Making a box-office success movie or TV series without a woman in a sexualized or type-cast bimbo role has historically been hard to impossible. (Read “Leadership Fictions:Gender, Leadership, and the Media”, Take The Lead’s special report on how media influences women’s perceptions of themselves as leaders and others’ ideas about them for some shocking statistics.)
That’s why women today who create media by producing, writing, and directing are of the utmost importance to creating the future of our choice.
Some women in leading roles on and off screen—like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, and Shonda Rhimes—use their writing to make women the protagonists of their stories. Their takes on what those roles mean to women and feminism, however, are quite diverse.
In the ’90’s Tina Fey broke ground by becoming the first female head writer on “Saturday Night Live.” Her own writing has led by example. She wrote and played the part of a woman who managed a male-dominated room of writers on “30 Rock.”
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Fey has brought the idea of a successful, independent professional woman to a mainstream television audience, even as she worked against the current. Her role in the comedy world has signified a paradigm shift of feminists in entertainment—no longer are employed women on television required to be masked in a cloyingly, sugar-laden “That Girl” sort-of-way.
There are hardly any diamonds and daisies on “30 Rock” when Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, appears at work in a sweatshirt. When we start seeing the positive and negative sides of a particular minority (in this case, women in leadership roles) on television, it’s a sign women as leaders are becoming normalized in society.
Amy Poehler has not only climbed the comedy ladder like her friend and fellow funny lady Tina Fey, but Poehler now also offers her expertise to young girls everywhere via short videos and a dynamic website. Rather than giving generic or gender-stereotyped advice, “Smart Girls at the Party” gives empowering guidance on how to get through those teen years, delivered straight from Poehler’s mouth.
In her ongoing video series, she’s like the cool aunt who knows exactly what to say to our young daughters. Councilwoman Leslie Knope, Poehler’s character in “Parks and Recreation,” even helps girls by creating the Pawnee Goddesses when a boy’s outdoors group keeps out girls.
Shonda Rhimes has led the way by creating multi-faceted female characters in her wildly successful shows (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “Private Practice” to name a few) who do not fit the status quo. She’s championed the integration of black and LGBTQ characters into mainstream media, and has produced leading ladies that defy typecasting.
Many of the women Rhimes writes in are strong and independent. Her newest series “Scandal” has recently made history by introducing the first black woman lead in a prime time network television drama in over 30 years.
Then there is Lena Dunham, both praised and castigated for her writing and executive producing of “Girls” on HBO. And her acting—has she appeared nude having sex with a jerk in every show? The name of the show might be ironic or maybe it’s retro or maybe it’s just plain fun. Whatever, “Girls” definitely has been criticized for having little diversity.
For someone whose character champions Planned Parenthood, Dunham shows an oddly large number of characters having unsafe sex. Is her character Hannah what what feminist have fought for? I shake my head and leave you to decide whether this is liberation or a new version of oppressive sexism.
These four women represent some of the many ways feminists are taking hold and reshaping the entertainment industry. For girls and young women today, seeing a diverse range of women’s roles portrayed in mainstream media can only help empower them to live by the late playwright Nora Ephron’s advice to the 1996 Wellesley graduating class:
“Always be the heroine of your life, not the victim. Because you don’t have the alibi my class had.”
GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead. People has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”
As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.