Wanted: Well-Written Female Characters

What do women want? Well, here’s one answer to that age old question: well-written female characters on TV.

Today’s television shows seem to splattered with female characters who are usually either underdeveloped or fit within the constraints of a trope. Often they follow two distinct tropes: the admired, ambitious career woman or the modern damsel-in-distress whose identity is shaped entirely around male characters. They either represent the ultra feminine or embody traditionally masculine traits, with few female characters possessing traits from both sides. Modern media, especially in television, seems to have come to the conclusion that well-developed female characters must be rich, aggressive career women who do it all while still maintaining a fabulously fashionable wardrobe. When the reality is that a well-developed female character is not confined to a particular set of personality traits or tropes, instead she is simply a character who is well-developed and well-written.

When Scandal‘s Olivia Pope walks into a room, she commands a presence through her charisma, ambition and aggression. She possesses traits that are considered traditionally masculine, which at times is valued more than if her character was more traditionally feminine.  While Olivia Pope is a well-written character and one of TV’s most interesting protagonists, she is not the sole type of strong female character. Most of the strong female characters portrayed on TV usually fit into a very specific formula: well-educated, wealthy and possessing a powerful career. Additionally, most of them live in major U.S. cities such as New York or Washington D.C. It’s rare to see a female character, who is branded as strong, stray away from this mold. Unfortunately, we cannot all be crisis managers like Olivia Pope, yet TV seems to be under the impression that the only way for a woman to be “strong” is to emulate characters like her.

The reality is that most women do not live a glamorous life like Olivia Pope, and while many women still find her to be a relatable character, she is hardly an accurate representation of the majority of American women. While it’s hard to find a well-written female character who doesn’t fall into the powerful career women archetype, there are shows that are challenging these norms. Sheila Jackson on Showtime’s Shameless is a great example of a well-written female character whose story arch isn’t related to a man or an office. Her story arch is set in South side Chicago where she is part of a blue collar, working class family. Through the course of the show’s five seasons, her character struggles with agoraphobia and finding independence from her family. Challenges of mental illness and separating oneself from family life are every day struggles that women across America face, making her, in my opinion, a more relatable character than Olivia Pope.

Additionally, she is a compassionate caretaker for both her family and neighbors. She values having a perfect home and cooking for her loved ones but she is never trivialized for these qualities.  One of the aspects I admire most about her story line is that when her character departed from the show, her story line did not come to an abrupt end. Instead, she finally leaves behind the toxic people around her and overcomes her agoraphobia to embark on a road trip. I think it’s one of television’s best examples of a traditionally feminine female character who is given a complete story arch.

People want to see an aspect of themselves reflected in the television characters they see daily. We can’t all be top lawyers and political powerhouses, yet the media seems to believe that the average woman is supposed to find these women relatable. It’s about time that this changes.  While I strongly believe female characters in positions of power and prestige should continue to be a vital part of our media, it’s important to remember that women face obstacles outside of their offices.

Aside from being well-developed and having a complete story arch, there is no set formula for creating a strong female character. Although we still need characters like Olivia Pope for women to look to for escapism and inspiration, we also need characters like Sheila Jackson whose lives and stories are more obtainable for women. Ultimately, television should strive to create a variety of well-written female characters, who go beyond predetermined tropes, because there isn’t just one definition of what it means to be a strong woman.

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