24 July 2013

I couldn't help but wonder: where are all the good TV shows for women?

(First read this article in the New Yorker about Sex And The City)

Since most TV has been on hiatus till fall, I've been rewatching my first love: Sex And The City. It's nice rewatching a show that you've already seen, you can pick and choose between episodes. So I chose to drop the entirely annoying third and fourth season, where Carrie and Aiden stop and start and stop and start. I've never found anyone to get on my nerves as much as Carrie does in those two seasons, her prevaricating when Big and Aiden both beg her to make decisions, even the way her voice goes up, endlessly on and on about the state of her love affairs. Two other very important things happen in these two seasons: Miranda gets pregnant and Charlotte gets divorced. However, these are just side shows to Carrie's ultimate cheating and not cheating, I-love-him I-love-him-not. If Carrie Bradshaw had been my friend during this period in my life, I would have started to screen her calls.

Instead, my very favourite SATC season, is the one agreed upon as the finest. Season 6, when everything for everyone else is wrapping up. The gorgeous aloof older Russian who whisks Carrie away, the accidental fall of a party girl from a window, Steve and Miranda buying a house in Brooklyn, Charlotte and Harry stumbling through infertility, Samantha toning it down and settling in to her model boyfriend, when breast cancer struck, it was all dramatic satisfying story telling.

In comparision, consider another show that I love that went on for seven seasons, Gilmore Girls is an underrated show by perhaps every single man I have met. Fast talking repartee, a small town beloved by its citizens, and mostly, watching Lorelai grow up side by side with her daughter, also called Lorelai (Rory to everyone), who she had at 16.  I have not rewatched Gilmore Girls since I hit my thirties, but I am curious if, upon my rewatch, if my sympathies will be more with 32-year-old Lorelai than with 16-year-old Rory, who commanded my entire devotion the first time I saw the show. I remember of all Rory's boyfriends, disliking the one she ended up with the most--the rich, snotty Logan--so much better for her to have stayed with Jesse, the "difficult" one, even if he was screwed up. Gilmore Girls was dismissed as a "girl" show and very rarely comes up when people are discussing good television, but the seven year saga encompassed so much more than just two kooky girls running around town, it dealt with difficult parents, shone a light on characters made much more nuanced by living in a small town and finally, superbly showed how you could grow up and grow away from the things you once loved.


There is much less on television now geared towards ladies than there was ten years ago. I mean, there's loads that tries, but the long-form saga story series is essentially gone, unless it's crime or a drama. It has to have a schtick. One I tolerate and that attempts to go the same way is Switched At Birth. This is probably a fantastic show of the same calibre to people who haven't watched the older ones. Switched deals with Bay and Daphne, who were, duh, switched at birth. Only Daphne is deaf, and in this, the show is excellent, as it might be the only TV series out there which deals with disabled people as well as making them the lead characters. I've even picked up a little AMSlan from watching.

Switched may not have the excellent dialogue of the other two--and really, it's hard to compete with those two, but it does offer some interesting insights into prejudices. For one thing, Bay's birth family--Daphne's switched family--is Peurto Rican, while her adoptive/Daphne's birth family are whiter than white, living in a large house with country club access and all sorts of things. References are made to Bay's grandmother being racist, and in general, with the deaf people in the show, there is also the tug between being Deaf-with-a-capital-D (a matter of pride, apparently) and wanting to blend in with the "hearies" by getting a cochlear implant. But as articles like this one imply, the show is groundbreaking because it is about deaf people in real life, and not because it's an outstanding show.

So which are the shows currently airing that deal with the full spectrum of character development and thoughtfully examined relationships? There are three that are trying: The Mindy Project, New Girl and Girls. Out of all three of these, I can fully say that New Girl is leaps and bounds above the other two. What seems to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl existence of one girl with a ukelele turns out to be a whole thing on living in an economic recession, developing feelings for your friend and roommate, who also happens to be Not The Perfect Guy (in fact, a bit of a loser) and even, the idea of arranged marriage when your personal goals are not being met. While the show is oestensibly about Jess, I watch it for its focus on her best friend, Cece, an Indian origin American model, who manages to epitomise the pull between her cultures very well.

