Her intelligence is as enticing as her wit. Her appearance, impeccable and flawless, as if she stepped right off the cover of Vogue. Pass on the Pinot Grigio; she only takes red and prefers it by the bottle. Give her an unsolvable problem and she’ll not only rise to the occasion and conquer the issue at hand, but will do so with a smile on her face and not a hair out of place. Who is she? She’s the modern heroine gracing your television screen several nights a week. She’s the woman pulling females out of subordinate victim roles and placing them in the forefront. She’s the woman calling the shots except when it comes to her love life and in this case, it’s always complicated by two irresistible successful and charming men claiming her affection week after week.
Women have been making their mark on television for over half a century now. They’ve outshined their male leads, carried popular shows on their own, and have been listed as trailblazers for actresses today. The housewife of the ‘50s and ‘60s transformed to the single working girl and matriarch of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The ‘90s and early ‘2000s, presented a further evolution. There was the housewife who kept the family alive and fed while her husband made one dimwitted mistake after another. Then you had the woman who, despite career success, was always going through a revolving door of relationships, kissing frog after frog with no prince in sight.
The fact that female-centric shows are popular is nothing new, but the modern incarnation is something completely unique. This woman is powerful, fearless, has a closet full of designer suits and handbags, and always has her pick of bachelors to choose from. This woman is someone we could never be, but the fantasy is undeniably attractive.
Three of the most powerful heroines on television today are Scandal’s Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington), The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick (played by Juliana Margulies), and newcomer How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis). It’s not enough that Olivia Pope runs a lucrative crisis management firm and can graciously self-medicate with a bottle of ’94 du Bellay without leaving a drop on her spotless white Armani suit. No, she also scores the attention of the President of the United States and a CIA Operative. Alicia Florrick’s situation differs slightly but only in the fact that she struggles between lusting after Will Gardner, her boss and managing partner of Chicago’s most successful law firm, and her commitment to Illinois Governor Peter Florrick, her unfaithful but remorseful husband. The men stealing our leading lady’s attention are just as wealthy and victorious as their female counterparts. Gone are the days of the girl next door tied between the bad boy from the streets and the popular jock. Our girl doesn’t settle for anything less than wealth, power, and model looks. Even Annalise Keating has one arm clutching a respected Homicide Detective and the other around her Psychology Professor husband.
Much like the horror movie conceit of the virgin’s survival, television dramas featuring female protagonists are relying more and more on simultaneous love affairs involving their main character. We’re less concerned with Olivia Pope’s latest crisis case and Alicia Florrick’s parenting skills, and more fixated on who will be occupying their bed this week. It’s the romance in these series that women viewers crave. They admire the fact that Olivia Pope and Alicia Florrick don’t need a man but rather choose to have one (or two) because they can.
One criticism is that this strips our heroine of her power and strength, but that isn’t necessarily true. The power triangles aren’t diminishing our leading ladies. Instead, our women are standing firm, controlling the fate of their male counterparts and leaving viewers obsessing over their next move. Call it a step back for women’s advancements in television, but the reality is that women viewers want their Cinderella fantasies and writers are expanding on that fairytale by dropping in a second Prince Charming. They’re utilizing the power triangle to expose our female and male characters’ vulnerability and flaws. They never twitch from fear nor doubt in the Oval Office and courtroom, but when in the presence of their lover, they lose control, leaving their weaknesses exposed to viewers. Train wrecks draw attention and keep these television series high in the ratings. We tune in each week to see our female protagonists triumph once again over overwhelming odds. As viewers, we enjoy placing bets over which lover they’ll choose this week. Triangle affairs are juicy. They keep viewers coming back each week and burning up the discussion boards proclaiming loyalty to “Team Fitz” or “Team Jake.” Final Score: Olivia Pope and Alicia Florrick – 2, Bachelors – 0
Feature image courtesy of Ron Tom/ABC