Mary Richards was the ideal TV woman — pretty, cute, funny and unimportant. The associate producer of a local TV news show in Minneapolis, she turns out to be everybody’s Girl Friday, the only staff member who calls the boss “Mr. Grant” (everyone else calls him “Lou”). Still, the show was considered progress, a new kind of comedy about adult women and men.
In recent decades, as women began playing larger roles in real life, television left them on the margins, perhaps because the TV industry showed little inclination to employ women as producers and writers in serial drama.
There’s Nashville, created by Callie Khouri, in which Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) is a natural leader, a mature and intelligent singer who plays calm mentor to nervous, insecure country-music performers. There’s Madam Secretary, about a CIA agent promoted to US secretary of state. There’s The Honourable Woman, from the BBC and which aired here on CBC, about Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who inherits her father’s arms business and tries to use to create peace between Arabs and Israelis.
Similarly assertive women appear in half a dozen other series. They have only a few things in common but friendship is one of them. For all of them, female friendships are sources of tension as well as mutual support. In Scott and Bailey the two heroines, Detective Constable Janet Scott and Detective Constable Rachel Bailey of the Manchester police, are proud of their status as pioneers in their job and want to avoid male-pattern vying for position. This means a subtle attention to each other’s wishes: they often don’t talk about what they are talking about. When one gets promoted to sergeant, they both feel pressured. In Madam Secretary the heroine has to deal with a close woman friend accused of treason.
The plots of Madam Secretary tend to be outlandish (she secretly travels to Iran at one point, on a one-woman mission) but the writers understand Washington power structures. President Conrad Dalton (unconvincingly played by Keith Carradine) recruits Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) to his cabinet, implying that he’ll rely on her personally. But she soon learns how cabinet members operate in 21st-century democracies: Secretary McCord is controlled by the president’s chief of staff, the officious Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek), who interprets the president’s wishes, honestly or otherwise.
These new-style heroines are highly competent, often to the point of making male characters appear amateurish, and scriptwriters apparently think that for balance they need to carry large emotional burdens — some intractable memories, perhaps, or hard-to-manage personal problems. Nessa Stein in The Honourable Woman witnessed the murder in public of her father and was later raped while pursuing her peace efforts. In State of Affairs, Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl) is an accomplished CIA analyst, desperate to understand the terrorist attack that killed her fiancé.
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