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One of the nicest things about the end of 2011/early 2012 for me has been the ability to switch on British TV at regular points in the week and see ladies, lots of them, hanging out in shows where they’re the main focus. Seriously, it’s brilliant! I’ve always been y’know, generally fine watching mostly TV programs that centre around men, catching the odd, miraculous female focused program once or twice a year, or buying DVD box sets of program that we don’t get on the channels I have. Sure, I wanted more ladies on TV; give me an hour to talk about that subject and I would fill it easily. And, I thought that seeing women represented on TV was both important and fun to watch. Generally though, I like stories, I like TV and if the only shows on offer were about men I felt I could cope with that. Until now I never quite realised just how fucking magnificent it could be to base a large portion of my regular viewing schedule around female focused programs, which were being shown live on TV. It is...it just makes me happy, ok? TV, you are on a warning, I expect a lot more of you now.

Here’s a quick summary of the top four, female focused TV programs I’ve enjoyed watching recently1:

‘Borgen’


At the end of last year I got sucked into ‘Borgen’ in a way which totally defied all my expectations. Generally I (quite unfairly) keep away from TV shows with subtitles, but as ‘Borgen’ was about the journey of a fictional female Prime Minster I settled down determined to power through a few episodes on catch up. I would say I had a slightly Marty-like, dutiful attitude towards ‘Borgen’ when I first began watching. The opening titles rolled

....

and at the end of the first episode I emerged, hooked on the adventures of female politician Birgitte, female journalist Katrine and dreamy, yet awful, spin doctor Kaspar. When the first series ended, I hunted Twitter for ‘Borgen’ fans and ended up dragging Ana from The Booksmugglers into a loooong e-mail exchange about ‘Borgen’. Yes, I pulled one of the busiest YA bloggers into a surprise, day spanning discussion of every aspect of a Danish political drama!

‘Homeland’



Next came ‘Homeland’, the thriller drama which features Claire Danes as CIA agent Carrie Mathison. Despite this show being billed rather misleadingly as a ‘grown up 24’ 2 it is excellent and I am a huge fan. The main character billing is shared between Carrie and Brody (the suspicious, returning soldier, played by Damien Lewis) and both Danes and Lewis give commanding, but disturbing performances...but Danes character is still the focus of the show, if that makes sense.

Lewis’ character, is as I said suspicious. The viewer is supposed to be unsure about whether he has been turned while held hostage in Iraq, or whether he is a good guy traumatised by torture who is being unfairly persecuted by Danes character. He is required by the narrative to play things shifty and hides things from the viewer (at least until the appropriate big reveal points of the show), to increase dramatic tension. The consequence of this narrative necessity, coupled with the fact that Carrie’s secrets and misdemeanours are revealed to the viewer early on, is that the viewer is able to feel more connected to Danes’ character than to Lewis’. Carrie is both the viewpoint character and the person the viewer feels most secure with; despite her sometimes rather loose canon approach to her surveillance of Brody. She is the lead character on the program, the one we invest in because even though she might break the rules it’s unlikely she’s going to turn out to be a secret terrorist.

Carrie, you are just the best.

‘Scott and Bailey’



Then there’s Scott and Bailey, a female police procedural that is just fab. I actually originally gave up on this program after watching two episodes of the first series (one of the main characters was involved in some seriously weird, unprofessional antics) but ended up seeing the first episode of the second series by chance and was totally won over. This program has a whole cast of prominent female characters ladies: there’s Scott and Bailey , two female police officers who work as a team, their female boss Jill who is the absolute best thing about the show and her friend/sparring partner, the female coroner. They’re all brilliant at their jobs and professional (if still flawed characters). They’re also realistically torn between commitments at home and work, in a way which emphasises the difficulties working women face, without removing the possibility that these women can have careers and personal lives.

‘Once Upon a Time’



I imagine Amy is well surprised to see ‘Once Upon a Time’, the female focused fairytale offering, on this list of programs I’m in love with. Honestly, despite this program being perfect, fluffy Sunday night TV, I thought I’d stop watching after I saw the first episode. The fairytale costuming is kind of cheesy and the main idea of the plot (that fairytale characters are trapped in a modern town called Storybrooke and must be set free by a super special saviour) strangely didn’t grab me. Still, I kept watching, because I need easy TV on Sunday night before going back to work and there was nothing else decent on at this time.

