DVR Alert: Talking women and TV on NBC’s The Today Show, Sat 8:30(ish) am, EST

What do women want? According to a recent Wall Street Journal article (“The Girl with the Gun”), the answer is violence. Lots of bloody violence.

I’m not so sure, as I’ll be discussing on NBC’s The Today Show this Saturday morning, 9/4 (tomorrow) some time within the 8:30 to 9am EST block. It will be a three to four minute segment, so I’m not sure how much we’ll be able to cover. But I can promise you one thing: I will be mentioning Buffy

The WSJ piece, pegged to new network market research findings, insists that women want to see lots of tough women in violent action and crime dramas, the gorier and more gruesome the better. I think this is a misinterpretation of the findings, and a misunderstanding of women’s motivations and desires as viewers.

Women want to see complex, strong female characters living self-defined lives, standing up for themselves and one another, and contrary to what the WSJ and network execs claim, this is not a particularly new desire on the part of female viewers. That’s always been in evidence, from the female fan bases of Wonder Woman and Cagney & Lacey in the 1970s, to Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the 1990s, to Alias, Veronica Mars and The Closer this decade. These have all been hugely popular with women; some as breakout bona fide network hits, others as cult favorites.

The idea that female viewers’ desire to see translates to women only wanting heavily violent action series is reductionist. More to the point, it reflects a lack of creative vision on the part of TV programmers. If women were given more options of nuanced, interesting, three-dimensional female characters in series in which women have agency outside of police and action genre shows, my guess is they’d watch, in large numbers. That is, assuming such shows were well written, the networks promoted the shows and gave them enough time on the dial to develop an audience, and didn’t bounce them all over the dial, as Fox did when they killed the dearly-departed Firefly. Audiences like well written, interesting stories, and women especially like to see self-defined, intriguing female characters who aren’t stuck in the According to Jim-esque mold of put-upon (yet gorgeous) wife to schlubby, obnoxious husband, and are more than just pretty, innocuous schoolgirls, girlfriends, moms, maids, secretaries, and sassy sidekicks–or, worse, victims on crime shows and pathetic, desperate, bimbo idiots on reality shows. Considering the look of the TV landscape, is it any surprise that female viewers are expressing interest in the one stock character that escapes those ruts: the kickass action babe?

The problem with the WSJ article — and with the network programmers who decide what entertainment options we get to choose from — is that they don’t realize that the options they’ve given female viewers are profoundly limited. When we can’t seem to find many examples of strong, interesting, well-defined female characters outside of action and procedural crime genre shows, we’ll watch these over obnoxiously-written sitcoms, dramas and reality shows. This doesn’t mean we want more violence: it means we want more female agency.

Not that I don’t appreciate a well-crafted action show. Long-time WIMN’s Voices readers know that I have a long-term love affair with Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (as do other WIMN’s Voices bloggers), a show centered around several powerful female characters who saved girls from date rapists, thwarted all manner of demonic threats, and prevented too many apocalypses to count–and still found time to do their homework, go to parties, and have boyfriends (and, in the case of computer geek-turned-megawitch Willow, girlfriends). I was so impressed with the combination of physical strength, intelligence, diplomacy, friendship and humor employed by the characters of Xena and traveling bard Gabrielle that I dressed up as Xena: Warrior Princess for Halloween in 1996 (yes, there are pictures; no, you can’t see them). I greatly enjoyed Jennifer Garner’s nuanced spy thriller, Alias, until the writing began to tank in the third season. And though I don’t usually have any use for procedurals, which usually fetishize rape, incest and murder as a shortcut to avoid the heavy lifting of complex storytelling, I’ve recently discovered the beauty of Kyra Sedgwick’s neurotic combination of polite Southern bell and badass LA crimefighter on The Closer.

The key to all these shows: each feature(d) physically and mentally strong women, characters who are at once smart, damn funny and beautiful, and who rely on intellect, observation and creative negotiation as problem solving techniques as often or more often than brute force. There are no lengths these characters won’t go to in order to defend themselves and one another, from avenger-like physicality to a particularly well-times cutting remark. And what’s better as a feminist fantasy? These female characters are never in any physical danger that they can’t handle.

It’s too bad the networks’ market research teams weren’t aware enough to ask the right questions. If they had been, their 18-to-34-year-old female focus group subjects might have told them that the reason they preferred pictures of Jennifer Aniston paddle-boarding to glam shots of actresses and models in fashion magazines might have less to do with wanting to see TV shows with heavy action sequences, and more to do with associating a woman doing a sport with strength and self-determination, as opposed to the sad mix of insecurity, envy and hunger that images of emaciated, underweight models evoke in many female media consumers. They might have explained to the researchers that they want to see strong women on TV, but that strength doesn’t necessarily equal blood, guts and guns (though sometimes, surely, it does).

During tomorrow’s Today Show interview, I will also try to draw a correlation between the lack of nuance in this latest misinterpretation of female viewers’ preferences, to the hypocritical claim by former VH1 exec Michael Hirschorn (brainchild behind Flavor Of Love, A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila, and Paris Hilton’s My New BFF) that “If women didn’t want these shows, they wouldn’t get made.” It’s a claim I deconstruct in full force in my book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. Tomorrow, the most I’ll likely be able to say about Hirschorn’s claim is that reality TV doesn’t exist because women want these shows — it exists because advertisers want them. It can cost as much as 75% less to make a reality show as it requires to produce a scripted program, and that’s not even including the massive revenue stream from product placement advertising from embedded sponsors. In the face of these economic priorities, what female media consumers want to watch has very little to do with what they get to watch.

If you watch it or set your DVRs/VCRs, I’d love to hear what you think. Let me know in the comments below.

And if anyone can record it digitally and upload it to YouTube or Vimeo, I’d appreciate that.

One Response to “DVR Alert: Talking women and TV on NBC’s The Today Show, Sat 8:30(ish) am, EST”

  1.  jane birkin says: |

    Thanks for addressing this. It honestly seems ridiculous to me that these market researchers assume that the type of woman we want to see in a show changes from year to year, when in fact we have always wanted to see strong women, funny women, interesting women, and if they looked deeper into their own data that’s exactly what they would see. I don’t watch much tv, but one show I do catch occasionally is Fringe. It’s an ensemble cast, but the lead is clearly Olivia. She’s an FBI agent who can kick ass when she needs to, she’s complex, extremely smart, struggles sometimes with getting close to people and staying close to her sister despite the demands of the job, holds her own when confronted with the “fringe science” that is the focus of the show. Check it out!

    Oh and Dear Networks, could we please have an action heroine who is not so implausibly thin?? Just sayin.


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