A brief history of women on the small screen.
Liz Lemon is my modern day Gloria Steinem.
As a comedy nerd and unashamed TV consumer, the 30 Rock character portrayed by Tina Fey is my personal dashboard feminist: she consistently reminds me of the current social climate for women and just how far females as a whole have come. Sure, Liz herself hasn’t sacrificed for women’s rights and will likely be neglected in the next generation’s history books (only because, I must argue, she is not a real human) but I love her, not because she’s a symbol of women “having it all,” but because she represents the very absurdity of this notion.
The phrase “having it all” is thrown around in memoirs and mommy blogs as if true accomplishment were the same thing for every woman. It’s often expressed as the ability to balance a successful career with the roles of wife and mother, even though — god forbid — not every woman desires any or all of these roles; career, motherhood or otherwise.
By way of Liz, Fey has exposed the male-dominated world of television and comedy while maintaining the entertainment factor, not completely unlike Steinem’s infiltration of the Playboy Club. OK, neither Fey nor her fictionalized self is a 21st century suffragette, but she provides a stellar example of strong women in television that aren’t completely unattainable or stereotypical — a trend that seems to be taking off in popular culture.
With the increasing prevalence of shows like 30 Rock, Girls, The Mindy Project and countless other popular series with independent female leads, are we on the brink of a new age of women in television? Yes and no. Female badassery has been documented on television since the pre-DVR days of yore.
Like the waves of feminism, women’s roles on television have changed over the years. When there weren’t diverse, significant career opportunities for real women in the 1940s and 1950s, the same went for the female characters of that era. When the women of America were expected to become wives and mothers and then plateau, so were women of TV. Years passed, climates changed and as women gained more of a valued voice in social and political realms, so did their on-screen counterparts.
The first television shows with prominent female characters aren’t quite beacons of feminism, but they nevertheless paved the way for the Liz Lemons of today.
Through the ‘50s and ‘60s, the television set was no place for women to speak out (poor Lucille Ball couldn’t even use the word “pregnant” to describe having a baby-filled womb on her show), but simply having a woman as the lead was a big step in entertainment.
Though it wasn’t the first television show to break social or feminist ground, I Love Lucy (1951-1957)is still adored by audiences today and thus the perfect starting point for a timeline of women on TV.
Lucille Ball was not cast merely to fill a wife’s role or to cater to a female audience. She became a star purely because she was talented. While much of the Lucy shtick played off of her relationship with her on-set and real-life husband Desi Arnaz, Ball paved the way for humorous women on-screen. She was goofy and over-the-top while maintaining the nurturing, feminine and likable persona women were expected to have. Sure, we didn’t see Lucy and Ethel discuss political platforms around election time, but it was a big deal to see Lucy pursue a career out of the house when viewers expected to see a June Cleaver-type, always in a perpetual state of serving meals.
Similarly, Bewitched (1964-1972) goes down as one of the earlier femme-centric shows. Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha did fall into the stereotypical “beautiful wife, doting mother” role, but the show was unique because it focused on a woman and her supernatural powers, which no mortal man possessed. Bewitched was so focused on the leading lady, producers were convinced no one would notice when they replaced the actor playing her husband, Dick York, with another actor, Dick Sargent, mid-season. Again, nothing earth-shattering here but, like first-wave feminists had to fight for women to even be considered viable adult humans with free will, these beloved, lighthearted programs helped open the proverbial door for the female television characters of the 1970s and beyond.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) introduced a single woman in her thirties with a real career — not just some token women’s position: She was the associate producer of the “Six O’Clock” news. The plot was somewhat revolutionary for the time because it didn’t revolve around Mary’s romantic relationships or her quest to find a man. Ms. Moore being single was not a negative conflict in the series; instead, she and other characters faced real issues. Women’s rights, sexuality, divorce and addiction were all topics covered on the iconic program.
Channel surfing through the ‘80s and ‘90s, women were seeing more recognizable and relatable characters on television who didn’t fall into stereotypical feminine roles. Murphy Brown (1988-1998) was a single, serious journalist who went on to raise a child sans-husband. Roseanne (1988-1997) could have likely been called Dan had it been created earlier, but Roseanne Barr flipped the script, focusing on a blue-collar woman and her less-than-glamorous role as a wife and mother.
Even Golden Girls (1985-1992) was an important contribution to the canon of women’s television — rarely before had there been much focus on later-in-life ladies. The fiery femmes of Miami showed the world that women don’t just get married, pop out a few kids and then quietly disappear when some wrinkles and a few greys come in. There’s sex, laughter and cheesecake, even if you’re older than 60.
Progressively over the last few decades of the 20th century, the importance of having prominent women in television evolved into a focus on strong, independent women filling roles that could equally be filled by a man — an ideology that fits in line with the goals of the second wave of feminism.
