“You can find someone who represents you on TV nowadays.” - Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy.
PBS kicked off its four-part documentary series America in Primetime last night with “Independent Woman,” a look at female characters from American TV’s past and present. The episode featured some great interviews with writers, producers, and actors along with lots of archival footage from I Love Lucy to Grey’s Anatomy. What it didn’t feature, however, was a critical look at representations of women in television through the decades.
While discussing the difficulties she’s faced in the entertainment industry, Roseanne Barr (a standout in the interview lineup) said, “these people who make television, they’re like aliens. They don’t have any real-life experience or any values.” Unfortunately, those aliens also made the America in Primetime series. While it was seriously awesome to hear Mary Tyler Moore talk about how inspired she was by the character of Mary Richards, or to hear Candace Bergen discuss the taboo of playing a recovering alcoholic, the only voices present during “Independent Woman” were those involved in the making of television—which left a lot out.
Women’s changing roles in the workforce and the family got some screen time during the 52-minute episode, and they spent about five seconds talking about the ways class issues and physical appearance are portrayed (because Roseanne was there, kicking ass), but there was absolutely no discussion whatsoever of race, age, sexuality, or ability when it comes to what kinds of women get to be—and see themselves represented—on TV. WTF? I understand that a single episode in a documentary series can’t accomplish everything there is to accomplish ever when it comes to this topic, but it would have been nice to hear at least one person interviewed acknowledge that when we’re talking about TV’s “Independent Woman” we’re actually talking about TV’s “Independent Straight White Young Pretty Wealthy Cisgendered Able-Bodied Woman.” Couldn’t someone have at least mentioned it? (Sarah Jessica Parker? Julianna Margulies? Anyone?)
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy watching—I love TV and I love watching women on TV, so the Murphy Brown clips alone would have been enough to entertain me. But this series is being buzzed about as an in-depth exploration of television archetypes, and last night’s episode was the only one out of the four expressly about women, so I expected more. It would have been nice to hear from some critics or academics, say, or at least from someone outside of the industry, to bring a more critical perspective to the mix. Instead we got a rotating cast of (mostly) privileged white people cracking jokes about Leave It to Beaver. Interesting for what it was, but it wasn’t comprehensive by any means.
“Independent Woman” ended with quotes from television producers, writers, and actors talking about how far we’ve come and how there are “no limitations” for women on television these days. Not to be all Debbie Downer about it (of course I’m thrilled to see working moms and divorced women and sex-having ladies on the tube—that’s real progress and it’s terrific), but do the people who create and play female characters on TV really think there’s nowhere else to go?