Battle of the Sexes, Part 1: How Has the Fall TV Season Treated "Empowered" Women?

Each new TV season brings with it a whole new batch of trends, as market researchers and studio executives try to determine what's still cool a few years after it first became cool. The TV business isn't about anticipating trends, after all—it's about milking existing trends until they're snuffed out of existence.

The two major themes of the fall 2011 season, both of which deal with gender, are as dimorphic as could be. Women are supposedly kicking ass in positions of power, while men are sniveling wimps, struggling to retain their last ounce of masculinity. We'll discuss the guys next week, after ABC's sack-less bros Last Man Standing and Man Up have both debuted. For now, let's take a look at four network shows that attempted the "strong women" sell and see how they did.



The Playboy Club
The Background: From the instant NBC announced this now-canceled show, it had a double-D-sized target on its chest. Set in the legendary 1960s Chicago gentleman's club, it featured hot ladies dressed as the iconic Playboy Bunny while horny men leered and pawed at their fluffy tails, plus late-night scenes of the ladies wearing PJs and talking about their aspirations at bedtime.
The Promise: In an effort to deflect negative criticism that said Playboy Club was the softest of soft porn, showrunner Chad Hodge make the mistake of saying the show was "all about empowering, and who these women can be, and how they can use their position to get what they want."
What We Got: Ehh, wrong! The Playboy Club ended up being Showgirls with neither charming camp nor nudity, and most of the Bunnies' aspirations centered on making money while they were still young and pretty. Also, stabbing a person in the throat with a stiletto is a poor metaphor for female empowerment. Give her a shotgun or a baseball bat, and then we'll talk! Hodge eventually came to his senses and admitted that "there was a perception that we were trying to do something politically ambitious or make a statement or make this a show about empowering women, which sounds super boring to me." Gee, I wonder how they got that idea?
Final Judgment: Made as much progress for XX chromosome-carriers as "Two Girls, One Cup."



Pan Am
The Background: Also set in the 1960s, this ABC drama/soap follows Pan Am airlines during its heyday, when attractive women were freed from the kitchen to pour drinks for customers en route to exotic locales. There was early hubbub about a promotional scene that showed the ladies getting fitted for girdles.
The Promise: Star Christina Ricci said, “There is this misconception because, in reality, the job allowed these women to have a freedom that they weren’t given in a regular role in life at this time. Yes, they had to pass through girdle checks and grooming checks, but they were then allowed to travel freely and see the world in a way that other people didn’t, and be in charge of their own lives in a way that other women didn’t have.”
What We Got: Admittedly, something pretty close to what Ricci promised; her character in particular is close to being a good role model as she challenges the status quo and uses silverware to stab people who aggressively come on to her in the flight cabin. Plus, Pan Am has a female spy, which is a lot better than a woman dressed in slutty bunny gear.
Final Judgment: Prim and proper, but not afraid to speak its mind. Or stab you with a fork.



Charlie's Angels
Background: The original series about sexy female superspies helped revive the poster industry in the 1970s, thanks to a young blonde Farrah Fawcett. The show was sexualized, campy, and goofy. ABC's new version vowed not to be campy or retro and give its characters "dark" backstories.
The Promise: Showrunner Miles Millar said "[The original Angels were] superheroes for girls ... [the new show will] bring to the table more grounded, more real [characters]." To be fair, this show didn't promise to empower women like Pan Am or The Playboy Club, but it clearly ran on a platform of strong, ass-kicking hotties.
What We Got: Charlie's Angels' biggest problem was is that it took takes itself too seriously (sorry for the past tense; I'm already anticipating cancellation). As a result, we're forced to accept that what happens on the show is real and exactly what the series wants to portray. The ladies do a good job of playing up the ditzy female stereotype while they're undercover, but that sometimes bleeds into their normal lives (Cosmo talk!) and kills the idea that they're not glorified Carrie Bradshaws with kicks and punches. Plus, they went undercover as runway models in the second episode—pretty objectifying, don't you think? Still, Charlie's Angels got lumped into the "female empowerment" category when the media (like me!) started talking about this season's trends, so I don't think we can complain too much about mixed messages. As for the dialogue and the acting... eesh!
Final Judgment: The ladies are great role models for a future generation of poster-bait.



