Friday, January 16, 2015

The CW & Its Leading Women: What the Network Is Doing Right

In recent years, the term "strong female character" has become a buzz-y phrase to toss around during interviews and convention panels. The problem, of course, is that people use the phrase without understanding what it actually means. They justify every female character on a television screen or a movie or a book by labeling them as a "strong female." Let me excerpt a piece from my Strong Women Series opening post where I discussed this particular phrase and its definition:
In order to explain what a strong female is, let me first explain what she is NOT: a woman is not strong because she wields a weapon; a woman can be strong if she wields a weapon but that is not what classifies her as "strong." A strong woman is not someone who merely serves to overpower men or take their positions of authority. In example: Oliver Queen still has near-ultimate authority in Team Arrow, but Felicity Smoak is a strong female character without ever directly opposing him or overpowering his position as "leader." A strong female character is not just a person who yells or who sits on a throne or who knows how to put a man in a headlock. We tend to think of "strong" as a masculine term which is problematic when we attach it to the phrase "female character," because then the presumption is that a woman has to have the physical strength or stamina or attributes that a man does in order to be worthy of the term. (And this is understandable because when you look up the word "strong" in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, the first definition references physical strength.)
But what if... what if the phrase "strong, female character" simply meant "a complex, multi-layered female character who does not serve as a prop for a story, but an anchor." Strong women can be vulnerable. Wow, that's shocking, right? Strong women can be romantic. Again: are you surprised? Strength is not inherently tied to invincibility, nor should it be. A woman should be considered strong if she triumphs in the face of adversity, no matter what that looks like. She should be considered strong if she is flawed -- if she falls and makes mistakes and sometimes says the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong moment. A woman should be considered strong if she changes the course of her own future and destiny. A woman should be considered strong if she allows herself to love and to be loved because when you fall in love, you are allowing yourself to be open and vulnerable and that kind of decision requires enormous strength.
Strength doesn't derive from muscles and it doesn't derive from a woman's stubbornness or her agility. And just because a woman is labeled as a heroine or a protagonist doesn't necessarily mean she's strong either (see: Bella Swan from Twilight or Karen Cartwright on Smash or Rachel Berry in the more recent seasons of Glee). No, strength means diversity. It means vulnerability. It means layers. Most importantly though, strength in a female character means that she is flawed. It means that she makes mistakes. Women can be strong and also compassionate. Women can be strong and in love. Feminist portrayals of women in television (as that's the medium I'll be focusing on throughout this post) are simply portrayals of women having feelings, actions, and thoughts that are considered to be of equal degree of importance and relevance as that of the male characters. In order for a woman to be considered a "strong female character," in my opinion, she has to be treated with respect both from the writers of the show -- her actions need to have consequences; her words need to occasionally be right and occasionally be wrong. And most important of all, she needs to be more than just a prop to elevate a male character.

Too often, female characters on television are relegated to the role of "companion." (This isn't a slam on Doctor Who, by any means, as I think for the most part it does a good job of portraying women as human, flawed, but believable and ultimately redeemable.) A woman on a television show shouldn't have to exist or -- conversely -- cease to exist so that a male character can have a story. (That's a criticism I know has floated around a lot in terms of the character of Beth Greene in The Walking Dead recently.) Female characters shouldn't exist as props, but they also shouldn't exist as just shells or shades, either.

The problem with writers is that they often write strong moments for women without then bothering to follow through and actually dare to write strong women.

Example: Annie Edison on Community and Clara Oswald on Doctor Who are both women who have moments of strength on their respective series. Annie "shoots" Jeff while telling him how much he hurt her in "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design." Clara Oswald jumped into a time stream to save The Eleventh Doctor. And Clara's stood up to others a lot in the series but the problem with both women in their writing is that the writers don't bother to follow through with those moments of strength in characterization and, as a result, end up creating one-off moments of defiance/strength/bravery. Annie regresses in Community and progresses for the sake of "conflict" in a story arc. In "Anthropology 101," Annie Edison -- after displaying an entire year of growth and maturity in her final conversation with Jeff before their kiss in the season finale -- suddenly became a giggling schoolgirl, obsessed with twirling her hair and talking about boys. What had happened was that the writers needed a source of conflict for the episode and decided to regress Annie's character to serve their arc. What happened was that her character never really recovered the rest of the series as a result.

Similarly, the writers needed a source of conflict for Clara this season on Doctor Who. And instead of writing a thoughtful, interesting, layered character, they chose to reduce her to an obsessive, whining, indecisive character who treated The Twelfth Doctor horribly (lying to him repeatedly, stabbing him in the back emotionally and then deciding in the end that she really did "care about him") in order to provide "conflict." That's lazy writing because it undoes all of the progress and development that Clara made. Unfortunately in both instances, women who were once strong were leveled in favor of a rather lame source of conflict.

It's difficult to find well-written women on television because inevitably, writers find it easier to use them as props or pawns and treat them as such than value them as human beings and tell their stories, genuinely. But recently, I've discovered one network that has really impressed me in its portrayal of real, varied, strong women: The CW.

