Real Women vs. “Catfights”: Can Good TV Eat Bad?

11 Oct 2013

real vs catty

CBS’ Person of Interest deserves kudos, not only for sharp writing, but for the way its female characters are treated and portrayed. The show’s producers go to the head of the class for adding new series regulars: Sarah Shahi as an uber-capable government agent, Amy Acker as a soft-spoken, enigmatic sociopath in addition to Taraji P. Henson’s even-handed policewoman and the fabulous Paige Turco, in a recurring role as a mysterious upscale “fixer” who saves the day in a pinch.

Here’s what’s great about these ladies: they are not window dressing for men or just romantic interests. They are not victims, damsels in distress nor are they b*tches without a cause or flibbertigibbets. They have their own lives and story lines. On this week’s episode, three of these ladies were undercover as decoys and dressed as “eye candy,” as it were. Yet their outfits, while still sexy, were elegant rather than trashy.

The scene revealing their wardrobe focused on sharp humor and character development, not prurience. They were not dressed in stilettos and a hankie. Brava. And bravo to the show’s creators and writers for not insulting the audience by stooping to such tactics. Better still, the three women, working as a team for the first time in this episode, found they liked, respected and supported each other.

Mention must also be given to FOX’s Justified. In its second season, the arch villain was written for a man, but producers entertained a different idea. Instead the part was given to, or I should say, earned by, the magnificent Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for her portrayal of a diabolical backwoods matriarch. Rent this if you’ve not seen her performance. The entire season is brilliant. Everyone on the show from Tim Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Erica Tazel to Joelle Carter and Walton Goggins, is wonderful – but Martindale steals it. She proved you can be 65 years old and pull in high ratings – in overalls and construction boots.

TNT’s Perception allows female lead Rachael Leigh Cook an unglamorous hairdo and focuses instead on plot and character. The long-running NCIS just lost the wonderful Cote de Pablo, who spent eight seasons in a pair of blah jeans and flats, albeit with great hair.

ABC’s Castle, offering lighter procedural fare, is fun because of the cast’s chemistry. Female lead, Stana Katic, dresses in (somewhat) comfortable shoes, making her detective work more believable. While she’s gorgeous and would look good in a potato sack, that is still better than the recently cancelled Body of Proof or CSI: Miami, featuring coroners and techs showing up at crime scenes to examine blood-soaked murder victims teetering in seven-inch heels or almost unnavigable tight pants and “booby” shirts. This makes women look like fools. No woman in a professional setting would present herself that way if she wanted to be taken seriously.

To argue it’s just entertainment and ‘who cares’ misses the point. We internalize what bombards us daily, consciously or not. Pretending that a women with a medical degree cares more for her Manolo Blahniks than doing her job not only feeds a stereotype, but detracts from the entertainment value. It stops the action since the behavior is so bloody goofy that an audience member feels forced to comment on its absurdity. And who looks absurd?

Cheryl Ni, in a report detailing the Portrayal of Women in the Media offered compelling evidence that little had changed from J.C. McNeil’s findings almost 40 years ago that “female characters are fewer in number and less central to the plot; employed women are shown in traditionally female occupations, as subordinates to men and with little status or power; and female characters are more passive than male characters.”

Positive portrayals of women, or even villainous women who are three-dimensional characters as mentioned in Person of Interest and Justified are still rare, and often overtaken by the mudslinging of reality TV – fare designed to stoke confrontation, offering train wrecks to rapt viewers.

As Forbes’ Cheryl Isaac detailed in a troubling piece, “What Reality TV is Doing to Women,” these programs paint women as “frenemies,” and get sky-high ratings by promoting, even baiting “girl fights,” “catfights” and “bullying” a la Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and cast members slapping each other, as in Basketball Wives. Per Ms. Isaac, these shows also telegraph that one woman becoming successful drives other women away, and that her “change” is perceived as a negative.

Recent seasons offered a spate of shows with “b*tch” in the title. We already have a far too deep a preoccupation with Snooki, “Real” (to whom?) Housewives, Miley Cyrus’ “twerking” and Kim Kardashian’s booty gyrations. We can’t be surprised when young girls, desperate for acceptance and attention, take example from this behavior and imitate it.

It’s refreshing to see at least a few characters who illustrate that men and women can work side by side as professionals in an atmosphere of respect. This is much needed counter programming to the grotesque backbiting we see elsewhere.

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Originally published on EPIC TIMES

Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin, a shocking exposé deconstructing the biased media narrative plaguing women who dare to lead.  #1 on Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.

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