The Mindy Project on the other hand, let me down badly. While Mindy Kaling--so funny! so smart!--is a personal role model, the show is bland, lukewarm and only funny in bits. There is so much she could do with this space, and it's sad that she has chosen to go the rom-com way, no inner explorations, no character development. On the other hand, it could be that she's deliberating choosing to normalise her life, not just another minority-in-a-majority world, but even in the normalising, there could be scope for growth, which just doesn't come through. Girls, even though it is annoying, at least shines a light on certain aspects of 20-somethings, even dealing with body image issues in an OTT but still, at least done, way. 



Is it just that there is no money to be made anymore in a trope that was old even when those shows came out? I can't help thinking that's not true--with the right dialogue and execution, even a story as simple as boy meets girl and it doesn't work out despite the fact that they tried, could be good television. Meanwhile, I'll stick to watching reruns of shows I used to love and shows for "boys"--The West Wing, Newsroom, Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad--and wonder when they will make a show as easy for Saturday night and a glass of wine again.

ADDENDUM: Obviously, the last paragraph deserves more than a throwaway line, considering all the comments centred around it. Dear female readers, I'm not trying to discount that you too--like I, like maybe the men in your life--enjoy shows about politics and drugs, drama and fantasy. This does not discount it from the fact that those shows are meant for men. When I say "meant for" I don't mean that you cannot enjoy it, you do. I hope you do, they're excellent shows. I mean, however, that the people behind the shows, the executive producers and channels and so on, are targetting them towards the men, because of their aforementioned content.

Is this fair? No. But can I say that these shows are aimed at everyone, while the girls shows are aimed just at girls? No. The divide in television programming is quite great, with people knowing which side their bread is buttered on. Please see this list of shows in Esquire, The 100 Best Shows For Men. It displays several "neutral" shows, like Modern Family, South Park, and even 30 Rock, which, by inclusion of the fabulous Tina Fey, should be, if not one of ours, then at least not on a list for men only. By contrast to the insane amount of Google hits the first query brought, let's look at 'best shows for women'. There is this first hit on All Women's Talk, including Parenthood and New Girl, both shows about dating and relationships.

I am really happy to see you all so indignant at the thought that GoT isn't for girls, because guess what, ladies? We're watching it. We're ALL watching it, and yet, and yet, because it's fantasy and swords it's still considered to be For The Boys. Which is why I used my scare quotes in that sentence.

Here is some more reading if you're interested in the subject:

Over at Screencrush: Reel Women On Game Of Thrones & The Stupid Idea Of Gender-Exclusive Media

Here Be Sexism.

Brown Feminist Fan Rant tackles both racism AND sexism in the show.

I'd be interested to know what you think. Do you completely disagree with me? Is the show, in fact, being geared to a gender neutral audience and am I just getting on my feminist high horse? Does it have undercurrents of sexism that we can't ignore?

28 comments:

  1. Games of thrones is for boys?????

    Cersei Lannister
    Daenarys Targaryen
    Catelyn Stark
    Ygritte
    Brienne of Tarth
    Arya Stark
    Sansa Stark
    Margaery Tyrell

    These are all strong women characters, each with grey areas. I hardly think this is just 'for the boys'.

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  2. Good point, anon, but despite strong female characters, the arc, the storyline and so on--except for Dany--are clearly aimed towards a less-female demographic. Think of the gratutious sex scenes--all geared towards the male viewer, think of who gets the best dialogues and so on. The one female (Sansa) who chooses not to fight, instead staying behind in King's Landing, is portrayed as a mealymouthed wimp with nothing going for her.

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  3. Awesome selection, maybe New Girl is worth watching after all...

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  4. I am pretty shocked that you think Game Of Thrones is for boys, simply because it has sex scenes and Sansa. I dislike making sweeping statements on other people's blog, but that in an incredibly odd, narrow thing to say. Anonymous up top was right about all the strong female characters. I suppose Catelyn and Arya should have gotten together for mimosas and wept over their love lives for a couple of episodes to have made the cut.

