“I hate Strong Female Characters” went viral when it came out in August — it was an article that lamented the one-dimensional state of female characters, and its subhead said it all: “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”
With the recent season premieres of “Homeland” and “Scandal”, two hit shows praised for their strong women, the question rises again. While the uptick in “strong female leads” is laudable, can we really condone the current depiction of the strong female character on TV? And are we even able to consider these female leads “strong”? The former has been blogged about repeatedly — I’ll leave you to the TV pundits to sort out your feelings on that topic. As for the latter, I took a look at TV Guide’s listings of the most popular TV shows based on ratings.
Of the 100 most popular shows in America, 25 star female leads (dismissing reality and variety shows, an entirely different category. Why do I write about such things? Researching them always makes me depressed).
Of the 25 shows I counted, I would say only a few have truly “strong” female characters, meaning those who stand for themselves and kick ass without their entire world crumbling due to a male body. We’re still trying to move away from a stigma of femininity being “weak,” but why is strength the go-to trait we want to see in our female stars? Why isn’t strength simply assumed in a badass woman, and why must it be added as a descriptor of “female character”? Are there no other female character traits that could be painted as progressive, like a sophisticated female character or a brilliant one?
Two shows in the top 10 feature female leads — “Homeland” and “True Blood” — but the characters’ likability and accessibility are dubious. Claire Danes’ bipolar CIA analyst in “Homeland” has the makings of a headstrong, determined agent but ends up sleeping with the terrorist she’s supposed to track. Speaking of sex, let’s not get started with Sookie Freakin’ Stackhouse and what a mess “True Blood” is. Poor Sookie is torn between five different men at all times and is helpless to do anything, until she develops fairy powers, which still leave her with minimal agency.
For the rest of the shows, all the male cohorts have to do is go “tug tug” and our leads are thrown into disarray. The only two shows on the list that have truly independent women in leading roles are “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” — unlike the characters mentioned above, Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope are flawed and relatable as humans and aren’t dictated by their male companions’ actions. If Liz Lemon is the representation of the strong woman of our time, I would not complain.
As much as we like to boast of the ever-growing range of female leads on television, many of them are still ruled by the whims of the men around them. In one of my political science classes, we were discussing the “new frontiers of feminism,” and we agreed that employment, wage gaps, opportunity and so forth were the contemporary stages for the feminist movement. Let’s add representation to that. We are beyond the point where we simply need to see a female presence on screen to validate the experience of women in America (although there certainly could be more) — now, nuance and character development can now be argued over.
And for female leads, hysterics and blubbering over males still take up good portions of the spotlight and Emmy-nominated clip submissions. Unless we resign the arbitrary power of beauty and move beyond the simple appeal of “strength,” our female characters are no better off than they were 20 years ago.
There are no strong female characters.
At least, not yet.
Lynn Yu is the arts columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.