The more I watched, the more I noticed something Amy had highlighted – that this program really emphasises the activeness of the female characters in fairytales. Five episodes have been shown in the UK and so far Snow white, Cinderella and their modern incarnations, have been in episodes where they were the stars of the show. These female characters make things happen, lead princes on merry dances and showcase a diverse range of female agency. Emma, the saviour I mentioned above, becomes more interesting with each episode, I’m desperate to see Ruby/Red Riding Hood get her chance in the spotlight and the wicked queen character could not be more dastardly and excellent (although I do feel oddly sorry for Regina Mills, her real world counter-part and totally want Regina to get together with Emma).

So yes, recently I’ve had the chance to watch and enjoy four big name, original drama series which all display a strong focus on female characters and which I feel have at least some claim to being female-positive, even if there are also some less female friendly kinks in some of the narrative presentation. And there are tons more programs being brought out right now that focus on female characters There are current programs I haven’t seen/been able to see yet like ‘The Killing’, ‘The Bridge’, ‘Lip Service’, ‘Parks and Rec’, ‘Two Broke Girls’, ‘Revenge’ and ‘Hellcats’. There have been recent programs like ‘Pan Am’ and ‘The New Girl’, which I haven’t watched because I heard they had serious female representation issues, but which nevertheless focused on female characters. And there have been recent programs I watched, but wasn’t that fussed about like ‘Vera’ and ‘Prisoner’s Wives’, which again put ladies at the centre of their stories.

I’m real happy about that, don’t get me wrong. It’s major that recently there has been such a boom in the amount of programs put out, that feature prominent female characters and it’s especially good that so many can be claimed to exhibit pro-female tendencies. These programs add to the wonderful back catalogue of earlier programs like ‘Buffy’, ‘Dark Angel’, ‘Charmed’ and ‘Alias’ which centred around female characters. Rock - ladies everywhere!

The thing is, you may have heard that a new American, female focused program called ‘Girls’ has been subject to some critical analysis; specifically commentators have mentioned its failure to include any African-America, Asian, or Latino women in its main cast, when the program is set in the multi-cultural city New York. That criticism reminded me that although there appears to be an increase in the number of female focused TV programs coming out right now, these programs may not be representing all women equally. With that in mind I wanted to take a stab at (no doubt, imperfectly) considering this boom in female focused shows, with an intersectional focus. Specifically I wanted to look at the racial makeup of the female cast on the four shows I have enjoyed watching recently and the sexualities of the female characters on those programs.

Here’s what I found:

‘Borgen’

The main female characters in ‘Borgen’ are all white and as far as I remember, the entire female cast of 'Borgen' ’s first series is white. I don’t know what Denmark’s population looks like racially and there’s always the possibility that ‘Borgen’ presents the racial realities of Denmark (feel free to agree, or correct this idea) but there’s no getting around the fact that despite being a female positive/focused program it’s also a pretty white show.

There is one character who I think is a lesbian, at least a male character labels her with a slur word that means lesbian, but I think we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s actually a lesbian. Otherwise all the women in this program have been presented as romantically interested in men and if any of them are bisexual, this hasn’t yet been made explicit in the program3.

‘Homeland’

‘Homeland’ presents a bit more of a diverse picture of women, in terms of pure race/gender intersectionality than ‘Borgen’ does. Carrie, the main character is white, but one of the male characters is married to an Indian woman, who is a recurring character in a few episodes. Helen Walker, the wife of Tom Walker, another American soldier held hostage with Brody, is African-American and she is also a recurring character in a couple of episodes. In addition, Brody’s wife, Jess is played by Morena Baccinarin, an actress of Brazilian/Italian heritage. Although Jess’ ethnicity is never mentioned, personally I don’t think Jess presents as white, but I might be wrong. None of the female characters I’ve mentioned here are really the equivalent of Carrie’s character (a character who appears in every episode and is crucial to the main plot) although Jess is a significant character, with her own story and has been in every episode so far.

There are several other recurring African-American and Arab characters, but as they’re all male they don’t factor into this particular, informal analysis.

All of the female characters in this program are in significant romantic relationships with men, or have shown sexual interest in men. There are as yet, no lesbian characters. If any of these female characters are bisexual, this hasn’t yet been made explicit in the program.

