It might be that I only became hyper-sensitive about female TV characters after I had my own daughter, but I don’t think so. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t rolling my eyes over the hair-twirling, doe-eyed, boobalicious depictions of female “empowerment” in popular media, but then again, I am a product of The Age Of The Spice Girl (now, I know that it was also The Age Of Grunge, but I wasn’t bombarded with very many images of Courtney Love as I ran the gauntlet of pubescence. Probably just as well, now that I think about it).
Anyway, the message seemed to be that being obnoxiously loud, wearing a Wonderbra, and going out dancing with fourteen other girls was the essence of empowerment, which really got on my nerves, because I didn’t have fourteen girlfriends. It was more than likely the lingering discomfort of this baptism-by-Impulse-body-spray that made me such a cantankerous critic, so when I do come across a brilliant, real, intentionally likeable female character in pop culture media, I tend to expound her merits over-enthusiastically. And it’s not as if there are a shortage of real and likeable female characters on television! There are those who state that TV holds more opportunities for actresses, and they’re probably right.
Most of us have a television. For many of us, the television is on from tea time right through til bedtime. We are bombarded with information through the bloody thing, with a carousel of pretty products and powerful lifestyle options dazzling us every fifteen minutes. The ads themselves are pretty awful in terms of female characterisation – there’s the smug cow who teaches the menfolk how to use a washing machine, or the barely conscious waif offering her bones to the perfume gods. Yet, outside of the commercial breaks, you can find some brilliant ladies on prime-time television, making up, in a big way, for the amount of times I have to explain to my daughter that that’s not Cheryl’s own hair, or that subsisting on two bowls of Special K will make you malnourished rather than vivacious.
Great female characters on television are thick on the ground, but still, I think it’s a fact worth celebrating. So I thought I’d make a list!
I’ve left quite a few out, I know. In some cases I haven’t been familiar enough with the shows in question to add any of their characters, though I’ve heard people wax lyrical about this actress or that role – Mad Men, or Ugly Betty, Damages, etc. I haven’t made room for anyone too ridiculous (Patsy Stone, I love you, but you just ain’t real enough for this), anyone too martyr-like (much as it pains me to turn my back on you, Marge Simpson), or any characters who exist purely as a collection of wisecracks and whose traits change according to a pop culture Hot or Not index (yes, Lois Griffin, I’m looking at you). Nor am I including anyone who you’re not supposed to like or identify with (any of the glorious witches related to Tony Soprano by blood).
I can think of eight off the top of my head, just to get you started. Shall we crack on?
8: Donna Pinciotti – That 70s Show (Laura Prepon)
Oh, gosh, how delicious it was to have Donna Pinciotti as a female lead in a teen sitcom? She’s a outspoken, witty, and intelligent, and … and … a self-professed feminist! And not in any radical, man-hating, ridiculously over-the-top TV comedy way; Donna is self-possessed but never shrew-like, her beliefs and values merely part of who she is, neither a joke nor a burning flag to the audience. And yet, like many of us, she’s betrayed by her insecurities – her big feet, her fear of not being seen as feminine, her worries about her boyfriend’s loyalty. This makes her not only awesome, but real and flawed and very, very loveable. Donna really is a proper arse-kicking Girl Next Door.
7: Calamity Jane – Deadwood (Robin Weigert)
It’s not because Jane is such a tough cookie that I admire her. It’s because she’s such a crumbling cookie. Headstrong and foul-mouthed, she takes her place alongside the boys of Deadwood with an abrasive swagger that barely hides her insecurities, her fear of confrontation, and her heart of gold. Jane spends most of her time in Deadwood spitting and snarling, but we’re never in any doubt that she does so because she’s really not sure how else she’s supposed to fit in. She’s loyal and bright, but I think it’s when she admits to being terrified of Al Swearengen she ceased to be the stereotypical mannish broad and became someone you could really root for. A barrel of complexities and contradictions, constantly at war with herself; how could you not be on her side?
6: Clair Huxtable – The Cosby Show (Phylicia Rashād)
So yeah, Clair Huxtable was, traditionally enough, the feminine voice of reason on The Cosby Show, the calm and collected foil to her eccentric husband Cliff. This would hardly be notable if she wasn’t also professionally successful and devastatingly witty, and Cliff’s equal in every sense. Perhaps she’s not the most empathic character, for being outspoken is no “flaw”, but she’s elegant and fun and you wouldn’t be at all embarrassed about her turning up, all folded arms and raised eyebrows, at the nightclub you weren’t supposed to be at. You’d be terrified, but you wouldn’t be embarrassed. Clair was the original Mom Who Has It All, but unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, she wasn’t an insufferable knob about it.
