How Contemporary TV & Female Characters Play A Major Role Impacting Female Audiences

By Zofia Wijaszka

Images of heroines in film and television industry are changing. Entertainment companies noticed that themes with females in the main role are starting to become really popular. In 2011, actress and TV producer Jennifer Siebel Newsom created a documentary called ‘Miss Representation’. Newsom showed how women in pop culture are more and more objectified. The future good of her child was one of the reasons why Newsom decided to explore the problem of objectifying women. The documentary has won many awards.

It seemed that Jennifer Siebel Newsom reached her goal – it changed the thinking of men (but also women) about women as objects. As reported by FILM Survey – Seventy-three percent of students said watching ‘Miss Representation’ changed their opinion about the way in which women are represented in the media. After seeing the film, sixty-one percent of students reported speaking up when seeing or hearing something derogatory towards women.

At that time, despite slight change of stereotypical perception of the females in culture, that change wasn’t as diametrical as was expected. Although strong women were visible on the screen, the situation was quite pessimistic. There were chick-flick movies about women, but told by men. Women were trying to fall in love, desperately trying to find the right man, get married and have kids. In turn, five years later in 2016, Laura Matoon D’Amore in the book ‘Smart Chicks On Screen; Representing Women ‘s Intellect in Film and Television’ wrote that Hollywood has slowly begun to give prominent and leading roles to women.

What is the image of women now? Are women still portrayed as weaker than men? The images of women in television are more often shown as strong, leading ones. There are also other factors in society that help shape the image of women in the real world – the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, and more. If you still unconvinced that what I’m writing is true, I’m going to try and prove it. Conducting research on women’s roles, I created three metaphors that are the most popular: “Woman of Power”, “Miss Commander” and “Brave Savior”.

Woman of Power
There was always the “power suit”, upright figure who doesn’t smile. The woman who has a lack of any social life besides work. But now powerful female bosses are changing. The “Power suit” stays, but characters are different. There are more and more shows depicting this image, including “How To Get Away With Murder” and “Fear TWD”.

Delphine Cormier from “Orphan Black” became an icon of women in power. She is a scientist who falls in love with her object, one of many biologically identical women – clones. Delphine, first being on the other side, then tries to help Cosima and her sisters fight for their autonomy. Delphine’s character shows viewers the world of science, which is extremely important in Canadian production. The viewer also has a chance to look at the heroine through a deepening relationship with the object, which rapidly turns into love.

As the actress who plays the character confessed: “I like to think that it’s automatic. I believe in love at first sight.” First, the heroine is an employee and responds only to Leekie (the director of science facility), then, she takes his place. Delphine becomes the director of the institute and independently must make decisions that affect not only her and Cosima, but also her partner’s sisters.

Delphine doesn’t use her power for fame, but only to help her love. She makes mistakes, of course, but each of them, she tries to fix. Delphine keeps her emotions in check which is a fascinating phenomenon, especially because of how often women in films and TV series have been portrayed until recently (emotionally distracted, unable to make serious decisions). At the same time, she’s not a “cold-hearted bitch”. Yes, she is more professional, but as she proved in “Orphan Black”, a female in a leading role shouldn’t have to be portrayed as a “bitch” to be powerful.

Miss Commander
This profile was one of most interesting I’ve ever researched. Nowadays there are more producers and directors trying to show viewers war through the eyes of women. We have two good examples – Lorna Corbett from “Bomb Girls” and Aurora Luft “X Company”. Lorna (played by Meg Tilly) is the head of the female branch in the bomb factory. Almost all men are fighting on the front, so their wives, mothers and sisters have no choice but to help as much as they can.

The heroines working in the factory don’t have an easy life at all. They are often discriminated, underestimated and provoked. Lorna, however, doesn’t give in to it and tries to fight male workers, but with her wisdom not her fists. Aurora, on the other hand, is the leader of five spies who are men. Played by Evelyne Brochu (who, interestingly, also played Delphine Cormier in ‘Orphan Black’), she is a young fighter who has to lead her group while also battling her own demons.

