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Geena Davis played the president in the 2005 ABC series Commander in Chief. Now, she works on issues involving women in media. (AP)

Working Women On Television: A Mixed Bag At Best

May 18, 2013 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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When actress Geena Davis was watching children's shows with her daughter a few years ago, she became so troubled by the lack of female representation, she started a think tank on gender in the media. The Geena Davis Institute recently partnered with University of Southern California professors to conduct a study analyzing gender roles and jobs on screen.

The good news? Prime-time television's pretty decent at depicting women with careers.

"We looked at something like 11,000-plus speaking characters," Davis tells NPR. The study showed that 44.3 percent of female characters in prime-time television are gainfully employed. That's respectably close to the real-life figure of 46.7 percent. And it's vastly better than children's entertainment — meaning shows and family films — in which a grossly disproportionate 81 percent of the jobs are held by men.

Television today teems with female characters holding jobs of the sort a young girl — or boy — might aspire to. Think of all the female lawyers, doctors and detectives on procedurals, like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Or the wisecracking female neurobiologist on The Big Bang Theory. Or Leslie Knope, the earnest small-town city councilwoman on Parks And Recreation, whose political ambitions lie short of nothing but the presidency.

As it happens, Geena Davis actually played the president of the United States on the short-lived 2005 ABC series Commander in Chief. These are the sort of female characters Davis hopes girls will see on TV and aspire, eventually, to be.

But there's one problem, says Jennifer Newsom, who directed the 2011 documentary Miss Representation about women in the media. She points out that almost none of those characters have children. Nor do the career-obsessed heroines of her two favorite shows, Homeland and Scandal.

"Let's just forget the working mother," Newsom grouses. "Despite the fact that, of working women, 60 percent are working mothers." As part of her research, Newsom asked a Hollywood executive about this vexing absence of working moms on TV. The response, she says, was along the lines of, "Well, you know, our focus study group, they weren't comfortable with the mother [character] working so hard and blah, blah, blah."

Truth be told, it can be uncomfortable to watch a character like Nurse Jackie, a working mom over 40, struggle on her series to hold her life, job and family together. Newsom says Nurse Jackie is even more of an outlier.

"Forty and older are actually 47 percent of our population here in the U.S., yet only 26 percent of women on TV," she observes. Of course, 40 and older in the real world tends to describe the ages of CEOs, high-level politicians and people who've poured decades into building distinguished careers.

According to the Geena Davis Institute, prime-time programs show women running companies 14 percent of the time. In real life, it's 25 percent. Glenn Close played such a character in Damages, a TV show about a woman in charge of her own high-powered law firm. Damages originally aired on FX. Its president, John Landgraf, admits the channel is mainly known for its compelling male anti-heroes.

"Frankly, the reason I mistakenly passed on Breaking Bad was that at the time, we had The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me," he says. "And I was like, 'Well, are we going to have four shows with white male anti-heroes on the air? Is that really the whole of our brand?' "

Landgraf wanted powerful female anti-heroes anchoring their own shows. So not only did he greenlight Damages, but he also gave the go to Dirt, a short-lived series starring Courtney Cox as the editor-in-chief of a sleazy tabloid. Neither show exactly found a Breaking Bad-like fan following.

"And it's fascinating to me," Landgraf adds, "that we just have really different, and I think, a more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters in this society. It's much harder to buy acceptance of a female anti-hero."

Tell it to showrunner Janet Tamaro. She created Rizzoli and Isles on TNT, about a female detective and a female medical examiner that starts its fourth season in June. "I got a lot of a resistance when I wanted to write a scene with the two women in conflict," she recalls. "From both male and female executives, and everyone was squeamish about it — 'Oh no, no, no, we don't want to see women fight.' "

But Tamaro prevailed, and she scripted a spirited argument between her two leads that lasts until a colleague refers to their "cat fight," prompting them to turn on him. "Did you really just call a disagreement between two female colleagues a cat fight?" Rizzoli demands.

There's another place to look on television for strong depictions of working women, according to Geena Davis. "The most gender-balanced sector of television shows is reality shows," she says.

Look past the parade of housewives, bachelorettes and dance moms, and you'll see women flipping houses on HGTV, designing high-end suits on Project Runway, or running restaurants like Robbie Montgomery on Welcome to Sweetie Pie's. The success of reality programs like these proves that showing women working really works. For everyone.

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