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  5. Oh my god, i do not think GoT DOESN'T appeal to women, i just don't think it's aimed AT women, which if you notice, most fantasy shows/books seldom are.
    and i am shocked that you think a show for women has to be all weeping together over mimosas. seriously.

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  6. "Meanwhile, I'll stick to watching reruns of shows I used to love and shows for "boys"-The West Wing, Newsroom, Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad"- So in your opinion shows which are intelligent and serious are for the men! While we get stuck with shows about dating and mother-daughter relationships. I am offended.

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  7. You guys have many good points and it was too long to comment, so I've added an addendum to the post that should clear up my POV.

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  8. I haven't read the other two links yet but the Screencrush post is a great read!

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  9. Great article, I especially agree with you on Gilmore Girls. It is so underrated, and I am currently rewatching it and becoming more drawn to Lorelai's point of view than before.

    I disagree with you on The Mindy Project and New Girl. While New Girl started out great, especially with Cece and downplaying her Indian origin/ethnicity, it really caricatured Indian culture by this point by showing only an essentialized version, and Schmidt constantly making gross remarks about Indian culture. In comparison, The Mindy Project reflects culture as one of the many different complexities everyone has to deal with.

    Personally I find The Mindy Project funny in a more intelligent and pop-culture way, and New Girl in a slapstick way, which makes it a bit less appealing for me.

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  10. I appreciate the fact that you explained your thinking in the addendum:) Thanks for the links, I will check them out.

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  11. Warning: Wall of text. The media/ TV networks/ whatever blatantly lean towards androcentrism (‘the valuing of all-things-masculine over all-things-feminine’). This basically means that shows like GoT, Newsroom, etc. can count on both women and men viewership. Why? Because it is totally acceptable (even, "cool") for women to watch shows that are more ‘masculine’ but it doesn’t work the other way around. In the words of Lisa Wade, “Masculinized things (playing sports, being a doctor, being self-sufficient) are imagined to be good for everyone (we encourage both our sons and daughters to do these things), but feminized things (playing with dolls, being a nurse, and staying at home to raise children) are considered to be good only for women.” Very few men (if at all) watch shows that are ‘feminine’. I mean really, have you ever thought of what would happen to a guy if he admitted to watching ‘Girls’… he’d immediately be labelled a ‘pansy’. Shows need not just have female characters to be considered ‘feminine’. So GoT, for example, despite having powerful female characters isn’t a ‘feminine’ show. Get what I mean? And hence, it appeals to men as well as women. But Girls, on the hand, not so much. I could write a whole blog post on androcentrism and how it dictates our lives and choices. But this is it for now. :)
    Ps - Orange is the New Black is an awesome show - for women! ;)

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  12. Excellent point (and great username) Low Quay! I wish you would do a whole post around androcentrism, it's important to discuss these things.

    Niya, I feel almost exactly the opposite from you! Mindy Project scrapes for laughs, New Girl has a well built storyline, Mindy ignores her Indian-ness, at least New Girl acknowldges it. I'm curious what you think of 2 Broke Girls & Parks & Rec, two other shows I actually really like. In fact, I should've put Parks in here, because it is a sort of "girl" show, with a strong female lead, and it's funny as well as explorative. Next time. :)

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  13. You should watch old show Dawson's Creek. More about teenage drama. I hate to admit, it is kinda cute though

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  14. I wonder if you've ever checked out The L Word. It's quite a cult series which actaully put homosexuality out there on television way back in 2004. Perhaps you'll enjoy it!

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  15. Different Anon here:

    (1) The gifs interfere with reading, remove them.

    (2) "Men fight, while we must be their mothers and wives". That's from Game of Thrones. How much truer can it get?

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  16. You should watch "Suits" as well as "Scandal". Both seem to be fairly neutral in terms of their target audience and have some strong female lead characters despite being set in predominantly "male" domains (law and US politics, respectively).

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  17. I'm no sure how you conclude that South Park is a neutral show. Especially when Trey Parker and Matt Stone have even said its "by the boys, for the boys." And more to the point, more women seem to like Family Guy than South Park.

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  18. Meh, it's TV. I find it hard to get riled up about perceived "sexism" regarding television demographics. Good television is good television irrespective of who the target audience is. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland ARE fucking brilliant shows. And I don't necessarily think that they are made solely for a male audience.