Prime Suspect
The Backstory: Based on the critically lauded UK series of the same name, NBC's Americanized take started with a preexisting blueprint for a strong female character (and one who was originally played by strong female, Helen Mirren, at that). Maria Bello stars as "tough as nails" detective Jane Timoney, who must fight for respect in a male-dominated police precinct.
The Promise: While promoting the show, Bello said, "I hadn’t read a woman like this on television before who was so complex and strong and quirky and self-possessed...."
What We Got: Exactly that. Bello is a powerful actress and does the role justice. Timoney goes a step beyond "empowered woman" and can jump straight into bitch territory, but it works; she's probably the strongest new female lead on television this year. She's not portrayed as a female, she's portrayed as a human being, with gender issues stemming from external sources.
Final Judgment: Of course it takes a British remake to get a strong dame on American TV.


Overall, a pretty expected turnout from show that claim to treat ladies like they ought to be treated. Half the shows actually made small strides, the other half used "female empowerment" as an excuse to get some T&A; on the air.

What do you think of TV's "empowered women" trend? What shows have gotten it right or wrong?


Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

Comments (28)
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Empowerment be damned! Surveys are still conducted to see how many women are breaking through the glass ceiling in North America.

As for the shows: I ditched Charlie's Angels after 1 episode. I'm not totally happy with Pan Am (maybe it needs Leo DiCaprio).

Without doubt Prime Suspect is the best of the new shows. I am a bit disappointed though that they didn't stick to the original British premise for the lead character. Or, am I just remembering the later episodes where Helen Mirren was in charge of the Division? Don't remember her as a plain lower-ranking detective. Also, given the issues the male members of the squad had when Jane transferred in, they came around too quickly. All but one perhaps. Still a good show, though. I will be sticking around.
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If people want empowered women they need to move to F/X for viewing. Gemma Teller-Morrow, Tara Teller, Sweet Dee Reynolds, Mags Bennett, Jenny MacArthur, Lana Kane, Malory Archer - these are empowered female characters and would grind into the ground with their heels any of the characters mentioned in this article.
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Malory Archer is brilliant. And so is Lana Kane.
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Ok, first thing first.. I really don't know why but I am hooked with pan am (it's probably Christina Ricci ) Second, I really liked The playboy club but when I heard that it's going to get cancelled I stopped watching it... And third and last, Wtf with Charllie's Angels. That show is just a bad remake. The characters except the one from the roommate, which is the only believable one, are wrong for the part. First of all they think they are in a sex and the city episode - the actress from grey's annoys me a bid..., budget is very low for this type of show and there's something seriously wrong with charlie's voice. Even though I would like this show to be great, is not and I don't think is long before they cancel it.
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Expecting empowered women from 2 60's based shows is either asking for an imaginary tale or glaring inaccuracies from the timeperiod.

Prime Suspect's Bello is more cartoon than character. Need to lose the Kojak Hat & raincoat and make her OWN mark.
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Because a woman on television is wearing something other than high heels and a tight leather jacket in the workplace, she's a cartoon? Oookay.
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I don't care if she wears a BURQA every day, just make it her OWN and not a costume joke.
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Prime Suspect has been simply Awesome. The rest....fluff
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You forgot Hart Of Dixie! LOL.



Prime Suspect is good. Pan Am is watchable (at least until it's cancelled, probably in two weeks). Charlies Angels is the worst new show (that isn't a sitcom). The Playboy Club should have gone all out for the audience is was always going to attract... men. Put it on later, ramp up the language and violence and throw in that nudity we all crave these days, but it was NBC rather than HBO or Showtime - what a shame. Having said that I would probably have kept watching it as-it-was if it hadn't have been cancelled.
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Somehow..the only one I see going to have a 2nd season will be Prime Suspect. US Remake..well..It sure differs from the original UK version, but still good. As for Pan Am and The Angels they wil both use their wings and fly away...
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Really liked Prime Suspect. Maria Bello and the rest of the cast are great.



