Last night the Emmy Awards aired, seeing television's finest come out and celebrate the magic of the small screen. Claire Danes' Temple Grandin won five awards, including Best Actress for Danes, who really hasn't had critical love like this since her small-screen, short-lived phenomenon My So-Called Life. Many of the remaining actress accolades even went to women-led television fare -- Nurse Jackie, The Good Wife, and The Closer. Naturally, that got me thinking about the other television series recently making waves -- the still-running Weeds and how that got a boost from Laura Linney and The Big C's killer, record-breaking ratings. Once I got thinking about women on TV, my brain zipped to thoughts of all of the professional ladies on the small screen.
Wherever you turn, working women are everywhere on TV. For some reason, however, while a majority of Hollywood's female roles continue to be cliche-constricted, television is a smorgasbord of female-centric options.
I sat down this morning and wrote a random quick list of current TV shows starring women (either headliners, or a large part of the primary cast), and was faced with the following on-screen professions: cop, real estate agent, doctors, surgeons, bosses, psychic, lawyer, FBI agent, nurse, high school student, television writer, drug dealer, forensic anthropologist, artist, teacher, and homemaker. Of the thirteen shows I jotted down, only one is a mom with no outside-the-home job, and she's not in the lead role (Christa Miller in Cougar Town).
In every example, the profession is a primary or prevalent part of the storyline. In most cases, their profession is the basis of the show, like Bones or 30 Rock. Even in the more soap-opera-like options like Grey's Anatomy, being a surgeon is just as prevalent as who's sleeping with whom and the big drama of the week. (It also must be noted that most of the main cast are women.)
It's hard to compare these roles to film; there are too many differences to consider, such as where fantasy fits into the equation (epic adventures make it tricky to hold day jobs), and the fact that many stories don't have time to really detail the working experience. Even still, scouring the leading Summer 2010 possibilities, Pepper Potts' brief stints in Iron Man 2 are a highlight, alongside Jolie's Salt and Ellen Page's supporting part in Inception. Most of the rest are about men, or men's drama. When women work, it's often as just a little color to a role, and is in no way central and important to the plot or the woman on screen.
As per usual in Hollywood, indies fare better, especially when you consider films like Agora, which sees Rachel Weisz play an historic female mathematician. But that film's opening weekend consisted of 2 theaters. Though indies often provide a better range of women's roles, they can't battle with the reach of the mainstream. Furthermore, the above random thirteen -- those are all leading, successful shows -- not small affairs on smaller cable stations, so indie films really don't figure in.
What's shocking is how huge the differences are between women's lives on film and television. Bones, for example, has six lead roles -- three women and three men. Brennan is at the top of her professional field, while Camille (Cam) is the Jeffersonian boss. The Jeffersonian's staff now always outnumbers men with 3:2, or 4:1. The men are also exceptional, but do not lead their fields. But Bones is only one of many. Wherever you look, there are women leading varied, working lives on TV.
One might say there's no room for everyday life and work in film's short format -- that Sex and the City had to remove everything but the friendship and sex for time considerations. That's bull. Even whittled down, there's a distinct difference between mainstream television and cinema. The former takes a career or life focus and builds a compelling world around that, while cinema will take a love story or drama and try to shoe-horn a greater life in during fleeting moments. The former sees the complexities in dynamic lives for women, while the latter sees everything other than love, motherhood, and friendship as secondary. Even something like The Devil Wears Prada, which is about a young woman heading into a fashion career, uses the career as punishment and imbalance that threatens love.
So what is it about the small screen that makes it so ripe for women to lead varied and dynamic lives? To grab a coffee and hit the 9 to 5? We're not talking about daytime soap opera shenanigans, which are there to present a fantasy life for those without work during the day. This is prime-time fare, where male and female eyes are scouring the nightly lineup. These aren't niche productions. They're thriving shows, many of which have earned critical acclaim, audience numbers, and awards.
Are we not embracing the movies that bring these ideals to the big screen, or are we not given the option to embrace them? What's the disconnect between the brains behind TV and the brains behind Hollywood cinema? It's something I continue to think about and don't have an answer to yet, so I wanted to ask for your thoughts:
What makes television prime for successful women? What do we need to do to get more working girls on the big screen?