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More television dramas redefine women's roles

Updated 10:00 AM July 24, 2006


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More television dramas redefine women's roles


Hear News Service podcast "Women on TV">
By Jared Wadley
News Service

From "Xena: Warrior Princess" to "Judging Amy," television shows are redefining women
in dramatic roles by telling diverse stories about their lives, a University analysis shows.
In the mid-1990s, more dramas were created to feature female characters as the
primary protagonistsand many of these shows succeeded, says Amanda Lotz,
assistant professor of communication studies.
"It took the success of several single female characters, as well as changes in business
of television, to redefine how women are portrayed on television," Lotz says.
She hopes subsequent female dramas will explore many stories about women's lives
that still are not represented, involving characters who are lesbian, not white, in stable
relationships, or who lack rewarding careers.
Lotz's analysis explores 16 female-centered dramas airing in the late 1990s through
early 2000s. The shows are based around one or more women, and notably expand
from the character-types and stories common in television's past.
The number of female-centered dramas jumped to 14 in 1985-1994, up from eight
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More television dramas redefine women's roles

shows during 1975-1984. In 1995-2005 the number jumped to about 37 shows, peaking
in 2000 as television executives and advertisers saw the value of developing strategies
to target the female audience.
"The proliferation of female-centered dramas in the late 1990s made good business
sense because the fragmentation of audiences among new broadcast and cable channels
made 'narrowcasting'or explicitly targeting just a female audiencea more viable
strategy," Lotz says.
Also, female-targeted cable networks expanded from one (Lifetime) to three (adding
Oxygen and Women's Entertainment) during the early 2000s, and in some of these
years, Lifetime was the most watched network among all cable offerings.
Since its beginnings in the 1940s, television often portrayed women as wives and
mothers who did not work outside of the home. If women had lead roles, networks
confined them to comedies such as "I Love Lucy," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show,"
"Roseanne," and "Murphy Brown," and to individual characters in male-dominated
dramatic settings.
Women achieved central roles in dramatic narratives that included emphasis on
adventure, such as "The Avengers" and "Police Woman," but they often were partnered
with a man. By the late 1970s, some dramas starred women without male partners,
including "Charlie's Angels," "Wonder Woman" and "The Bionic Woman." Like their
predecessors, these women relied on their sex appeal yet were featured in empowered
roles, she says.
A shift in shows emphasizing sex appeal and empowerment occurred in 1982 when the
able female cops of "Cagney and Lacey" led to fairly conventional roles for women in
"Murder, She Wrote" (1984), "Sisters" (1991) and "Touched by an Angel" (1994).
The situation then changed significantly as empowered heroines in action dramas such
as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" offered complicated
depictions of characters balancing loyalties and competing demands; post- Baby Boom
characters in "Ally McBeal" and "Sex and the City" negotiated personal and professional
lives amidst the gains of second-wave feminism; and many characters in series as
varied as "Providence," "Judging Amy," "Gilmore Girls" and "Strong Medicine" provided
new stories about the complexities of families and work.
Also, even though Lifetime, Oxygen and Women's Entertainment seek female audiences,
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More television dramas redefine women's roles

they do so through substantially different programming strategies. "This too adds to the
diversity in stories about women's lives available on contemporary television," she says.
Lotz analysis appears in her new book, "Redesigning Women: Television after the
Network Era."

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