Didn't watch any of the other shows.
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though they were summer series, both The Closer and Rizzoli&Isles had female leads and represent empowered women perfectly.. Charlie's Angel is a bad, bad show, not because how it portrays women, but just because it is badly scripted and acted..
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I'm LOVING Prime Suspect. Maria Bello is doing an excellent job and I think the casting is great. I have a backlog of Pan Am episodes that I haven't watched yet... Will hopefully get around to that soon. I watched one episode of Charlie's Angels and that's about all I'll watch. I didn't even bother with The Playboy Club.
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Tim forgot Ringer, Secret Circle, Revenge and Unforgettable, and Homeland all new dramas headed by women.

Not to mention the comedies The New Girl, Whitney, 2 Broke Girls, and Up All Night. Christina Applegate is basically the star (since we follow her work life and her friends) with Arnet playing "the husband". All those sitcoms have women in strong roles or trying to empower themselves. Except, interestingly, the The New Girl.



I would say Pan Am is the best of these, esp after this past Berlin/JFK episode. The show is finally finding its voice.



Charlie's Angels is a mindless guilty pleasure. I only dislike Bosley and the Minka chick. The other two are fine. I would rather they take themselves seriously and be more like the original show than be like those horrible movies
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Prime Suspect and Maria Bello are awesome!!
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Anyone watch "Against the Wall"? Not only do they break from the usual crime procedural by focusing on an Internal Affairs detective whose entire family are cops, but she's a real type of woman. She's strong willed, has the tomboyesque quality being the only girl growing up with three brothers, but she has the girl next door quality too.



Other than that, I have yet to see Prime Suspect but I hear nothing but good things and hope to catch up on it soon. The others I just don't see the empowered female bit...and I am equally annoyed at the pathetic men showing up on tv too...They can empower women on shows without emasculating men...even as a woman it's hard to watch that. LOL
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Prime Suspect is really, really good. It takes a few episodes for it to get into stride, but let's be honest here, what show doesn't? The entire cast is top notch, writing is excellent, and Maria Bello's Jane Timoney is one of the best woman television characters, police detectives or otherwise, I have seen on television in years.
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Leverage:Parker. Beth Riegrasf is the best on TV.
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PA is the best of them all, they do that show very well, and according to many interviews, it is very close to the real thing at that time. And I love the 60's style shooting.

Oh, Maggie Q and Grace Park, the coolest women on TV!
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Olivia Dunham

Nikita

...

BADASS women!
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The first shows to get full-season pickups included New Girl, Whitney, and 2 Broke Girls... I guess the girls are doing OK. The Playboy Club MIGHT have stood a chance if it had used a fictionalized Playboy Club instead of the real one; instead the show's success hinged on the Playboy brand which is clearly in (substantial) decline. Charlie's Angels never stood a chance. Pan Am suffers from the fact that there hasn't BEEN a Pan Am for most if not all of the viewing public's adult lifetime. Today's TV viewer is more familiar with Oceanic Airlines than Pan Am. Like TPC, it was another victim of poor branding; I would have called the show something like "Concourse D".
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Best female badass on TV: Katherine Pierce. Hands down.
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Am I the only one that really digged "The Protector", I really enjoyed Ally Walker.
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If there is one badass woman in TV, it has to be Olivia Dunham.
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Staff
I agree with this statement.
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less emphasis on gender more emphasis on plot please...why can't we just be human beings instead of male and female???
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We can't "just be human beings" because our gender is built in, and deeply affects our world view and sense-of-life. That, in a nutshell, is my problem with "Prime Suspect," which portrays a woman who's more gruffly manly than any of the men in the show. (In fact, the men are painted as either wimps or frothing idiots -- or both.) Every second we have to spend watching the needless nagging and straining based on anti-women silliness -- is a precious second taken from the advancement of the real plot: solving crimes with tenacity, ingenuity, and guts. All that gender-battle stuff bores me to death.
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I agree with your sentiment, but sadly, it is still necessary to have articles like these. Despite advances in Women's Rights over the decades, the world is still patriarchal. Until we, as a society, can better balance ourselves, we need to examine and point out social inequality. Not just for Women, but all social minorities.
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