‘Scott and Bailey’

‘Scott and Bailey’, has a very white female cast. All of the four main female characters are white (unless I missed someone who was introduced and removed over the course of series one).

All of these female characters are in significant romantic relationships with men, or talk about having had significant romantic relationships with men. If any of these female characters are bisexual, this hasn’t yet been made explicit in the program.

‘Once Upon a Time’

And finally, we come to ‘Once Upon a Time’. As I said, only five episodes have been shown in the UK, so other female characters may appear over the course of the series, but so far there’s only been one female, black character (Ella’s fairy godmother) has been included. She appeared on screen for roughly one minute, before being killed by Rumpelstiltskin.

Again, there’s a black male character, but as he’s a dude he doesn’t figure in this particular analysis.

To wrap up, so far, most of the female characters in ‘Once Upon a Time’ have been presented as being in romantic relationships with men, or they have been shown as interested in romantic relationships with men. The romantic interests of some female characters have yet to be examined, but if any of them are bisexual (and thank God this is the last time I have to say this), this hasn’t yet been made explicit by the program4.

Now, this post does not present detailed, comprehensive data. It is a sample, based only on four programs that I like. I saw a connection between these programs that troubled me, in the light of criticism about ‘Girls’ and wanted to talk it through in my own space. I encourage anyone and everyone to run a full data sample, with maths and STUFF, if you want to accurately gauge how our current female focused TV program boom may or may not represent certain sections of female experience. However, I think there’s a reasonable suggestion of a pattern here, one that forms a white coloured, straight line.

To be clear, I still love these programs. I love that so many more female focused programs seem to be making it onto British TV schedules right now. I just think it’s important to both celebrate the growth of popular female focused programs and examine these programs in the light of intersectional analysis. I think it’s important to recognise that some programs which seem like super positive, feminist shows for one group of women may seem kind of cool, but excluding to another group of women. I think it’s important for the first group (I’m in that one) to make room alongside the joy they feel at seeing themselves represented, to understand why others are not quite so excited about the next new program that’s going to feature a bunch of straight, white woman.5. As a white lady, that’s something I want to keep in mind, all the time, even as I cheer on Emma Swan and Birgitte Nyborg.

Notes

1 And these do not include, the female fronted and female focused history and science programs coming out, as well: Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’; Bettany Hughe’s ‘Divine Women’; Helen Castor’s ‘She Wolves’; that program about woolly mammoths that would have been fascinating if I hadn’t been so dog tired.

2While Homeland does indeed present a security force with much more responsible than the team of 24 ever were, that is not exactly hard because 24 was a nightmare scenario of how the security forces might act (I’m still a big 24 fan though). Homeland is still not exactly a shining example of how we might hope a responsible security forces body would act.

3 It’s interesting to consider the general representation of female political leaders in fiction. TV shows ‘Borgen’, ‘Commander in Chief’ and ‘The Amazing Mrs Pritchard’, as well as the novel ‘The President’s Daughter’ by Ellen Emerson White, all present fictional women who rule countries. All these female characters are white, straight (or at least not described as bisexual) and have traditional families (husband and kids). I’d be interested in more data on fictional female political leaders, but that sample makes me wonder about how society ties normative womanhood to any potential idea of female political leadership.

4 I’ve only examined these programs in terms of the intersection between gender and race, and gender and sexuality that they exhibit. I have done this despite my awareness that there are other intersecting areas of social identity that affect whether female representation speaks to a particular woman.

So, just to make things clear, there are no trans-women in any of these programs so far. There are no disabled female characters in any of these programs so far. I can’t imagine that will be surprising to anyone, as these groups of women are even less well represented than say Asian female characters, or lesbian female characters, but it should be noted.

I make no claims about how well any of these programs represent different kinds of female body image, or socio-economic status.

5 One quick point that I think is important. I’ve concentrated entirely on the female characters, because of the specific focus of this post. This focus of mine has the unfortunate consequence of ignoring how low the level of diversity may potentially be when it comes to male characters in the four programs I’ve examined. I really don’t want to end up just spotlighting these shows for presenting a low level of diversity among female characters, because that ends in tears with people calling out female characters alone, calling out female focused programs alone and generally hating on the ladies. So, in an effort to balance the scales let me say that if you’re a fan of diverse representation then these programs are near equally normative when it comes to the racial makeup of the male cast of these shows and the sexualities that these male characters present. And there are plenty, plenty, plenty of male focused programs which fail at presenting both female and male characters of all races and all sexualities.

