Burg: Women increasingly depicted better in TV than film

Madeline Burg, Columnist

With Emma Watson taking a stand in front of the United Nations to promote her HeForShe campaign, Beyonce silhouetted in front of a giant flashing “FEMINIST” at the VMAs and Alison Bechdel, creator of the eponymous test for gauging how well a film uses its female characters, winning a MacArthur Genius grant, the influence of women in today’s cultural and political spheres is reaching critical mass. About time, am I right? Frankly it’s embarrassing that it’s taken this long for feminism to be thrust to the forefront of cultural discourse. It’s 2014, and iPhones are watches now.

Nowhere is the rise of women more evident and more admirable than in the arena of television. As someone who admittedly watches a lot of TV (for various reasons, many of which involve avoiding my responsibilities), I subscribe to the idea that we can learn a lot from the stories told and the characters created on our screens, especially in today’s television landscape. Film, on the other hand, has become a wasteland wiped of realistic female characters, where sexualized cardboard cutouts of women are still the norm (a recent trailer for the impending “Dumb and Dumber” sequel has an aged Jim Carrey ogling Jeff Daniels’ adolescent daughter).

But on the small screen, a new trend of interesting, multifaceted and therefore realistic female characters is emerging at a timely moment. We’ve just experienced an era of great but intensely male-dominated television, and although Don Drapers and Walter Whites still abound, the age of the good, complex lady role is upon us. Take Shonda Rhimes’ new show “How to Get Away With Murder.” Viola Davis left the big screen for the small, if that’s any indication of the state of the industry, and plays a criminal defense professor, the best in her field. She’s also got questionable morals and won’t hesitate to ruffle a few feathers to get what she needs. Rhimes, the creator of “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” has long been known to craft female roles that have the layers and complications of a real person, a person who happens to be a woman. There is room for a female Don Draper on your Netflix queue.

And although Hillary Clinton remains tight-lipped regarding her probable 2016 presidential candidacy, shows about women in government are popping up all over the place, as if in preparation for Hil’s ascendancy. CBS’ “Madam Secretary” follows the Secretary of State (Hillary is that you?), and NBC’s “State of Affairs” follows a black, female president and her daily briefer. Tea Leoni, Alfre Woodard and Katherine Heigl — secretary, president and briefer, respectively — continue what Kerry Washington has begun on “Scandal.” All four women bring to TV drama what Northwestern alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Communication ’83) has already been doing in the HBO comedy “Veep” for two years. Louis-Dreyfus’ role as Vice President Selina Meyer is a depiction of a woman in government, in a comedy and on television, arenas dominated in the past by men that are now seeing a long overdue rise in female involvement.

Even genre shows, which are often geared toward men but just as often have a secretly large female audience (lookin’ at you, “Game of Thrones”), are producing fascinating lead roles for actresses. The revolving company of stock actors in “American Horror Story” is lead by the inimitable Jessica Lange and the great Sarah Paulson. Starz’s new historical-fantasy-romance “Outlander,” based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling series of novels, stars newcomer Caitriona Balfe. BBC America’s underground sci-fi juggernaut “Orphan Black” has Tatiana Maslany playing not one but seven richly layered women with distinct personalities. Not to get all rah-rah-feminist but, as a real woman, it’s exciting to see at least one medium depicting real women. Fiction in pop culture is so often a reflection of our real-person selves. When we see ourselves in it, that’s when it becomes great and relevant.

All this is not to say that we don’t have a long way to go in terms of gender equality in culture. “True Detective” still uses female bodies as props. “Game of Thrones” remains a proponent of “sexposition,” or having exposition play out over a needless sex scene, usually just to satisfy the male gaze. NBC’s new comedy “Bad Judge” features Kate Walsh wearing jean booty shorts under her judicial robes because LOL isn’t that funny and sexy and isn’t she a bad, bad girl-judge? But I see your “Bad Judge” and raise you an Olivia Pope and a Selina Meyer and a Liz Lemon.

It’s 2014, “Gilmore Girls” is on Netflix and all is right with the world. TV is about to crush it on the feminist front, not a moment too soon.

Madeline Burg is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].