Why It’s Still Revolutionary To Watch Women Working On TV
Everything from 'The Good Fight' to 'Chewing Gum'.
There’s a gem of a moment in a recent episode of The Bold Type, a brand-new show about the US women’s magazine industry.
Sutton (Meghann Fahy) has just asked for her boss’s recommendation to apply for a new job, and as they sit down together to work on the application, the camera pulls out to reveal two other women at their desks. The rest of the office is empty, but these women — Sutton, Jane (Katie Stevens) and Kat (Aisha Dee) — are still there. It’s a brief but powerful moment. These women are here to work.
As I watched The Bold Type, a sweet but try-hard girl-power romp, based on the life of US Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles, I was stunned by how much of the plot revolved around the day-to-day of women in a workplace. It’s a revelation I have had before, watching another light (but infinitely more sharp and shrewd) show about women in publishing: Darren Star’s Younger.
Younger centres itself not just on the love life of its heroine, 40-year-old Liza (Sutton Foster) — who is pretending to be 26 to get a job in a publishing house — but on her work. And Liza isn’t the only one working. With her is Kelsey (Hilary Duff) a young editor who has just been made the head of a new millennial-skewed imprint, and Diana (Miriam Shor), originally pitched as Liza’s middle-aged crone antagonist, now her prickly but kind mentor in the workplace.
Sure, there are shirtless men and near-miss kisses and flirty eyes across bars and conference rooms, but the primary question Younger is asking its audience is: how do women of all ages work in our world?
It’s a relatively recent — and revelatory — thing to have the bulk of a series focus on women in the workplace. Women are no longer simply relegated to the role of lover or carer (although each of these shows acknowledges that, for the most part, a woman’s work always intersects with those roles). They earn, they excel, they work.
So too do the women in The Good Fight, the highly anticipated new series from Robert and Michelle King (creators of the inimitable, brilliant The Good Wife). The Good Fight revolves around Diane (Christine Baranski), a middle-aged lawyer compelled to return to work to solve financial woes; Lucca (Cush Jumbo) a thirtysomething black lawyer trying to advance in Chicago’s primarily white corporate world; and Maia (Game Of Thrones‘ Rose Leslie), a young lesbian lawyer making her start in law off the back of a family scandal.
Like its predecessor, The Good Fight is brilliant at pinpointing that intersection of challenge and reward that comes when women enter the (especially male-dominated) workforce. It’s a series that appreciates women for what they can contribute to the world beyond the “caring” or “loving” role with which we’ve so long been solely lumped. And alongside Younger, The Bold Type, Offspring, Chewing Gum, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and UnREAL it’s part of a growing trend.
A History Of Women’s (TV) Roles
Television has long been home to two types of stories: powerful men and caring women. Stories about hard work, about money, about power, have always belonged to men. Women either hovered at the edges, or they inhabited their own dominion: the love plot. That love could be romantic or familial, but what those women did — their daily grind — was of little to no interest to television makers.
Now, TV looks a little different (not a lot, but a little). Increasingly, women are at the centre of their own stories, and those stories are not just about love or family. The women of contemporary television are worth more than what they can provide to their loved ones. Now the women of TV work, toil, earn, excel. They have power. They are in charge.
Instead of focussing on the work or love, these series investigate how those things intersect.
Before our Golden Age of Television, when a TV show was about a woman working, it was a B I G D E A L. The first example of what would later become a phenomenon was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a star vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore, who first made her name on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was American television’s first example of a single, independent career woman — one who never married, and whose working life was the centre of the show. From 1970-1977 Mary Tyler Moore aired on CBS, and Moore became an example to women of that second-wave career woman who chose her job (and herself) over a biological “urge to merge”.
After Mary Tyler Moore, CBS cashed in on the single working woman gimmick again with Murphy Brown. Starring the fabulous Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown followed the eponymous investigative journalist through ten years of inspired political satire storylines. Over the series, Bergen’s Brown remained unmarried, and as with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the series chose to focus almost solely on Brown’s work life.
Later, post-second-wave feminism, stories about women working on TV had to intersect with how working affected a woman’s personal life. If a woman chose to work, could she find a partner? Could she marry? Could she have kids? The troublesome retrograde post-feminist concern, can women have it all (which has resolutely stuck around right into our new wave of twenty-teens feminist concerns) became the primary sticking point for any television series that focused on a woman in the workforce.
Post-feminism brought us the women who had excelled at work, but felt otherwise unsatisfied: the women of Sex and the City, for example, who “had it all” when it came to career and lifestyle, but were missing one all-important factor: love. Sex and the City wasn’t the only show to wind back women’s concerns and refocus on their roles as carers and lovers — Ally McBeal, Judging Amy and Girlfriends took similar routes when repping women’s stories onscreen in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Now there’s a new wave of television shows that have refocused on the myriad challenges and rewards that women face in the workforce, across a strata of industries. We’ve got everything from the doctors, lawyers and politicians of the glossy Shonda Rhimes shows, to the less glamorous retail and hospitality workers in Chewing Gum, Broad City and Girls. Instead of choosing to focus on either the challenge of work or the challenge of (familial, platonic and romantic) love, these series aim to investigate how all those things intersect.