Useful Related Posts

My Feminism will be Intersectional or it will be Bullshit
Racialicious: Kendra and Jordan Break Down the Vampire Diaries
Colorlines on ‘Girls’
Sarah Rees Brennan on ‘Once Upon a Time’

Date: 2012-05-12 09:12 pm (UTC)
goodbyebird: Batman returns: Catwoman seen through a glass window. (Community you go girl)
From: [personal profile] goodbyebird
You should definitely get around to watching Parks and Recreation, it really is a slice of sunshine. For more female-friendly shows with ladies having complex lives and also relationships with other ladies, try Nurse Jackie. And if you're looking for more fantasy stuff, give Lost Girl a shot.

Date: 2012-05-12 09:55 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Okay, so the video and your enthusiasm make me want to go back to Once Upon a Time. I was sort of watching it with Kelly, but then we both got sidetracked. The lady-centric cast and the active roles women played in the traditional fairy tales were a huge part of the appeal, but at the same time, some storylines frustrated me and I wasn't too crazy about the romance. Regina + Emma, though! I hadn't thought of that at all, but it's absolutely perfect and now I'll never be able to stop wishing it would happen.

Anyway, to address your main point, yes, we can definitely love shows like these for what they do right while simultaneously being aware of what's missing in terms of representing all women and discussing these shortcomings. But I was thinking just the other day (warning: tangent ahead) that I'm not sure I'd be able to watch Girls, even know a show about lost 20-somethings sounds so right for me right now, because of the creators' reactions to the criticism and what emerged about past comments of theirs in these debates :\ I understand being blinded by white (and straight and cis and class and able-bodied) priviledge, but it's what you do when this is pointed out to you that makes a difference. Not to say that it's impossible they'll ever listen and address the issue as the series develops, or that other creators won't learn from the conversation around the show. Let us hope that this happens. But yeah, the reactions to the criticism left a really bad taste in my mouth.

Date: 2012-05-13 12:17 am (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
Yeah IA re: Girls, it's the reaction to the criticism that's so troublesome.

Date: 2012-05-13 10:38 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Yeah, I really didn't like Henry's "you're not my real mom!" attitude and how the story endorsed it, especially when Regina kept doing things that were in fact what most caring parents would do, and yet they got framed as horrible and unreasonable. What I saw in the series never gave me reasons to doubt she truly cared about Henry, but the viewer is encouraged to doubt her love for him because she's the evil queen. Also, it bugged me that what being an evil queen translated into in the real world was being a single working mother in a position of political power. This is much less of a problem than it would otherwise be because of the sheer number of independent women doing awesome things in the cast, but still, meh :\

I also really wanted Regina to be humanised, but from what I remember the show kind of veered further and further away from it as it progressed. Also, what you said about the Sherrif made me realise I saw more episodes than just 6, because I know what happens with that. My lips are sealed, but feel free to talk to me when you get to that point :P

And re: Rumplestiltskin, yes, he was a really fascinating character, but I was uneasy with the way the show started hinting that he might be the one *really* in charge, which would make Regina no more than a pawn in his game. (I don't think this is a spoiler, as there wasn't anything concrete by the time I stopped watching, just suspicions.)

Mary Margaret and the Prince kind of drove me crazy, sorry :P I did appreciate the gender bending in how the Snow White fairy tale was retold, but their romance was a bit too "this is true love, they are meant to be, nothing else matters!" for me. I realise that's true of like 70% of mainstream media romance, so I'm not sure why I'm picking on this one in particular. Just... dear writers, please show me WHY these two people connect instead of simply telling me they do.

Having said that I still think I'll go back to it at some point, even if just because it could mean more fun talks :P

Spoilers continue!

Date: 2012-05-15 04:08 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
You make a very good point about how the revelation that Regina does know she's the Evil Queen implies this may have been a role she picked for herself. But even then, there are uncomfortable echoes around the idea that this would be a position an "evil" woman would gravitate towards. Of course, we've had plenty of conversations before about how we don't want arguments like "this makes all women look bad!" to limit the roles available to female fictional characters, good or bad, and I still completely stand by that. The problem of women in power being depicted as evil isn't a problem with this show specifically, but a problem with the pattern. And the solution isn't to limit the stories that are told about powerful evil women, but - once again :P - to have All The Stories out there.