The five men don’t dare underestimate Aurora which is a huge progress in television writing. In a number of ways she is more valuable than the men. She is educated and speaks three languages which allows her to mingle with the crowd without the risk of blowing her cover. In addition to possessing amazing intelligence, the heroine specializes in secret missions in which she often impersonates Germany’s ally to obtain information, sabotage the plans of the Nazis and fight for freedom. Both characters have struggles, both have hard life, but they don’t give up. THey fight for themselves as well as for freedom in the world.

Brave Savior
The hero who is supposed to save the world doesn’t necessarily have to mean muscular, or male anymore. We got Bo Dennis in “Lost Girl”, then we were experiencing ambivalent emotions with Emma Swan from “Once Upon a Time”. Now we’ve got “Jessica Jones”, the second season of which has recently been released in its entirety on Netflix.

She drinks, she swears and she doesn’t care what people think. Melissa Rosenberg’s character is one of a kind. Interestingly, Jessica breaks the stereotype of a woman being polite from her first line in episode 1 of Season 1. Yes, women drink and swear. She isn’t a role model. She doesn’t have costume like others. You won’t be seeing Jessica go to the city in a costume like Catwoman any time soon. She will stay in worn jeans, leather jacket, hooded sweatshirt. However, the complexity of the character isn’t about looks or habits, but about the strength and overcoming the biggest obstacles, such as PTSD and abuse.

Kilgrave, her old enemy and boyfriend returns to slay her again. He has the ability to control people’s minds. In the past, he kidnapped Jessica and told her to do horrible things, and this is a direct analogy about a different kind of mind-control that happens in abusive relationships.

I analyzed the psyche of this unusual relationship for a long time and came to the conclusion that the couple presents many references to society – the motive of the perpetrator and the victim. I think the Stockholm syndrome comes to mind in this case. The victim and the torturer have a strong bond, which prevents the victim from being able to leave. But she does. And that what perhaps can instill strength in women watching this show. A female audience might be able to identify with Jessica and see that they have that power to win.

Looking at these three metaphors, I can see common aspects of female characters – powerful bosses now have a private lives, they fight every day in their “power suits”. Miss Commanders sometimes fight better than men, they save lives and finally portray women in war like they should have been. Brave saviors save the world without always needing the help of a man. At the same time, they don’t treat male characters without respect.

This kind of nuanced and complex portrayal has a huge impact on society. Young girls growing up can identify with strong, female characters and see they can be just like them. Thanks to productions such as the aforementioned series, self-acceptance of women is growing. I came across the story of a teen girl who was looking to purchase the latest season of “Supergirl” in a store. The older saleswoman, having heard the girl, started a conversation with her about the show because she also was a fan. After a short conversation, the girl was inspired because she could finally talk to someone about the production that changed her life and strengthened her faith in her own possibilities.

Specific portrayals of women on screen also help in the struggle of young women with their sexuality. Seventeen-year-old Molly, a girl living in Great Britain, told me that she had heard the word bisexuality for the first time when Delphine Cormier said it. “Now my orientation is revealed and I am much happier with myself,” she said.
There are a number of organizations dedicated to analyzing and improving the portrayals of women on screen, the most notable one being the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Created by actress Geena Davis, the foundation leads research and spreads awareness within Hollywood.

According to their research, women and girls are fifty-one percent of the population, but the presence of complex female characters are terribly insufficiently represented, although it is very slowly improving. With a proportion of men and women of approximately 3:1, it’s known that girls are not valued in our society commensurate with their real population. Children spend time in front of television for 7-10 hours a day, which significantly affects their social and cultural behavior, so neglecting or negative gender stereotypes in the media can impact their whole life and how they treat people of a different gender.

It is time to start changing children’s television too. We’re showing kids a world that is very scantily populated with women and female characters. They should see female characters taking up half the planet – which we do, Geena Davis has said. Let’s start changing it now.

 

 

 

 

 

This article is based on a dissertation titled “Portrayal of Women’s Roles in Contemporary Canadian and American Television Based on Chosen Television Series” by Zofia Wijaszka. Zofia is a fan of movies, TV shows and everything revolving around pop culture. She is a supporter of women’s empowerment and women’s studies. She is a BA graduate of Journalism and Social Communication and Creative Writing. You can see more of her writing on her blog, and follow her on Instagram

Leave a Reply