How Television Is Beating The Movies At Feminism

Margaery Tyrell Game of Thrones I want to be the queen

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A few weeks ago at Comic-Con, Natalie Dormer, aka Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones, appeared on a panel called “Women Who Kick Ass” that was all about the women who bring TV’s best female characters to life. During the panel, she gave a pretty kick-ass statement about how far ahead television is in terms of complex female representation. Here’s what she said. Be prepared to leap out of your seat and give her a round of applause after you read it.

“The best female roles are in television at the moment. Katniss Everdeen — as popular as she is — is an anomaly. She really is. Where television is fantastic — and is way ahead of film — is it doesn’t feel the need to polarize women so much… Male writers — and I say this with all love and respect — often want to make a woman either the angel or the whore, make her the witch, or put her on the pedestal. When people ask me about Margaery, I say they’re not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to be practical and politically savvy and not be a good person. You can be a good human being and just be shrewd.”

With the Emmys just finishing up and the new Fall television season starting up soon, this seems as good a time as any to take a closer look at just how much better TV is at female representation these days. Ask me to name an interesting female character on television now, and I can give you a very long list. As a bonus, many of those characters come from the same series, a lot of them are the series’ protagonists, and they’re played by fantastic actresses. If you asked me the same question in relation to recent movie releases, however, a list — especially one with such variety — would be a lot more difficult to formulate.

We can start by talking about existing shows, a few of which were already represented on that very Comic-Con panel — Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, Sleepy Hollow, Sons of Anarchy, and American Horror Story. I’d also add Mad Men, which not only depicts multiple interesting women but also addresses issues of sexism. And of course there’s Orange is the New Black, which features a diverse (in more ways than one) cast of female characters with complex backstories and compelling relationships.

Orphan Black

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Let’s talk more about diversity. Orange is the New Black isn’t the only show giving women of color and LGBT women stronger, more prominent roles. Sleepy Hollow‘s heroine is a black woman — and a cop at that. Elementary not only makes Watson a woman, but an Asian woman (Lucy Liu). Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany plays clones with various sexual orientations — last season even introduced a transgender clone. There are of course plenty more examples that I haven’t mentioned, so feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

Abbie Mills Sleepy Hollow

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Diversity doesn’t stop at race and sexuality, though. It also extends to body type, a form of representation which still remains limited in both TV and film, especially for women. So it was beyond awesome to watch Fargo and see that Molly Solverson, the most capable, moral character on the entire series, also happened to defy pop culture’s narrow size standards — without her body being a defining element of her character. Not only that, but Allison Tolman, the breakout star who brought Molly to life, has called out body-shamers on Twitter.

Molly Solverson Fargo you keep telling yourself that

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You might have noticed that a lot of the shows I mentioned air on cable networks or Netflix. That’s because those networks generally offer better programming in the first place — and their numerous Emmy nominations every year are evidence of that. It’s similar to how complex representation seems a lot easier to find in smaller independent movies than in big-budget blockbusters. Two things still put TV ahead, though. First, depending on where you live, it’s much easier to subscribe to a cable network than it is to see an independent movie when it’s first released. (I live in the suburbs and have experienced this firsthand.) Second, network shows might not be as high-quality or compelling as cable, but they still have a hell of a lot of female protagonists in their line-up.

Look no further than the new series premiering on network TV this season. (Our TV preview post is a good place to start.) A number of them feature female leads who also happen to be in positions of authority, from professors to detectives to politicians. The shows might not all last, and they might not all depict their heroines as richly as their cable counterparts do, but trial and error is part of progress, and normalizing female protagonists is an important step. According to one study, in the 2011-2012 season, women comprised an impressive 51.5% of lead roles in broadcast series.

TV is still far from perfect when it comes to gender representation, and there’s certainly room for improvement even in the shows I’ve praised, but the small screen is making much more obvious progress than the big screen is.

Agent Carter Captain America gun

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So let’s talk about movies, shall we? A good place to start is by looking at superhero movies, since they dominate mainstream cinema these days. But do any of those movies focus on a female superhero? Nope. They appear in supporting roles, of course, but God forbid they get a whole movie named after them. Plenty of people want a Black Widow movie, and as Jessica Chastain pointed out wonderfully last week, Scarlett Johansson is already a box office draw, so what the hell is Hollywood waiting for? Interestingly, the one female Marvel character who’s actually getting her own story — Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) — is getting it on television. TV strikes again!

