Strong Women on the Small Screen

by | April 5, 2010
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

I’m not alone in lamenting the lack of strong women characters in mainstream movies. In an interview now famous in the feminist blogosphere, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis told Jezebel that women aren’t taken seriously as moviegoers and therefore, that “women are starved for representation of themselves.”

Apparently there’s a belief out there that women don’t want to see smart, strong women as protagonists in film. box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian argued that “It’s almost as if in real life, women want to be empowered and in control, but on-screen they seem to like the old-fashioned damsel-in-distress, love-struck female.”

Now I’m not saying all women like the same type of movie, and even I have been known on occasion to stand up for the Nancy Meyers’ of the world. But I don’t buy Dergarabedian’s argument and it would be nice to see more diversity of women’s roles in Hollywood.

Dargis and others have noticed that the place we are seeing more roles for strong, competent women, is in television. And so I thought I’d list my top 5 favourite women characters on TV, in alphabetical order.

Olivia Benson

1. Olivia Benson, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

If you’re a regular follower of this blog or a friend of mine you know I’m a huge Law and Order fan, and even though the show has its issues, the series and its spinoffs have produced some great women characters, including Lt. Van Buren, Elizabeth Olivet, Jamie Ross, Tracy Kibre,  Alex Eames, and more.

But Olivia Benson, as portrayed by Mariska Hargitay, is one of the most inspiring portraits of a tough and competent women on TV. Benson has been taken up as a feminist icon by artists and bloggers because she’s the type of person who triumphs over adversity, stands up against injustice, and never blinks when she’s staring down a bad guy.

CJ Cregg

2. CJ Cregg, The West Wing

As White House Press Secretary and later Chief of Staff, CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) always stood up for herself when she felt her opinions weren’t being heard. She faced greater scrutiny in her jobs because she was a woman, but always maintained her principles and dealt with difficult situations with strength and competence. There were also several times she passionately advocated for women’s rights, as in the episode “The Women of Qumar”, for which Allison Janney won an Emmy. Unfortunately, at the end of the show the writers pushed all the women characters, including CJ, into relationships at the expense of their careers. But in the 7 years the show ran, CJ had some great moments, like this one:

For more on the other feminist characters on The West Wing, check out this analysis at ms. mam.

Major Margaret Houlihan

3. Margaret Houlihan, M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H was ahead of its time in addressing social issues. As the show evolved over its thirteen seasons, so did its characters, and the one I think had the most interesting arc was the character of Major Margaret Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit. Houlihan’s character went from being the objectified “Hot-Lips”, the butt of a joke, to being a passionate, dedicated, ambitious, and integral partner in the medical team.

In a 1976 article, Alan Alda said, “On M-A-S-H we have a very serious problem. We really would like to show women functioning as doctors, but there were none in Korea.” Luckily, they fleshed out Margaret’s character, even though there were criticisms that the show’s second-wave feminism was anachronistic to its 1950s setting.

Sun Kwono

4. Sun-Hwa Kwon, Lost

I love Lost, but it has some terrible female characters. In particular, I agree with Drew at Back of the Cereal Box that some of the other characters like Kate and Juliet just come across seeming kind of annoying and dependent.

But the character of Sun (Yunjin Kim) is one I can get behind.

Yes, recently she’s been all about finding her husband, but she does it out of a place of power and determination, not desperation. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the most interesting woman character on the show, and I’m glad she’s a candidate.

Captain Janeway

5. Kathryn Janeway, Star Trek: Voyager

I admit I was tempted not to include Captain Janeway because I’m not a fan of portrayer Kate Mulgrew’s views on abortion, but this post is about characters, not actors, and I think Captain Janeway might have been my earliest TV feminist role model.

After all, I was 10 years old when Voyager started and it was pretty damn cool to see a woman in charge of a starship, lost far from home managing to hold an entire crew together.

And like the other women on this list, she didn’t have trouble telling people what she thought:

So those are my 5, but I know there are many more. Who would you add to the list?


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