After winning two Emmys last week, Allison Janney said something that should be considered a truism but isn't. Explaining her successful return to TV after a sojourn in movies, the 54-year-old told Variety, "Television is a woman's medium."
Since "The West Wing" went off the air eight years ago, Janney has landed a number of supporting character roles in movies, mostly mom parts. Back on TV, however, she won Emmys this year (her fifth and sixth) for stretching to play two very different parts: a woman trying to salvage a difficult marriage in the premium-cable drama "Masters of Sex," and a recovering alcoholic whose daughter and granddaughter have followed in her reckless footsteps on the network sitcom "Mom."
Janney certainly seems to be an example of how television is friendlier to 54-year-old actresses than film is. But is television really "a woman's medium"?
Actually, you could argue that television has been a woman's medium since day one –- with caveats, of course. Daytime TV has always belonged to women, with its soap operas, talk shows, and morning news lifestyle segments. But primetime has always been a woman's domain, or at least one that men had to share with women. In the 1950s, alongside traditional action dramas that appealed to men (westerns, crime dramas), comedies privileged the domestic sphere and made women leading characters. Yes, they were generally housewives, but along with the June Cleavers and Donna Reeds were actresses like Lucille Ball ("I Love Lucy") and Gertrude Berg ("The Goldbergs") who not only played matriarchs who didn't fit traditional housewife stereotypes (indeed, Ball's character actively challenged them), but who also produced their own shows. In the 1960s, characters like Samantha Stevens ("Bewitched") and Jeannie ("I Dream of Jeannie") paid a back-handed compliment to feminism; they were gifted women who could do anything, and whose uptight men could barely rein in their extraordinary powers.
TV became openly feminist, sort of, in the 1970s, with series like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (whose heroine found fulfillment in work, rather than family or romance), "Maude" (Beatrice Arthur as a domineering feminist who, in one episode, has an abortion and is not shamed or punished for it), and "One Day at a Time" (a divorced mom raising two independent daughters). Even a show as leering as "Charlie's Angels" paid lip service to feminism, making its jiggly heroines strong and resourceful.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, we began to see all-female ensemble comedies, each with a sisterhood-is-powerful message, from "It's a Living" to "The Golden Girls" to "Designing Women" to "Living Single" to "Sex and the City." Domineering women, from Roseanne to Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown, ruled on sitcoms.
Over the past decade, having achieved something like parity with men as complicated lead characters capable of doing anything men could do, women got to start playing anti-heroines as well. Women who did not always behave admirably (and in some cases, almost never did) were at the centers of such series as "Weeds," "Damages," "Saving Grace," "Revenge," "Once Upon a Time," "True Blood," "Veep," "Nurse Jackie," "American Horror Story," "The Good Wife," "The Big C," and "Orange Is the New Black." Movie actresses like Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates were drawn to the lead roles in such shows. This seemed like no coincidence, since film had, by that time, become almost exclusively a men's medium, with mainstream Hollywood limiting itself to male-driven action spectacles, and women like Close and Hunter, who had never specialized in arm-candy roles and had aged out of them anyway, no longer felt welcome.
Why do movies cater to men while TV caters to women? It's all about who pays the bills. At the Cineplex, it's men and teenage boys who buy the tickets –- or so Hollywood tells itself, though the successes this summer of movies starring Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Melissa McCarthy, and Shailene Woodley ought to make movie moguls rethink that tenet of conventional wisdom. On TV, however, the sponsors who make network and basic cable programming possible recognize that, in the family home, women often control the purse strings, not just for clothes and groceries and household items, but sometimes even for big-ticket items like cars. The result is a medium that, while still often as reflexively sexist and patronizing toward women as other media are, also makes a point of reflecting a diverse range of female images back to the women who keep the sponsors in business. TV is a landscape not just of well-rounded women, but a well-rounded group of women.
This fall, ABC is giving its most lucrative night, Thursday (when the movie ads run), over entirely to showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who'll stock it with the long-running "Grey's Anatomy," new-ish hit "Scandal," and brand new drama "How to Get Away With Murder," a legal drama starring Viola Davis. That's three shows created by a woman, with strong and complex leading roles for women.
Also new this fall: "Madam Secretary," starring Téa Leoni as the U.S. Secretary of State –- which seems less a tip of the hat to Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright than to "Veep," the HBO series that stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the first female U.S. Vice President. There's "The Mysteries of Laura," starring Debra Messing as a sleuth who's also a single mom. And there's "Manhattan Love Story," which traces a couple's romance from the beginning.
Not everything on TV seems designed with meaty roles for women in mind. One new show, "Selfie," is a modern take on "Pygmalion" and "My Fair Lady," with a man (John Cho) making over a young woman (Karen Gillan). Sounds retrograde, though critics have given it solid advance buzz. And there's still all the reality shows, which tend to pigeonhole women into traditional and unflattering stereotypes –- golddiggers ("The Bachelor"), spoiled harpies ("Real Housewives"), or baby-making machines ("19 Kids and Counting"). Of course, women eat up these shows, too, and make their sponsors rich.
But even in the loftier sphere of Emmy-worthy series, some might grumble that the new so-called golden age of television has largely passed women by. The current wave of critically lauded TV series that began with "The Sopranos" and has continued through such shows as "The Wire," "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," and "House of Cards," has been built primarily around male anit-heroes, operating mostly in masculine realms of power. (Perhaps not coincidentally, TV critics are still mostly men, and these shows often seem designed to flatter men's tastes.) At least "Mad Men," despite its title and its matter-of-fact sexism (excused by the period setting), is as much the story of Peggy's rise as it is of Don's fall, and the show seems as interested in the desires and frustrations of Peggy, Joan, Megan, Betty, and even little Sally as it is in those of Don, Roger, and Pete.
In the last few years, we've seen the rise of female anti-hero dramas to match the male ones, mostly on Showtime (home of "Weeds," "Nurse Jackie," and "The Big C," among others). None of these has received quite the buzz of the male anti-hero shows, though that's starting to change now with such non-cable series as "The Good Wife," "Scandal," and "Orange." There's also Janney's two Emmy shows, Showtime's "Masters of Sex" (which matches pay cable titillation with 'Mad Men'-style exploration of the supposedly less-enlightened gender roles of half a century ago) and "Mom" (the network sitcom where she and Anna Faris play a mother and daughter who are both recovering alcoholics trying to patch together their shattered lives and strained relationship).
Janney landed her "Mom" role because series creator Chuck Lorre had been trying for years to build a show around her. After all, she's the sort of actress who's fascinating to watch, no matter what she's doing. Indeed, TV now features many such actresses, of all ages and body types. They haven't eradicated sexism or lookism from TV, and that's not really their job. (Their job is to sell cookies and cosmetics and car insurance, as well as characters.) Still, they can be thankful, like Janney, that they're working in a medium that lets them tell a wide range of female-driven stories –- and that the economics of that medium permit and even encourage them to do so.
categories Tv News