We’ve finally arrived, ladies. NBC and ABC, two of the major networks, have both dedicated a whole night of primetime broadcast to us. NBC has been advertising their Wednesday night as “Woman Crush Wednesdays” (wait, do they mean these women are powerful or that these are women we crush on? Hmmm) with “The Mysteries of Laura,” “Law and Order: SVU” and “Chicago P.D.” back to back, all—they claim—lead by strong women (with guns, it’s important to add).
ABC has branded its Thursday night TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday), with an all-you-can-watch Shonda Rhimes bonanza: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and the new, highly anticipated, “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Even though it is in part counter-programming tactics (CBS now has football on Thursday night), and even though the long-term side effects of an extended exposure to Shonda dialogue have not been researched yet, it is still a big accomplishment.
They finally want us! They are finally fighting over our eyeballs! But more than what I, a woman, think of these shows, I thought it would be much more interesting to try and decipher what those shows say about what the suits think about us.
It seems that NBC’s idea of shows women want to watch are shows that feature a strong woman in the lead role. The woman is in a position of power in a traditionally male-dominated profession; she can kick criminal ass, and the guys in her squad bow to her awesomeness.
For the record, I would like to say that throwing “Chicago P.D.” into this mix seems more of a matter of convenience than actual fact. Sophia Bush’s character, Erin Lindsay, the one advertised along with Laura and Olivia Benson, is not even close to being the main character on a show that is very male-centric.
NBC’s strong women, as much as they are excellent at their job and cannot be matched in their professional competence, are a mess when it comes to their personal lives. Laura is the mother of twin boys who destroy everything in their path and get kicked out of school every other day. But she loves them (which already makes her a saint) just as much as she loves her job.
She is in the process of a divorce, but her ex is her boss, so they have a lot of push-me-pull-me; and she doesn’t care much about the way she looks (or at least, that’s what the show wants us to think. The fact that Debra Messing looks beautiful and dresses like many other real women dress and that it is considered “frumpy” is problematic).
Olivia Benson, who always looks good in her power cop suits and whose hair by now should get its own billing in the credits, has time after time nipped relationships in the bud because she is just too married to her work.
This season we see her series-long desire for a child finally being met only to cause more heartache: in the first few episodes of the season alone the child already had his life threatened and was hospitalized, and since he’s a foster child, Olivia’s parenting skills are constantly being criticized and questioned.
And what is Erin’s story? We don’t know too much about her yet, which goes to support my point from earlier about her centrality (or lack thereof). But it seems the most important relationship in her life will forever be with Voight, her boss and mentor, who saved her when she was a homeless child headed toward the life of a criminal and made her a cop. She is a strong woman because of the man who rescued her.
ABC’s idea of ladies’ shows, on the other hand, is primarily, a night of shows created by a woman. Not a bad place to start, considering how few prominent women creators of primetime shows still are. Shonda Rhimes is not only a woman, she’s a woman of color: two diversity points for ABC.
As opposed to NBC’s powerful women, Shonda’s women are oftentimes annoying and unhinged. Yes, they are all hotshots: lawyers, doctors and gladiators, but they are all deeply flawed. On the other hand, their flaws don’t strictly revolve around their homemaking skills.
Shonda’s shows are primarily ensemble shows, in which men and women are relatively equal, both in numbers and in their agency. The men are just as flawed as the women, only in different ways.
The relationships between the women on Shonda’s shows are central. Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang were for years the most important couple on “Grey’s,” their friendship depicted as stronger and more meaningful to the women than their marriages.
On NBC, however, the shows highlight one leading female character, with supporting casts that are usually comprised of men and only one or two other women, and the women rarely have meaningful one-on-one conversations with each other. Nicht gut, NBC!
ABC also scores way higher on diversity. The most central women on Shonda’s shows are not white: “Scandal” and HTGAWM are lead by African-American women, and “Grey’s” has Bailey, an African-American woman, and up to the current season, it had Yang, who was Asian.
NBC has Meredith, who is Latina, on “Laura” but that is pretty much it.
ABC also wins for LGBT representations: Callie and Arizona make for one of the most stable couples on “Grey’s,” and Sloan Memorial Hospital is practically crawling with lesbians (and they have all slept with Arizona. But can you blame them?).
On the other hand, NBC’s women’s night has ZERO lesbian characters.
Hopes that SVU showrunner and exec Neal Baer’s coming out would lead to Olivia Benson coming out are probably not going to be rewarded. Even though Benson would make even an Alabama housewife’s gaydar scream, the show has repeatedly refused to go down that road and preferred to make Olivia the eternal loner.
Nevertheless, SVU will forever remain one of the most important television shows ever made that shines a spotlight on serious women’s issues. The show, which deals with sex crimes and crimes against children, has been credited with bringing the mostly untalked-about subjects of sexual harassment, domestic violence and rape into the public debate, and Mariska Hargitay, who plays Benson, has been a champion in her personal life for women and survivors of sex crimes.
So what do the networks think women want? They think we like to imagine ourselves powerful in a man’s world, that we want to know we can strive for success and expect it, but we must remember that it will always come at a price: landing a good man (and keeping him!) and balancing family life with professional ambition will always be a struggle.
It appears that when a woman is in charge of content, then the idea of woman is much more broad and flexible. We get to be Cristina Yang who is a straight woman who doesn’t want children, or Callie Torres who is a lesbian who does. We can work in environments where we have both male and female colleagues who are equal to us and have meaningful relationships with both, and we can be successful, flawed, balanced, imbalanced, and most importantly, we can grow.
NBC’s ladies, however much they suck at “playing house,” are superheroes when it comes to their jobs. They are strong, yet nurturing; badass, yet compassionate. They come to the rescue of men, women and children. They are Wonder Women.
So the bottom line is this: When networks are competing for who comes up with the best female roles; when they provide us with heroines as well as relateable role models, who are bringing to the fore issues that are important to us; and when so many top notch actresses are finding a home on the small screen, this is only good news for us.
Favorite Scene of the Week:
ABC had touted the last nine words of “How to Get Away with Murder” as the shocker of last Thursday night’s episode. But they missed big time on the real jaw-dropping scene of the night. Viola Davis as tough-as-nails lawyer Annalise Keating, silently sitting in front of her vanity mirror, removing her makeup, taking off her false eyelashes and wig, and staring back at a reflection of the real woman behind the façade.
This symbolic and ever so intimate moment that we got to share with this complicated and almost frustratingly confusing character made up for what I found to be a problematic beginning for an uberly-hyped show.
The episode also featured Elizabeth Perkins, sensational, sexy and compelling as always, and was directed by “ER” veteran Laura Innes (talk about a show that knew how to write fantastic characters, including Innes’s Kerry Weaver, one of the most interesting female characters in television history!).
Worst News of the Week:
Archie Panjabi is leaving “The Good Wife.”
Best News of the Week:
Archie Panjabi is getting her own show.
Your turn: What do you think about television’s Ladies’ Nights? How do you feel about losing Kalinda? Comment and discuss!