Last week marked the 15th anniversary of the pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this landmark got me thinking: Where have all the decent female characters gone?
Buffy was meant to change things. In many ways she was the perfect third wave feminist TV character, strong, capable, independent, and all while choosing how she wanted to express her femininity. For a while things did seem different. Like them or not we had the irrepressible force of the women of Sex and the City, The heartfelt rationalism of Friday Night Lights' Tami Taylor, The West Wing's no nonsense C.J.
But what about now, who can women turn to when they want a female TV character capable of passing the Bechdel test? (For those unaware the test comes from a comic strip by Alison Bechdel from 1985 and states that a narrative worth watching has at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than men) It's not that there's a dearth of female characters on TV, it's what they do while they're there.
Grey's Anatomy features one of the most diverse and gender balanced casts on TV, but try finding a female character whose plot does not revolve around her love life or children. Even Christina Yang, a character who started as a strong, ambitious character learning she's also allowed a personal life, last week spent an entire episode in couples' therapy.
Glee, another show that started out focusing on a female character whose career dreams kept her going, is now one of the most anti-female shows airing. The show consistently belittles the role of women, using them as little more than emotional leaning posts for their boyfriends, boyfriends who are always heroic and decent. When Finn outed Santana it was treated as a good thing, Finn helping her come to terms with her sexuality by serenading her with a cover of Girls Just Want to Have Fun. After all, lesbianism is just girls having fun, right? Weeks later when Dave Karofsky suffers similarly by being outed it is shown through an emotionally overwrought montage and makes way for a story about teen suicide.
The imbalance is beguiling. It doesn't end there. NBC's new hopeful Smash spends most of its time on two women fighting each other for male approval, Bones Brennan now does little more than talk about her baby, and a recent episode of The Walking Dead had the few female characters literally giving up their right to vote as part of their group of survivors and deferring to the men.
Those shows that do feature women more prominently and not as an adjunct to a male character, shows like Revenge and Once Upon a Time, instead provide us with women who are conniving, scheming, underhanded and in the case of Once Upon a Time, literally evil. The women of sitcom fair a little better, but rather than evil they tend to be stupid and unable to function in society; though the same could be said for the men of sitcom.
There is one bright hope in the depths of all this gloom: The Good Wife. Interestingly the show that started with a woman whose entire life revolved around her husband and children, just look at the title, is the one show that gives women an independent voice. Each female character is allowed nuances and complexities, motivations that include family and career; very different from those shows which only foreground women as constantly choosing between family or career. The women of The Good Wife are sexually in control (it seems to be an unwritten rule that every character in the show wants to sleep with Kalinda, and she knows it), capable of running businesses and having a work life that is not about romantic relationships, but also does not preclude them. They play with gender bias and stereotyping on a weekly basis, continually making the audience aware of their own gender assumptions.
Despite the critical success of The Good Wife it doesn't look like things are going to improve soon; the current trend in TV is toward martyred males (see new shows like Awake and Touch), shows which feature very few female characters, is disheartening. Buffy fought so that every girl who had the potential could take up the fight, it's time TV producers remembered that and gave us more good wives and fewer bad girlfriends.