I'll be the first to admit that over the years, I've been rather judgemental of the network. After all, this was the place that was home to Gossip Girl, 90210, and re-runs of basically every syndicated sitcom. I thought it to be the place where soapy teen dramas hung out and honestly, for a few years, that WAS the network's calling card. But recently, The CW has piqued my interest because of how real, gritty, and diverse it has become especially in its portrayal of women and their stories. The network has provided some of the best and most honest (and compelling) storytelling on television these days.

Something else of interest (and primarily why I'm writing this post): the network has had an array of female-led series over the past few years, probably more than any other broadcast network at the moment (except maybe ABC and that upswing in women representation is thanks in large part to one Shonda Rimes):

  • Jane the Virgin*
  • Reign*
  • The 100*
  • iZombie**
  • Hart of Dixie*
  • The Carrie Diaries
  • Beauty and the Beast*
  • The Vampire Diaries*
  • The Messengers**
  • Emily Owens, M.D.
* currently airing
** airing in 2015

Interestingly enough, too, Gina Rodriguez won the Golden Globe this year for her portrayal of Jane Villanueva in Jane the Virgin -- the network was the ONLY broadcast network to win an award that evening and it was their first ever award. My prediction? More recognition for the network in the future because of this and because they're beginning to house some of the best shows on television.

So what, exactly, is the network doing right? Why the sudden upswing in quality and writing? Do you think it has anything to do with the fact that this network houses more shows with female protagonists leading their casts than virtually any other broadcast television network, as I noted above? Even if you eliminate the shows cancelled in 2013 from the list above (of which there are only two, you'll notice), The CW will house, this year alone, EIGHT series in which a female character is considered either the lead of the series or the main protagonist. The majority of the list above has a woman as the first-billed member of the cast, as well.

The CW is placing its faith in women and in varied women and in varied STORIES about varied women, which is -- quite frankly -- so utterly refreshing.

As I noted above, Gina Rodriguez won the Golden Globe this year for portraying a beautiful, strong, complex young woman named Jane Villanueva. Make no mistake about it -- Gina is absolutely stunning in this role. She's one of the most compelling and engaging women on television these days as Jane because Jane is GOOD. She's a genuinely kind and positive character. She's not a saint, though. She makes mistakes. She messes up. She often says and does the wrong thing. But she desperately cares about the people in her life and fights for her own happiness and the happiness of others. Strong characters are often just average women who live ordinary lives and who fight for what they want with grace, strength, and occasional stubbornness. The network placed so much faith in a series that stars a young woman who has no superpowers, who doesn't fight monsters, and who simply lives her life with all of its complexities and finds her way toward love and a better sense of self. That is so beautiful and encouraging, is it not? 

Additionally, Jane the Virgin doesn't just portray Jane well -- I love that they're portraying complexities in all of their women: in Xo, who struggles to find her own happiness while protecting Jane's; in Jane's abuela, who is a kind-hearted, faithful woman who's not made to be the butt of jokes but is respected and revered even though her beliefs don't coincide with the societal norms; and in Petra who is a seemingly manipulative, shrewd character but who is not written off simply as a villain -- her vulnerabilities and complexities are given weight in the series, too.

Even though they're not listed above because the protagonists of their series are men, The Flash and Arrow have done stellar work recently in regards to its portrayal of women as both strong and also complex. I talked extensively about Arrow's diverse portrayal of women in the article linked at the beginning of the post (of manipulative, complex ones like Moira Queen and unsuspecting, loving, strong ones like Felicity Smoak), but I realized when the series crossed over with The Flash exactly how refreshing it was to see both series treat women as heroes, as equals, and not adversaries. When Iris and Felicity meet, neither woman talks down to the other. They're not presented as rivals for Barry's affection (thank God) or adversaries. And when Felicity shows up to trivia night in a stunning dress, rather than make a snide comment, Iris tells her how pretty she looks and talks to Barry about how wonderful Felicity is as a person. You don't see that too often on television series, really: women genuinely complimenting each other without a hint of bitterness; women presented as friends rather than rivals for a romantic interest.

(And Iris herself, while still a bit underdeveloped for my liking, is such a great character because of her charisma, her charm, and her intelligence. She's not someone who passively exists -- she actively participates in her life.)

And when we witness women in the crossover event between The Flash and Arrow, we are able to see three uniquely strong women fight when the lair is invaded. Lyla, Caitlin, and Felicity are attacked and instead of presenting them as weak, passive characters and instead of causing them to need rescue by a man and instead of presenting all of their strengths as identical, the show manages to do what it does best when it presents women: exemplify their varied strengths. Lyla, a trained fighter and soldier, immediately combats their enemy while Caitlin and Felicity hide. Caitlin's medical training and expertise allows her to save Lyla's life when the women gets hit with a boomerang and begins to lose consciousness. And Felicity? That blonde IT girl who wears heels and pretty jewelry? She has more strength within her than just the ability to know how to ping someone's phone -- even through her fear and panic, she thinks on her feet and manages to grab one of Oliver's exploding arrows to throw at the intruder before he vanishes. What Arrow did in that moment was take three very different women and present them as equals -- as people who needed each other and who were strong not because they each possessed the same strengths but because they were DIFFERENT.

