I’ve been a television writer for a dozen years, and I’ve been fortunate to put words in the mouths of some great female characters. They’ve been working women, mostly, and I like to think they’ve become role models for a generation of girls trying to figure out their futures.
But let’s be honest: TV isn’t going to change anyone’s perceptions of working women in the real world just by promoting fictional females to ever-higher positions of authority. And I’m not doing my job if I put a woman’s career before her character.
Deciding what a character does for a living on a TV show is often a matter of convenience. “What if we had a set where Ellen could meet her friends other than in her house?” a writer might ask. “How about, um, a bookstore? A coffee shop? A bookstore with a coffee shop in it?”
Other times, the career is so tied to the character that they are really one and the same. It’s hard to say where Buffy Summers ends and “The Vampire Slayer” begins, for example. Television’s early working women were gender-cast as maids — Hazel, Alice from “The Brady Bunch” — secretaries, nurses and teachers. The women who had settled into long-term careers — Jane Hathaway on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Sally Rogers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — regretted not having found themselves a good man instead. The exceptions, even small ones, stood out. I remember watching an episode of “Leave It to Beaver,” already in reruns and looking ancient in its plucky black-and-white. I had never, in all my 11 years, seen a female principal. I actually remember the exhilarating “Oh, girls can do that” feeling.
Children are the world’s most ardent traditionalists. They like things stable and categorized. They want to know what girls can do and what girls can’t do. Television, like it or not, teaches them a lot of these rules. Diahann Carroll’s nurse on “Julia” and communications officer Uhura on “Star Trek” weren’t just important for African American girls. They were important for the rest of us too. And even though I understood that simpering, Jethro-grabbing Miss Hathaway was supposed to be a pathetic figure, the tightly crimped power she seemed to have at the bank was certainly impressive.
In the ‘70s, things changed. Mary Richards’ job as a TV news producer was more than something to do until she married. And then single working mom Ann Romano of “One Day at a Time” and waitress Alice Hyatt of “Alice” came along. These were the “woman but” shows — as in “She’s a woman, but she works!”
Heavy-handed? Oh dang, Skippy, they could be heavy-handed. When societal shifts dictate storytelling, you end up with your star pouring coffee in her lecherous boss’ lap as the audience hoots in solidarity. But these shows made their point, and we came out the other side with a more balanced television landscape. Finally a woman could work without writers having to point a big neon sign at her (now we just point those at gay characters).
Today the percentage of female judges, college professors and detectives seen on television is a pretty good reflection of the actual world. (In the case of judges, I wouldn’t be shocked to find out the number on television exceeds the number in real life — what is it about those black robes that makes us think ovaries?)
But merely thrusting more women into more prestigious on-screen jobs doesn’t necessarily make the working world a better place for women. If you were to show people images of two real-life professionals, one a man, one a woman, and ask them to rate their competence knowing nothing but job and gender — I bet people still give the guys the edge.
It’s not television’s fault, exactly. But television can help fix the problem. Not by writing women into better professions, but by more accurately showing them as complex people contending with the sort of snide, generous, ambitious, incompetent, sad and hilarious co-workers who populate real workplaces.
Lorelai Gilmore of “Gilmore Girls” manages her own business, an inn, despite a lack of formal education. That’s not what makes her feel real, though. Viewers love Lorelai because of her human foibles — and the way she loves her daughter. That’s why they can imagine her as someone with a life — and lifework — that continues even when the camera doesn’t happen to be pointed at her.
Back in my sitcom days on “Ellen,” we writers had a puzzle. Star Ellen DeGeneres’ character, who had just come out as a lesbian, was unemployed as we began the show’s final season. We made a few halfhearted attempts to put her into a career. (Remember her stint as a radio host? No? Just as well.)
The thing was, we knew that giving her a job was not what we were there to do. She lived that last year with freedom and humor and grace. She dated, she found a girlfriend, she struggled with her self-identity. Viewers judged her not by her job, or lack of one, but by the content of her character.
It’s true you don’t worry about the mortgage quite as much when you’re fictional. But anybody who conjured Ellen’s resolve and basic decency would be well on the way to success as a nurse, teacher, bookstore-coffee shop manager/radio host, judge or sitcom writer.
Then there’s Buffy, the teenage “vampire slayer.” A woman warrior, she refused to answer to her profession’s stuffy, male-dominated Counsel of Watchers. She had the power, she reasoned, and that gave her the authority to decide how to use it. She didn’t figure it out overnight or without a struggle, but after seven TV years, she had learned how to make it in the graveyard.
I can’t make real-life workplaces safer and more fair for women just by showing them with briefcases or crossbows. But I can try to grant my characters the quirky gift of humanity — whether they’re adjudicating torts or dishing tortes or saving the world. And hope the little girls watching do the rest.
Jane Espenson, a TV writer and producer, has worked on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Gilmore Girls"and many other shows. She is co-executive producer of “The Inside,” a Fox TV show scheduled for the fall.