    I haven't watched much of Gilmore Girls but it seems to universally adored. I do watch a shit-ton of tv, my Netflix queue is like, 140 items long. I watched Sex and the City back in the day (it was okay, I found it quite annoying most of the time, truth be told, but it was entertaining enough, I suppose - same thing with GIRLS). I liked NEW GIRL (usually I am wary of quirky characters like Deschanel, too grating after a while) - I find Mindy Kaling quite mediocre, not funny really. But she's the token brown, plump chick so whatevs. So good for her.

    I adore Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (Parks and Rec is freaking hilarious and 30 Rock was comedy gold). I am watching UP ALL NIGHT (recently cancelled parenthood comedy with Will Arnett and Christina Applegate) which is also quite adorable.

    I DO think some shows are gender neutral (HOMELAND starring the magnificent Claire Danes). And the legendary FRIENDS. It was loved by men and women alike, primarily because it was able to be an awesome show while showcasing the differences b/w men and women (the friends' reaction to Ross and Rachel's first kiss is a great example).

    Are there some women-centric shows that are primarily geared towards women? Sure. Some that do it well, others not so well. My husband abhorred SEX AND THE CITY but still managed to enjoy DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and GOSSIP GIRL from time to time. Men have their fair share of boy-shows, too. ARROW, THE CAPE etc, the new MARVEL show this fall come to mind.

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  19. This is the kind of article that got me reading your blog :)

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  20. It's not a TV series, but ... just got home from the cinema after watching Frances Ha and I loved loved loved it. A very rare example of a movie that's about women and for women that couldn't possibly be dismissed with that stupid "chick-flick" label.

    Have you heard of the Bechdel test? Apparently, this is how you tell if a movie is not gender-biased:
    - It has to have at least two women in it,
    - who talk to each other,
    - about something besides a man.
    Pretty good test for TV series too, I think.

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  21. SATC is will always remain my No 1. Just like you I can still keep watching it.. Can't say they dont make shows for women anymore, after all new girl, girls, gossip girls , pretty little lars are all targetted at women. But yet again they lack the soul of SATC find all of them very frivolous

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  22. Orange is the new black is retty awesome. I do like 2 Broke Girls and Whitney (don't know if its coming back). I do see your point of view but may be the female viewers are evolving? hey don't just want to sit and talk about 'girlie' things? I do not thinl News Room is a men show though.

    P.S. I do not enjoy New Girl and Mindy Project either.

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  23. After reading your articles, I will say that the articles you post talk about the TV show, and primarily only the 1st season. In a sense that's fair, because none of these people have read all the books. As the world of GoT expands, you get to see a lot more nuance, and a lot more balance in terms of race and gender. But that would be hard for someone to see if all they had to go on was 10 hours of a TV show which does not even follow the book at many interesting points.

    But I reject the idea that the show is 'For the boys'.

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  24. How very pedestrian to think all shows must be like SATC/Gilmore Girls.

    I really don't get why one must be feminist for the sake of being one. Women are as much a part of all the shows you mentioned (and didn't) as men. Your comment would only make sense if it were that all decent TV shows were about bromance and a bunch of guys going out, getting drunk, being man-whores. Some perspective, please. Don't please just cry foul because you can, and because you are female. Give yourself some credit.

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  25. I was on the lookout for something interesting (and different) to watch and then I discovered The Good Wife. Drama, politics, scandal...it's got it all! I'm eagerly waiting for the new season this fall.

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  26. My favourite source for female centric TV shows, British period dramas :)
    E.g. Downtown Abbey (though I thought the last season was boring), North and South all the adaptations of Austen etc are very targeted at a female audience and have female centric themes. My favourite by far is the current "Call the Midwife". Its has a very feminist theme because of it's setting, 50s East End of London before the invention/adoption of the "pill". Addresses abortion, birth control, prostitution. It makes me realize how very earth shattering the invention of the pill and legalization of abortion are and how much we take for granted these very hard won liberties.
    Among American shows I did like Gilmore Girls far more than SATC and have heard good things about Orange is the new black.

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