Where Are All The Heroines On TV?

atlantis with titleI’ve been enjoying Atlantis with my kids and both my son and daughter love it. They like the humour, the emotional drama, the action and the adventure. But I was sitting there wondering, what sort of message does this send my daughter? The female characters are either passive love interest or evil. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against an all male lead cast. It’s great to see male friendships on screen and the stories are fantastic. But when it replaces Merlin (also centred around two male characters) and is followed immediately by a trailer for The Musketeers (need I say more?), it does make you wonder, where the heck is the new Buffy? Have I really got to go back ten years (before my daughter was even born) to find an action heroine on my tv screen?

buffyI know, you’re going to tell me that there are plenty of all-female shows. Call the Midwife is a brilliant show and I’m as big a fan as anyone else, but when it comes to genres other than drama (action, adventure, fantasy, science-fiction, thriller) the women are almost absent.  Valuing caring is hugely important; it’s a trait massively undervalued in our society, but that’s for another time. But not every girl wants to be a nurse. Where are the role models on screen, those lead characters, driving a show, that offer something different?

I appreciate that the genres I’m talking about only account for a small percentage of our tv drama output. So maybe female protagonists fare better in the genre that dominates our original drama; crime. Whether it’s gentle puzzle-solving or dark thrillers, our appetite for crime drama is huge. But even here, where there is no earthly reason for there not to be a 50/50 split of shows with a female lead and shows with a male lead, the men outnumber the woman 2:1. Here are the original crime dramas from the main UK broadcasters in 2013:

Male led crime dramas: Sherlock, Ripper Street, Luther, Death in Paradise, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Poirot, Endeavour, Lewis, Shetland, Whitechapel, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, Jonathan Creek, By Any Means, Murder on the Homefront. 

Female led crime dramas: Vera, Scott & Bailey, Marple, Silent Witness, Field of Blood , The Guilty

I’ve not included the brilliant Broadchurch because I honestly felt that the lead was split between the two detectives; one male, one female.

So where’s it all going wrong? Are female-led shows being developed but just not getting the green light? It’s possible, though in my experience producers aren’t being offered those shows. Whether I’m part of an in-house development team getting scripts from the most experienced writers, or through Script Angel reading spec scripts from the next generation of screenwriters, the vast majority of scripts I see conform to the stereotype – the dramas (emotional) are dominated by female characters and the genre shows are dominated by male characters.

So what’s the answer? Maybe producers need to get more pro-active; seeking out or specifically asking for shows that challenge that. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to you guys, the screenwriters.  We need to change the diet on offer to producers and commissioners to force them to redress the balance. 

The under-representation of woman in genre television isn’t of course the only problem. Our representations of  minority groups (sexual orientation, religion, colour) are woeful. It’s often argued that audiences prefer to see white heterosexual male leads  but that, quite frankly, is bs. As Scott & Bailey has proved for female lead characters, Luther proves that a black lead doesn’t cause the world to end or even audiences to switch off in horror. If you encounter that argument – ignore it! Audiences predominantly watch white male leads because THAT’S ALL THEY’RE BEING OFFERED.

Since woman make up half the population, why on earth are they not also the lead in half the genre shows on television?  Whenever questions of under-representation arise, one of the suggested solutions is to write ‘blind’. By that I mean, create a rounded character that is defined by their personality and then decide their gender, ethnic background and sexual orientation. Whatever the means by which screenwriters create their original shows, my plea is for more female characters in genre shows now.

9 responses to “Where Are All The Heroines On TV?

  1. Have you seen Diane Kruger (“Inglorious Bastards”) in “The Bridge?” That was a pretty decent role. Or have you seen Mireille Enos in “The Killing?” This was another pretty good part. Both shows were overlooked for either a Golden Globe or Film Actors Guild award. I thought “Breaking Bad” was overrated. Another overlooked show was “Low Winter Sun.” No overpowering female roles in that.

  2. Maybe an alternate explanation is that women like to watch male heros,
    Tv producers give the views what they want. The market dictates?

  3. With you a hundred percent. However, you did leave out The Bletchley Circle, which has four strong female leads.

    My gut instinct is that US genre shows tend to have more female leads, or at least more balanced casts, but even then I’m having a hard time justifying that thought using current shows. (Older ones would include Farscape, Bones, Warehouse 13, Fringe, Buffy, any of the Stargate franchise, The Closer, and for split-lead type shows both the Mentalist and Castle.)

  4. I completely agree! British Drama has been very male dominated lately, which a number of people have commented on. In the US, one of the few action adventure shows that has a little more balance is ABC’s Agents of Shield. Unsurprisingly, it’s headed up by Mr. Joss Whedon, who still may be the reigning king of awesome heroines.

  5. I firmly agree with Liz and Hayley’s comment regarding choice. Surely Television should follow actual sociological demographics rather than proposed audience demographics for genre television. Having pitched a female led action show to male executives I can certainly testify to the hostility they gave a female led genre show, even suggesting that one character be changed to a male lead to make it more palatable. Obviously BS, and whilst I appreciate these people do not represent the industry as a whole, I have to wonder at their marketing research that prompted them to comment that a female led action show would not be popular, and how widely spread this is within the industry? I firmly believe viewers would welcome another Buffy for example. Joss Whedon has often commented on this very issue, and the resistance he has received to the strong female characters he writes.

  6. I completely forgot the superb Orphan Black – easily my favourite show of 2012.

  7. I meant 2013, of course. But I thnk what I’d really like to see is exactly what Hayley started out with: a Saturday night ‘Doctor Who’ slot show with a female lead.

  8. I think Game of Thrones is showing heroines quite prominently at the moment. In a realm of kings and queens, where men have all the power and fight for the “iron throne”, it is the women who in fact enforce their power; by manipulation or management with their best interests at heart.

    Strong-minded female characters such as Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, Melisandre, Catelyn Stark & Ygritte are fine examples. Even Brienne of Tarth is a macho knight in shining armour! Strong female characters, in a strong genre show.

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