As described in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey’s seminal work on the objectification of women in film, the “male gaze” refers to female characters fulfilling the role of attractive, passive playthings for men. Yet many contemporary shows rebel against this model by presenting multi-layered women who demand the audience’s attention. Here are 16 characters currently on the air who do just that. The list is makes no claims to being exhaustive, so please share in the comments the rad women you think are holding their own on television.
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Orange is the New Black
Suzanne/ balances the childlike innocence of a lost girl with the straight-up rage of a woman with demons. Suzanne could easily be one-dimensional, her profound infatuation for another woman leading her to do things like pee on the floor of prison bunks. But Uzo Aduba’s interpretation of Suzanne begs the audience to see the story via her set of “crazy eyes,” a defiant shift from the male gaze.
Molly — Mike and Molly
Until recently, Molly (Melissa McCarthy) was in danger of becoming a typical TV wife, obsessed with having a baby and somewhat exasperated by the actions of the characters around her. This past season, however, Molly evolved. We see her struggle to find an identity, and we see her fail. While the focus used to be on the character’s “plus size” status, Molly is now a combination of physical comedy and emotional vulnerability.
Leslie Knope and Donna Meagle —
Parks and Recreation
Much attention has rightly been given to the ambitious Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a self-proclaimed feminist who tries to spread a message of empowerment to all in Pawnee. This empowerment manifests in the fabulous character Donna Meagle (Retta), who is unapologetic about her sexual conquests and her penchant for “treat yo’ self.” Leslie and Donna demonstrate that women can be ambitious, unapologetic, and sexual,
and that these qualities are not mutually exclusive.
Clara Oswald —
For many episodes it felt like
Doctor Who was resting on Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) ability to be pretty, rather than letting her intelligence shine. (Save for the episode when she was stuck inside the Dalek.) But with the season 8 premiere “Deep Breath” we see her steal the show by not just outwitting the cyborg-human but by leading her fellow women in battle.
Emma Swan and Snow White —
Once Upon a Time
In the last episode of season three, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) reacts to Captain Hook’s attempt to save her by saying “The only one who rescues me is me.” The creators and writers of
Once have figured out that the "damsel in distress"-centric fairy tale is tired. Instead they developed a complex mother-daughter relationship between Emma and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) that is rich with additional themes of adoption and abandonment.
Big Boo and Sophia —
Orange is the New Black
Laverne Cox, aka Sophia Burset, has gained national media attention for being a transgender actress in a business obsessed with gender norms. Big Boo, aka Lea DeLaria, has been written about for her “butch” appearance and non-traditional body type. While physically both women challenge the gaze, what is perhaps more important is that the characters they portray are incredibly complex. Sophia struggles with parenting a son while behind bars, while Big Boo’s loud, brass personality gives her the title of resident shit-stirrer at Litchfield Correctional Facility.
Mindy Lahiri —
The Mindy Project
Three words: “Beyoncé-Pad-Thai”. When Dr. Mindy Lahiri/Mindy Kaling announces that she is a warrior set on proving that she can out-gyno Danny, the audience gets served a character whose determination and self-confidence sets her apart. The beauty of Mindy is that she is incredibly flawed, yet she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. Not to mention Mindy is currently the only Indian woman holding down a network show.
Olivia Pope —
When Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) says to President Grant, “I am not a toy you can play with when you are bored or lonely or horny,” millions of women saluted. While many debate the Madonna/whore dynamic present in Olivia Pope, what stands out is the vulnerability that she draws her strength from. Far from being your typical “strong female character” (a worn-out trope), Olivia’s compassion and brains drive her passions, which is how we know that house in Vermont will stay empty for a long time.
Red and Vee —
Orange is the New Black
Another tip of the hat to
OITNB! With Red (Kate Muglrew) and Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) we get two different women-of-a-certain-age. Red could have been presented as cold and calculated, a non-sexual woman who needs to be the boss. Yet Red is complicated, a compassionate mother hen who struggles with her social standing. Vee has many of the same characteristics—at one point she had motherly feelings for the young people in her drug ring. But after she has sex with one of those men and then orders a hit on him, it is clear that she operates via malice.
Louis C.K. understands that female characters (and women in general) are not decoration. Vanessa (Sarah Baker) was more than the
“fat lady” in the series. She was the voice for legions of women who know they will never fit the media’s beauty standard.
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint —
What Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her wife, Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), have brought to the BBC series, particularly with “Deep Breath,” is not only the ability to perform tricky martial arts scenes and deconstruct difficult puzzles, but also demonstrate the stable relationship the Doctor is missing.
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Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, PhD is a gender and pop culture sociologist. She is the author of (Scarecrow Press 2013) and the co-editor of Gender and Pop Culture: A Text-Reader (Sense 2014). Her writing has appeared in various academic journals as well as xoJane, Gender & Society Blog, Feministing, and Girl w/Pen and she runs the Facebook page Pop Culture Feminism. Adrienne is a professor of sociology at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.
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