Of course, you could argue that television in general is surpassing mainstream film in quality, whether you focus on gender or not. And I’d agree with that. More often than not I’d rather stay in and binge-watch a great series than go out and see whatever derivative blahfest is playing at my local theater. And as one commenter pointed out in my original post about Natalie Dormer’s quote, television also has more time — many, many hours — to develop character. That’s true, but it still doesn’t excuse unequal representation. Even if you argue that most mainstream movie characters are one-dimensional regardless of gender, can’t we at least stop relegating women to supporting roles? According to one study, in 2013 only 15% of movie protagonists were female.

And even when women are the leads, they don’t get equal screen time, even in critically acclaimed films. According to the New York Times, 2014′s lead actor Oscar nominees averaged 85 minutes on screen compared to just 57 for the lead actresses. It’s not all about the number of characters; the amount of time we spend with them is also important, and even when an actress is purportedly the lead, it appears she still doesn’t get the same attention as her male counterparts. As we just established, movies already have less time to examine character, so every second counts.

Lucy Scarlett Johansson

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The irony of this whole situation is that most of the movie-going public is female, according to an MPAA survey from earlier this year. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met a woman who objected to seeing more female representation on the big screen, so logically movie studios have an excellent opportunity to make more money right in front of them, yet they choose not to take it. So I guess I’ll just be staying in and watching TV until they get their heads out of their asses.

You can reach this post's author, Jill O’Rourke, on twitter.
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    • Sara Steinfeld

      This is so true. Elementary was actually the first thing that came to mind for me when I started reading this so I’m really glad you included it.

    • capoupascap

      Yes, so true especially on a Shonda Rhymes show. Women are always the lead characters, and it’s not always white women in the lead which is extra nice. And Christina Yang (sob, but I get it) is one of my favorite TV characters.

      • carrie thompson

        Christina Yang is an amazing character, and Sondra Oh killed in that role- I have no idea how I’m going to watch without her.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      ‘Shrewd’ is THE BEST word. I hate that it has so much in common with ‘shrewish’, but I strive to be shrewd every day of my life.

    • Abby K

      Arrow (especially season 2!) and Once Upon a Time do a pretty good job too

      • jen27

        OUAT, yes! I love love love what they’ve done with the Evil Queen/Regina. It’s just such a nuanced and better portrayal of a usually very stereotypical “bad woman” character and the fact that she can be both a “good guy” and a snarky snarky ball of awesome who rolls her eyes at schmoopy doofuses is so great.

      • A_Nicole

        agreed. Once does a great job at not painting any of the characters as ALL good or evil. But Regina is the best character on that show because of the way they write her. So good

      • jen27

        I also suspect Regina is the best because of Lana Parilla.

      • A_Nicole

        I agree. I love Lana.

    • Mockingjay

      I don’t really get why so many women complain about not enough good, strong roles for women in entertainment. I relate to plenty of characters.

    • carrie thompson

      Thinking about what I’m watching now/excited to watch this fall: Outlander, Gilmore Girls (reruns don’t count, but Gilmore Girls- c’mon! Lorelai, Rory, and Emily- three great roles), SOA (mentioned above, but Gemma Teller is the most complex character by far on that show), Veep, Parks and Rec, Parenthood, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, Mad Men (I think Peggy Olsen is the protagonist on that show- it’s about Don’s fall and Peggy’s rise)… every show I watch has at least one main female character who is interesting and complex.
      I LOVE movies, but I find that I actually go see a fraction of the movies I once saw- I want to go to the movies, but so many weeks there is literally nothing I want to see available in my small city.

      • Jill O’Rourke

        Yes, Gilmore Girls! Did you watch Bunheads? Still crying over that cancellation.

    • Jen TheTit Whipper

      I only recently found Scandal and was really impressed with Kerry Washington (I’m not sure why, she’s amazing). I hadn’t really thought much of how much better TV is at having women play a variety of roles v. the movies. I’m going to have to go netflix all of these shows now.

      • Jill O’Rourke

        It’s pretty crazy how big the difference is between the two mediums.

    • Erin

      If you haven’t already, check out Garfunkel and Oates on IFC. It’s awesome, and a wonderful example of feminism.

      • Jill O’Rourke

        They’re hilarious! I haven’t watched their show yet, but I love their songs/videos.

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