Here she is being astoundingly awesome, reprimanding her daughter Vanessa for sneaking away to an out-of-town concert.
5: Lois Wilkerson – Malcolm In The Middle (Jane Kaczmarek)
While Clair Huxtable is admirable for being the Mom Who Has It All, Lois Wilkerson is even more admirable for being The Mom Who Knows She Can’t Have It All But Is Going To Give It A Crazed Shot Anyway. Frazzled disciplinarian is her default setting, but she can’t see any other way to act when she’s mother to five sons and one extremely childish husband. And if frazzled disciplinarian is what she has to be, then by golly, she’s going to do it in the most rambunctious way possible. She’s a hard-working realist who’s far too hot-headed and yes, at times outright tyrannical to ever play victim, and because of this she’s both the heart of the show and the funniest character in it. I don’t wish she was my mother. But who said mothers are supposed to be perfect?
4: Sybil Fawlty – Fawlty Towers (Prunella Scales).
God, I love Sybil. I’ve loved her since I was a wee girl. I think she was my first real ranting inspiration; that scrumptiously scathing dressing-down she gives errant builder O’Reilly is one of the finest monologues ever filmed, I’m sure of it. And yet Sybil is much more than just a sharp-tongued bitch. Yes, she shows very little in the way of affection towards her husband Basil, but you can understand why. She’s extremely hardworking, professional, and self-reliant, much-loved by the guests, her staff, and her social circle; it’s only Basil that can no longer appreciate her for the gem she is. It’s implied that she’s working class, but she strives towards a better life by working hard, not by hanging on to her social superiors like her “aging, Brilliantine stick-insect” husband. The queen of the put-downs? That, and a whole lot more.
3: Claire Dunphy – Modern Family (Julie Bowen)
Claire is … dun dun DUUNNNN … a homemaker. She is a Mammy. That is what she does. But oh Lord, does she do it well. She’s protective of her children (and equally so of her hapless husband Phil), always concerned about making the right decisions for her family’s welfare, always trying to create the perfect home environment. It’s that she fails as often as succeeds that makes her so likeable. I’m not sure if any other contemporary character defines the challenges of modern motherhood quite as brilliantly; there’s a bit of all of us in Claire. She’s a nagging perfectionist who knows it. She’s a vixen who’s often gut-wrenchingly scuppered in her attempts to show it by her husband’s dim-wittedness and her soccer mom status. She’s an intelligent, reasonable woman constantly at odds with the insecure girl she keeps failing to hide from the audience. She is adorable.
2: Fran Katzenjammer – Black Books (Tamsin Greig)
Black Books is an absurd TV show. Bernard staples betting slips to Manny’s hands so he won’t lose them. Manny accidentally ingests The Little Book of Calm and turns alarmingly Messiah-like. But Fran is not as ludicrous as either of her male associates. She’s a very real person in a very strange world and that’s what makes her so bloody fun. Fran is kind, clever, manipulative, sarcastic, resourceful, impatient, unforgiving … the kind of train wreck you hope never, ever changes. She doesn’t settle down with either male lead (although it’s hinted that she had a brief sexual encounter with Bernard that she now won’t allow him to remember). She doesn’t have boyfriend issues (she’d rather just have sex). She doesn’t behave in a manner befitting of a lady; though she frequently tries to infuse her life with more respectability, prettier things, healthier pursuits, she always gives it all up ten minutes later in extreme irritation to return to her boozy, grouchy ways. Which of us can’t identify with that? I must moisturise more often. I must do yoga. I must take up a class. Oh, fuck it, I’ll just have this bottle of Shiraz and bitch with my best friend instead. And I love the fact that her best friend is a straight man on whom she has no designs whatsoever.
1: Turanga Leela – Futurama (Katey Sagal)
Futurama’s Leela is the least cartoony cartoon hero there ever was and probably ever will be. In fact, the only cartoonish thing about her is the fact that she has one eye and … well, was conceived by Matt Groening. Captain of the Planet Express delivery ship, pretty much because she was the only competent person around when her boss was doling out roles, Leela is your typical strong, independent chica – straight-talking, capable, athletic, a literal ass-kicker. She’s also vulnerable. Now, I know that the strong woman who’s also vulnerable is a grating cliché, but what I love about Leela is that she’s never vulnerable enough to stick with a shitty relationship because she’s afraid to be alone. She’s happy to boot a guy to the kerb (again, literally) if he doesn’t share her intrinsic decency; she refused lovelorn, slobbish Fry for years because she knew he wasn’t good enough for her. And for all her straight talking, she still has enough patience with her privileged friend Amy not to kick her into the teeth when she’s being condescending. Oh, and she had pity sex with Zapp Brannigan. And has regretted it horribly ever since. We’ve all been there, love!
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