Women in TV Shows: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Anne Marie Yerks | May 15, 2013

Mariska Hargitay Law and Order SVU

If the door to women in TV shows was partially closed in the early 1950s, it was kicked wide open by Lucy (Lucille Ball) and her friend Ethel (Vivian Vance) on I Love Lucy. They cleared the comedy pathway for funny leading ladies Donna Reed, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Barbara Eden, Carol Brunett, and Eva Gabor. Today, we can see ample evidence of the Lucy legacy in shows like New Girl, Whitney, and Two Broke Girls. Wide eyes, red lipstick, and slapstick are running strong on sitcoms in 2013, and we can thank Lucy for that gift among many others.

America never had equivalent actresses for other kinds of television programming, so it’s interesting to look at how women in TV shows have changed drama. What stands out to me is the rise of the female detective/law enforcement officer. Consider that — back in the 1940s — the women of noir or dark drama emerged as either dead bodies, femme fatales luring men to tragedy, or sweet girls-next-door who required saving. The principal role of “brooding homicide investigator” was most certainly reserved for a man, but that has changed dramatically over the years.

A transitional show from the 1970s was Policewoman, a response to the then-active feminist movement. But this show was loaded with contradictions: Angie Dickinson solved crime by going undercover as a prostitute, nurse, dancer, waitress, or some other task requiring a sexy costume. Policewoman was a prelude to Charlie’s Angels, another short-running show that took its female cops out of the precinct office and the blue suit that most officers wear for daily duty. This became the norm: Notice that even on dramatic TV today, we don’t often see female cops in officer regalia, working the streets, or driving the patrol cars. There is instead a stereotype of the female officer as one who works in the upper levels of the precinct. She is mid-career, pretty, fashionable, and usually unmarried.

This well-dressed, intelligent, and resourceful female detective stems from the pivotal Cagney and Lacey (1982–1988). Just as we salute Lucy and Ethel for paving roads in comedy, we can salute Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless for crafting an honest depiction of modern working women. This show won awards because it spoke to what was happening in America at the time. Watching two women from different situations (Lacey was a wife and mom, Cagney was single) integrate into a traditionally male profession helped the audience digest identity-shifting in their non-televised worlds.

The many subplots about Cagney and Lacey’s personal lives gave these characters layers of complexity that propelled performances yet to come. The trend with female detectives on TV today is to show them contributing feminine characteristics — empathy, compassion and intuition — to the crime-solving task, thereby showing woman’s usefulness in law enforcement. But this advantage seems to come at a high cost to the character.

Take as an example Detective Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris) on Cold Case, which ran on NBC from 2003 until 2010. Like Cagney and Lacey, Lilly was determined, competent, level-headed, and assertive. But her soul was troubled, and this mystery helped drive the tension in the show: she held a secret that explained why she was pretty and heterosexual but unmarried and suspicious of men (turns out she was raised in a highly dysfunctional family). The lonely life of the career woman is no more developed than in Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The show’s 13 seasons have unraveled the intricacies of Olivia’s turbulent life: like Lilly Rush, she grew up in an alcoholic household. And — even worse — she was born from a rape. Why both of these physically beautiful characters are so lonely, haunted, and unable to manifest into wives and mothers is an important question to ask.

For even though female detectives and criminologists are ample today, what is missing is television that portrays women looking and operating as they really do. For that, we can’t look to reality programs — body worship is rampant there, as is feminist backlash in the form of materialistic “Housewives” who can’t control their emotions. A better bet is to ask why we can’t be more like the Brits. Have you seen their soap operas? The characters look like real people! They have weight issues and bad teeth and boring jobs. So, until we get there, let’s just watch something with Tina Fey or Amy Poehler in it and admit that women on TV are probably never going to be like real women. What’s wrong with that? Well, maybe a lot. But that’s another post (somehow, it involves the show Revenge and the entire Lifetime Network).

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