All the Women! Who Are Independent! (Were Not Part of the America in Primetime “Independent Woman” Documentary)

You can find someone who represents you on TV nowadays.” - Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy.

Juliana Margulles on America in Primetime

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.

Watch The Independent Woman Sneak Peek on PBS. See more from America in Primetime.

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?

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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6 Comments Have Been Posted

No Nichelle Nichols?

No Nichelle Nichols? Whaaaaaaaaat!

"these people who make

"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.
Exactly! Well said.

Sigh. Still gotta come a long

Sigh. Still gotta come a long way, baby.

Well put ...

I think what was also problematic of this show was that it was only one hour. It would take an entire documentary series of women in television on its own to explore the history of women in it. Anyone at PBS or any filmmaker with an interest in television reading this, how about it?

They're there, they're just barely acknowledged

It's especially difficult if you rely primarily on the broadcast networks for your entertainment. Cable has a much more varied and multi-colored cast of characters, so it's too bad if one happens to be short on cash and can only afford local channels.

I stumbled upon the fabulous "Battlestar Galactica" a few years ago -- three years after it premiered on Sci-Fi -- only because my husband made me watch it. "Trust me -- you'll love it. Especially the lead female characters." And he was right! Okay, so Starbuck was still a straight white girl, but we also had Sharon/Athena, played by the Korean/Canadian actor Grace Park, as well as (in a smaller but still significant role) Dualla, played by the South African actor Kandyse McClure. And heck, even a colored chick like me can appreciate the strength, fierce intelligence and power of Starbuck, white or not. And yep, the cool and sexy brilliance of Tricia Helfer as No. 6, who couldn't be whiter.

There's also a ton of made-for-TV films, reality shows, and other scripted shows (including the now-cancelled but ever-popular "Firefly") that prominently feature strong female characters. Again, almost all are on cable.

Hopefully that will change as the population becomes ever more rainbow-like, but in the meantime, if you can afford it, cable is the way to go.

I couldn't agree with you

I couldn't agree with you more!!! I too was disappointed in this whole series!! I also watched 'Man of the House' and they didn't address the narrow and stereotypical roles of men as idiot fathers, they seemed to glorify it! Also, that whole episode seemed to be a 1 hr complain session about how hard it is to be a man (white, straight, middle-class) in America today. Get over yourself!! I was expecting both episodes to be much better!! I am glad to know I am not the only one having the same thoughts! Thanks for your article!

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