What we talk about when we talk about female characters on TV
I grew up thinking Winnie Cooper was basically the coolest human to ever live. She was sensitive, pretty, bossy, and liked sports. While I found sports to be as interesting as going to bed when I didn’t feel tired, I still admired how Kevin Arnold was drawn to her ability to blend in with the other boys while still maintaining a sacred “feminine” aura.
Throughout my adolescence and into my 20s I found various other fictional females who became my my role models—they fit into the idea of how I had grown to expect a girl to look, act, and talk. But as I got older, I started to notice that all these girls and women, no matter how cool or independent they seemed to be, had one thing in common: their lives all somehow revolved around men and the attention they received from them. I started wondering about the purpose of having strong females lead if they are continuously bound to the affection of boys and men. What do we do with them once the flirtation/infatuation/fantasy is satisfied? What happens to a boyed-up, sweet-but-not-too-sweet, flirtacious-but-not-sexually-expressive cultural rag doll when she loses her impossible sainthood?
TV has a way of clumsily placing female characters on pedestals. Pedestals that are designed, longed for, and often intended for men to enjoy. And though I’d like to think I was, like, an unknowing feminist at age eight, I think I mostly just felt so unlike the characters I saw on TV, characters I so desperately wanted to embody and identify with, that I sort of forgot what I was even really like. Perhaps not surprisingly, I often find myself feeling the exact same way I did when I was eight about depictions of women in television, but this time I have things like a career, adult acne, and live-in-boyfriends in the mix. Does this mean that I haven’t changed, or that TV hasn’t changed?
Obviously, I am not the only person questioning the dynamics of female characters in media. In the last year of television, Hollywood has pumped out a handful of female-dominant series that have been met with wild critical acclaim. And in the last 15 years, female artists have created guidelines to help better decipher how women are being portrayed. One such test is the Bechdel. In case you’re not familiar with it, the Bechdel test was created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel and consists of three simple guidelines:
- Are there two female characters with names?
- Do the two characters have a conversation with one another?
- Is that conversation about anything other than a man/men?
While the Bechdel doesn’t cover other forms of cultural-exclusion, like hetero-normative dialogue etc, it begs the audience to think more critically about the shows they love. Despite having female lead characters, very few recent TV series pass the Bechdel.
One of my favorite shows is The Mindy Project. Mindy Lahiri is a successful OBGYN in NYC, and yet most of her conversations revolve around men. But the way in which she chooses to talk about men interests me, and how she thinks of herself in the context of dating men interests me even more. Each episode is like a personal pep talk, helping to remind me I’m great the way I am. Kaling’s ability to be both powerful and hopelessly romantic, to the point of hilarious delusion, demands a captive and respectful audience. Still, the show rarely passes the simple guidelines of the Bechdel. Does this mean the show is misogynistic? Does it mean Kaling’s character is any less powerful? The truth is, I don’t have an exact answer. I’m not sure I would be as drawn to the show if she didn’t so bravely tackle ideas like rejection and ambition and sexual exploration in equal parts, and all through the eyes of a woman of color in a predominantly white and male-centered world.
So how do we make use of the Bechdel test? I think the questions that arise after testing shows with this method are perhaps more interesting than the test itself. Questions like:
Why are women portrayed as babbling nervous wrecks always seeking the next date?
Who is portraying them this way?
Why are they portraying them this way?
How much do these absurd depictions influence how we grow to understand what being “female” is?
How do they hold us back?
Who is tossing this bogus, misogynistic, and oppressive script and rewriting the portrayal of women in more accurate and genuinely relatable ways?
At the end of the day, we are gonna watch whatever we want to watch. And maybe that’s the biggest “F you” we can give to industries that try to assert what and how we should be interested in things. But there’s no doubt that we ought to have a lot of questions for the people designing Hollywood female characters, and I hope our questions are loud and commanding because I don’t want our daughters denouncing their own power and incredibly authentic selves because Winnie Cooper is able to “blend in with the other boys while still maintaining a sacred ‘feminine’ aura.”