“Women have options these days” is a phrase that’s almost obsolete. I mean, obviously. A show following an ER doctor could as easily star a man as it could a woman. Women can have, talk about and enjoy sex as Carrie and Co. made abundantly clear during their six-year reign on HBO’s Sex and the City. But, like the third wave of feminism, a woman shouldn’t feel pressure to fall into any role she doesn’t want to fill — traditional or otherwise.
There was a point in time when female characters would never discuss “serious” topics on TV because real women weren’t expected to involve themselves in affairs outside of the home. But as we saw beginning in the ‘70s, it became important to show women on TV doing so — engaging in the political process, voicing independent beliefs, questioning social “givens.” So, today, it should be a given that women are just as likely to be successful in their careers and personal lives as men — meaning some women and men do not attain all of those ideals. It’s OK for a female character to express a certain ignorance or display physical weakness because we’re at a point in time when a fictional woman’s flaws are not applied to all females.
Or at least they shouldn’t be.
In an episode of 30 Rock seemingly specially packaged for this very conversation, Liz goes on one of her fairness tirades, stating that everyone should be treated equally, particularly regarding men versus women. She argues that the show’s biggest star, Tracy Jordan, gets away with erratic, unpredictable and unprofessional demeanor that would not fly if he were a woman. The rest of the crew sets out to prove her hypocrisy by searching for any evidence of Liz receiving unfair benefit (turns out she received a partial competitive jazz dance scholarship — which favored women — in addition to a few other hand-ups).
In a scene that had everyone “lizzing” — laughing plus whizzing — the staff’s water cooler needed to be changed. When Liz asks one of the muscly crewmen to grab a new water jug, she is quickly reminded of her self-forged war on equality. The petite woman struggles with the gigantic receptacle for a few minutes as a majority of the water soaks her, all while Tracy yells, “Do not help her!” Time and time again, 30 Rock expertly mocks popular stances on social issues, often revealing exceptions to the rules.
All Liz love aside, no amount of chunky glasses and Sabor de Soledad (the character’s health-hazardous snack food of choice) can take away from the fact that Fey is actually a very smart, beautiful, fit, overall appealing lady. She’s treated as this asexual grotesque thing at points in the show, but in reality no rational person would ever be repelled by her. And let’s not forget that fellow Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch was supposed to play the role of Jenna Maroney, but got replaced by the arguably more attractive blonde Jane Krakowski. Sure, cast changes are common in television and highlighting attractive people in media is nothing new nor is it relegated to actresses. Audiences by and large love something nice to look at: hot women, chiseled men and adorable children. But for every “normal,” approachable-looking Lena Dunham (Girls) or Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly), there are 50 programs that star average looking dudes with model-grade wives — another challenge yet to be overcome, as is the lack of non-token diversity of race, socio-economic class and sexuality. Sure, we’ve come a long way, but we still have more progress to make.
One exceptional outcome from recent third-wave shows is that a positive female character does not have to correlate to a perfect woman.
I’d argue that it’s much more intriguing to see a woman on TV struggling, stumbling along and making it work her way than to watch a wealthy, skinny, over-sexed, adored female character floating through life, inexplicably able to pay for prime Manhattan real estate. (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Ms. Bradshaw. I know how much journalists make.)
Sure, some people watch TV to escape — no one watches Keeping Up With The Kardashians because that krazy family is just so easy to relate to — but when it comes to decent programming and not the TV equivalent of junk food, women like to see a bit of themselves in a character.
We’re at a point in which there are so many vastly different-yet-accurate portrayals of women in the media, it would be pointless to try and find “The Face of Women” on television. This is the point in time when Dunham can create a show very close to her personal experiences as a white, upper-middle-class female leaving the nest in NYC and, though we all can’t relate to every single scene, the overarching story is fresh and accessible. Shows like Girls represent the need for us women to laugh at ourselves, recognize our flaws and accept the fact that maybe we aren’t all Carries and Samanthas: Sex is sometimes really weird and most of the time life is pretty anticlimactic.
Not every show is meant to be a study guide on the female population. This is 2013 America: We can go to school, learn about anything we choose and grow up to be whatever feels right. We don’t watch Gossip Girl to learn how to interact with each other; we watch it because it’s goofy and gratuitous. And that’s OK. We don’t have to ask for permission.
This is just one girl’s take on a sliver of the history and trends women have made in media and pop culture. The women I welcome into my home via flatscreen range from Botoxed housewives and CIA agents to comedy writers and dragon princesses. And while watching Game of Thrones makes me really want to be a khaleesi, I take my TV with a nice grain of salt, quietly celebrating each badass female character along the way. But the sooner we stop trying to select one figure to represent all 3.4 billion of us, the sooner we can get back to whatever it is each of us truly enjoys, Sabor de Soledad and all.