About Regina not being really humanised, I only saw 2 or 3 more episodes after the one you saw this week, so for all I know lots of exciting things that I have no idea about could have happened in the meantime. Also, it's all a matter of personal interpretation of course. I have to say I LOVE how you continued to empathise with her even when she killed Graham - I did as well, but I got the distinct impression that the show very much didn't want me to; that this was being framed as a situation in which she was the only one being cruel and which was meant to cement her as really, really evil. And this brings me to something else about her depiction that bothers me. First of all, there will be another story about Regina and a male character in a few episodes that I'm DYING to hear your thoughts about. What I felt that this story + Graham's did was kind of cast her as a man-eater sort of character, and I think this actually ties in with how she's visually presented: the sexy villain costume when she's in fairy tale land, and the dark lipstick + heavy make up look she has as Mayor of Storybrooke. This doesn't bother me in itself; it only does when I compare it with, for example, Snow as Mary Margaret, who's beautiful and very feminime but in a very demure, innocent sort of way, or even with Emma, who's portrayed as sexy but in a tomboyish, not much make up kind of style. What do you think? Do you think Regina's evilness is sexualised, or am I reading too much into this?

About Rumplestiltskin, I see what you mean about the way his character functions not being specifically gendered, but yes, the fact that he IS male and played by a male actor still has its implications. You said you think Regina is in charge in Storybrooke, but I thought there were some hints later on that this could not quite be the case... we'll have to see where they take this as the series progresses.

Re: Spoilers continue!

Date: 2012-05-18 01:47 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I would really like to see if someone could make say a town hairdresser, baker, or accountant an evil female characters and have them feel effectively evil. Now that would be different.

Yes, that's pretty much what I was clumsily trying to say. The fact that she functions so well as an evil character is tied in with cultural tropes about single powerful women, and while that isn't solely this particular show's fault it still makes me so sad. And I agree completely that the bits that any creator chooses to keep or discard from fairy tales (or any other source material) speak volumes about the kinds of cultural biases that continue to the present day.

I totally see what you mean about Regina's house - there's this scene in particular that I remember really well. It had her sitting at her desk in her really stylish back and white house with this bowl of perfect blood red apples, which were the only note of colour in the whole room, right in front of her. The thing is, I'm really drawn to this kind of thing aesthetically (and I remember you saying pretty much the same about Irene Adler and Sherlock), but I hate that it's always used in the same way.

There had been nothing about the Fairy Godmother and nothing yet about Ruby by the time I stopped watching... two more reasons to go back I guess :P Like you I'm sure Ruby gets her own episode at some point, but not so sure about the Godmother... fingers crossed that it happens.

Date: 2012-05-13 10:04 pm (UTC)
kailana: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kailana
I'll get back to Once Upon a Time, too! (This is a test comment because I can't remember my Dreamwidth log-in. Ooops!)

Date: 2012-05-13 12:22 am (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
I'm glad you're enjoying OUAT more than I did! :)

I also really love The Killing, although I don't think it's super diverse and I'm uncertain bout the recent portrayal of Native Americans (I want to read about this it might be fine, i just don't know), but the writing and acting and characterization is so good, the tone is so consistent, etc. Also Parks and Rec is must watch!!

I do want to watch Homeland.

And don't forget Nikita! While it also has some diversity problems esp wrt to LGBTQ characters, the main character is a woman of color and the women drive the storylines. Nikita especially is such an interesting character and her relationship to everyone and what it reveals about her is so interesting to watch. ♥♥♥

Date: 2012-05-13 05:41 pm (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (patty + text)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Thanks for posting about Borgen. I hadn't heard of it before but now I'm really excited to give it a try. It sounds like there are things it could do better for sure, but women with political/institutional power is my FAVORITE and still really rare on TV (but increasing, which is good). And often when they have that power, the shows go out of the way to make sure we know they didn't want it, they had it thrust upon them. Which is a tangent, the real point is: YAY new show!

Date: 2012-05-13 10:23 pm (UTC)
kailana: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kailana
Okay, so now that I have remembered my password, this is an actual comment. How sad...

The only show I have watched is 'Once Upon a Time'. You raise some really interesting points. I really like the show, but there is something that is keeping me from being a die-hard fan. I haven't been able to put my finger on it and it has been a while since I watched the show period...

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