I love that The Flash has a doctor on it and she's a young woman -- a woman who is logical and extremely intelligent, but who is also extremely emotional and nuanced; who believes in things that defy logic and falls in love and hurts. I love that Arrow and The Flash crossed over because I think that collectively, the shows have some of the best and most interesting women on television -- women who are heroes. Women who are flawed. Women who are needed by men, not because they're beautiful or valued for their skills but because they're genuinely respected and valued as human beings. And I love (absolutely cannot state this enough) how both shows portray female friendships. Caitlin and Felicity are friends, even though both women are extremely different. They value each other and admire each other. Iris doesn't see people as threats but as potential friends and sources of happiness. Felicity sees other people as human beings, not lists of strengths and weaknesses. How The CW is doing things right: it's hiring male and female writers who treat women as individuals, who believe that their stories deserve to be told, and who strive to tell them honestly and well.

You also have shows on this network like The 100 (which I've literally just started watching and admittedly have only seen the pilot episode of) -- a series in which the protagonist is a young woman, but one who is compassionate, logical, and selfless. She's a natural-born leader and someone who is also a natural-born caretaker. What I already find interesting about this series is that I've made the mistake of comparing it to The Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies in my head when I can tell that it's not and that Clarke is no Katniss Everdeen.

That's actually a good thing, really, that Clarke isn't Katniss. I love Katniss. I think she's a hero and a rebel and she enters the games in order to protect Prim. But given the choice between saving herself and saving someone else, a majority of the time Katniss would choose herself. She's not a nurturer by nature. She's a loner. She closes herself off to the people around her because of the destruction she's witnessed people do to one another. Before Clarke is sent to Earth, her mother warns her, saying that Clarke will need to fight her natural instinct to protect people and instead concentrate on protecting herself. And here's where Clarke is already such an interesting and compelling character to me -- she can't. She can't do that. She can't shut the part of her brain off that impulsively protects people. She's smart. She's resourceful. She wants to save people who don't even deserve to be saved. And she's fighting precisely for them, not just for herself. I love that Clarke isn't this stoic, unfeeling, relentlessly defiant heroine. I love that she's compassionate and kind. I love that she's already displayed grace and anger and detachment and concern. I love that she's, within the one episode I've watched, become so compelling that I'm genuinely interested in her journey as a woman and a heroine.

Isn't it refreshing that The CW gives a home to stories about women? Reign is another example of a series on the network that focuses on telling stories about women -- varied women -- and their relationships with each other and men; with their struggles and their successes. It gives weight to their journeys, not dismissing them. And it gives purpose to women, too. This network has flourished recently because it provides a home for female characters to grow -- for those who are zombies, who are vampires, who are post-apocalyptic teenagers, for those who are Latina, for those who are doctors and IT geniuses and reporters and lawyers, for those who are single mothers, for those who are gay, for those who love fashion, and for those who are still trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.

No other network these days takes complex female characters and says "you matter" quite like The CW. Oh, yes, I don't mean to dismiss network and cable television -- you will find beautifully nuanced, intensely complex and deeply layered women on other networks, too. You'll find Leslie Knope on NBC and Jessica Day on FOX and Dr. Joan Watson on CBS and Emma Swan on ABC. But The CW is giving other networks on broadcast and cable competition -- they've welcomed flawed women in with open arms, told them that they are home, and asked them to sit and stay for a while and to share their stories.

Women aren't always glamorous. Stories about women don't have to be. They can involve love. They can choose to not. They can involve women wielding weapons and training to fight bad guys. They can involve women going about their normal jobs as waitresses or students or teachers. The important thing to remember about women is this: we're all different. We're not easily relegated to boxes -- "the mother" or "the pretty one" or "the nerd" or "the love interest" -- nor should we be. The moment a writer chooses to shove a character into a box or use her to prop up a male-dominated story or a character (either male or female, really), that is the moment a potentially strong woman becomes shackled and muzzled.

The CW is leading the way in providing audiences with gritty, real women who are taking over televisions and audiences' affections. As a woman and a writer, I honestly couldn't be more thrilled and I eagerly anticipate more of these stories in the future.


  1. I never thought of the CW as a TV network that celebrates women but the truth is it always has, from Gilmore girls to Jane the Virgin. It has never tooted its horn to win the feminist ticket which I think is a nice thing. I guess it was something they knew we would figure out in the end.

    1. I never thought of The CW either as a network that celebrates the diversity of women but then you look at all the shows they house and you realize that they totally and completely DO. I think you're right though -- they don't brag about how diverse they are; they let their shows and characters do the bragging for them. ;)