In other words, TV is beginning to present fully fledged, three-dimensional female characters with realistic lives, passions, responsibilities and desires.
The Jobs We’re Allowed To Have
In The Bold Type, the three female leads (Jane, Sutton and Kat) work across different sections of the women’s magazine industry. Jane is a new staff writer, trying to carve out a “serious beat” in a magazine that trades primarily in purportedly frivolous sex, relationships and fashion yarns; Sutton is an erstwhile assistant who is keen to get into the magazine’s fashion business; and Kat is the social media manager (which produces mostly cringeworthy storylines).
They all strive to be like their boss, Jacqueline (Melora Hardin, excellent as always as the alter ego for Joanna Coles), who is the magazine’s head honcho. These jobs might sound familiar because a stack of television shows (and films, for that matter) about women working are centred on careers in the media or publishing.
It’s much the same in Younger, where Liza, Kelsey and Diana are all mastering different areas of commercial book publishing. (Two supporting players, Lauren and Maggie, are in publicity and fine arts respectively). I can think of around a dozen other series where the working women at the centre are climbing the ladder of a media or publishing industry. Mary-Jane Paul of Being Mary-Jane is a news anchor and television journalist; Erica from Being Erica is a book editor; Hannah from Girls is a writer; Rachel and Quinn from UnREAL are TV producers.
Sometimes it certainly seems like TV is telling women they’re only allowed to be working in certain domains. And, perhaps in this regard, TV reflects real life.
Publishing and the media are industries that are heavily stacked with women workers (albeit often in the lower echelons of those worlds). The same is true in obstetrics, the field in which Offspring‘s Dr Nina Proudman works. There are also tonnes of female lawyers, which is why there are so many shows about female lawyers.
Though Greys Anatomy is a great exception, depicting strong and senior women in the underrepresented field of surgery, I haven’t yet come across TV shows about the women working in engineering, or female architects. There are very few shows about female accountants.
Perhaps it’s just because those shows have not been made yet (and, hopefully, a show about a female accountant will never be made). But it is fascinating that when a series creator is concocting a show about women in the workforce, the first well they tap is the publishing/media industry.
So… What’s The Big Deal?
I like to think we’re past the point of pretending what we view on TV (or film, or read in books, or see on our stages) isn’t hugely impactful on how we view the world.
Culture breeds culture, and the way TV shows people living, loving and toiling does impact how we interact with our own world. Shows that perpetually visit violence on women (whether or not it’s in service of “strengthening” those female characters) without interrogating that violence implicitly show us that sort of behaviour is unremarkable. A television series comprised entirely of white faces teaches us that “white” is the baseline, and exaggerates the perceived “difference” of faces of those who do not resemble white TV’s heroes.
The more we see of the way women move through the world, the better we can begin to understand contemporary women’s experiences.
So TV shows like Younger, The Good Fight, and The Bold Type — which are dedicated to giving voice to a rounded experience of women in the workforce — are essential to how we understand the function and ability of women. If all we see on TV is women as wives, mothers and lovers, how are we going to react to the real women we encounter in the real workforce?
In The Good Fight, Diane faces the trauma of re-entering the workforce as an older lawyer because, as a divorced, middle-aged woman, her financial burdens are hers to bear alone. Despite her wish to retire after a difficult working life, Diane must go back to work because she literally cannot afford not to.
On Younger, Liza is so desperate to be given a chance in the workforce (where she must start again at the bottom after a long absence), she lies about her age in order to get an assistant position. In The Bold Type, Kat struggles when she is trolled viciously online, just for doing her job — reflecting the very real drama of women who have to work in the merciless anonymous online space.
And on Chewing Gum, scene after scene takes place in the pharmacy where Tracey Gordon works (including family drama, friend drama and love drama), because Tracey cannot separate her working life from her personal life — they quite literally intersect on a day-to-day basis.
I love watching these shows that prioritise stories of the triumphs and pitfalls in a woman’s working life, because there’s no doubt about it: contemporary women do work, and their experience of that is very different to the experience of men working. Just like the experience of queer working women, like Maia on The Good Fight or Maggie on Younger, or working women of colour like Lucca on The Good Fight, Tracey on Chewing Gum, or Kat on The Bold Type, is different again.
The more we see of the way women move through the world — from the perspective of those women (not the men around them) — the better we can begin to understand contemporary women’s experiences. Women are not just carers and lovers; they’re not simply measured by their relationships to others, and what they can provide to the men (and children) in their lives.
We are independent, fully realised humans with goals, trails and triumphs in our working lives. I, for one, am glad that TV is changing to reflect that.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.