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

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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 writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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