Television's Superwomen

Gutsy young females are the stars driving some of today's mostsuccessful TV shows.

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Goodbye, Murphy Brown, hello Buffy and Ally.

In a nutshell, this seems to be the message of prime-time television these days: mature female leads not wanted. This is in sharp contrast to a mere handful of seasons ago when Candice Bergen (who was 40 at the dawn of the 10-year run of "Murphy Brown"), Roseanne, Cybill Shepherd, and Brett Butler starred as mature women, tackling adult issues with wit - and producing the strong ratings they needed to stay on the air.

Today, the reins have been placed in the youthful and powerful hands of either robust young women with preternatural powers ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Xena: the Warrior Princess," "La Femme Nikita"), or ditsy twentysomethings whose clutzy antics endanger both themselves and others on a regular basis ("Ally McBeal," Dharma in "Dharma and Greg," the roommates in "Friends"). Even actress Faith Ford, the "Murphy Brown" alum, now finds herself in a more helpless, though perhaps more lovable, role in "Maggie Winters."

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The shift is happening for several reasons. First, advertising demographics. "Whether we like it or not, most advertisers have a certain target audience in mind," sighs Leslie Moonves, CBS television's chief executive officer, "and that group happens to be young and male," primarily between the ages of 18 and 34.

Those viewers, adds the network executive, don't identify with older women. So while shows may sport occasional supporting female characters with spunk and wisdom, such as the mother in "Everybody Loves Raymond," the leads are getting younger and more appealing to men. Fox, WB, and UPN have all achieved much of their initial success by targeting young audiences.

Appeal to men, women, or both?

"TV executives being what they are," notes Jack Nachbar, professor emeritus of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, "they've copied what was successful."

It's not hard to see the downside of the trend, says New York University journalism professor Nancy Hass. The message is: "Only young people have power, only young people have options, only the young can be strong," Ms. Hass says.

"I think it tells women that as they age, they lose their power," she says, adding that the responsibility for this shift lies equally with network executives and viewers. Women will watch what men like, Hass points out, "so they can sit next to their husbands or boyfriends, whereas men won't watch what women want to see."

Not everybody sees these new images as all bad. Keri Russell says that while her character, "Felicity," on WB often fumbles her newfound freedom as a college freshman, she admires the character's determination. "She takes a big step to change her life," the former dancer says, referring to Felicity's choice to follow a boy she barely knows to college. "It instigates this whole new outlook in her being ... she's away from everyone and for the first time really seeing things through new eyes."

Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," also on WB, lauds the empowerment of young women these shows represent. "The wonderful thing about this trend is that young girls have something to look up to, that they can take care of themselves," she says, adding that while Buffy may not be the smartest or most popular girl in school, "she's an individual, and I think the hardest thing to learn as a teenager is individuality."

Even some critics agree - in part. "Felicity," "Buffy," and "Xena" offer valuable insights for teens struggling with the journey into adulthood, says Robert Thompson head of The Center for the Study of Popular TV at Syracuse University in New York. "These shows are about learning to get control of yourself," he observes. Whether it's super or normal powers, that's an important lesson for anyone to learn.

He points out that the beautiful babe as superhero, however, certainly has its predecessors, and they didn't model empowerment so much as sexuality.

Actress Anne Francis, who played black-leather-clad detective "Honey West" more than 30 years ago, says her character "was a pussycat who would stand up for her own rights and loved mystery and finding the bad guy. This was fun to her, but she was not a tough lady."

The blond Ms. Francis, who says she is still recognized as "Honey West" by baby boomers, says she now thinks that perhaps for her time, the sleek, sexy detective did serve as some sort of role model.

"I'm pleased that it influenced a lot of young women, a lot of young girls," she says, many of whom had never thought of being something other than a nurse or a teacher. Francis says that today's "Xena" and "Buffy" may be reaching audiences in much the same way that other female crime fighters, such as "Wonder Woman" or "Charlie's Angels," did decades earlier.

Others such as "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English suggest there is room for many images of women in this multichannel, post-feminist era. She does however, concede that "the strong, mature women of earlier eras," like "Maude" or "Murphy Brown," might only show up on cable today rather than on network television, where advertisers seek to please the largest possible audience.

A springboard for debate

Professor Thompson agrees, adding that there is more competition for advertising dollars, and that today women's roles are more complex.

"Women now have the freedom to be both strong and weak," he says. Some people aren't comfortable with that notion, but he says that it is a more realistic portrayal of life. Besides, in these sophisticated times, it may be time to lighten up on TV, Thompson says.

"[TV] is like a giant Rorschach test," he suggests, explaining that far from driving culture, TV runs "around five years behind the culture." What we see on TV is more often a mirror than a model, he says. Television "is taking dictation from the culture's social agenda."

The Syracuse professor suggests that audiences should move beyond the notion that TV provides role models and look at it as a starting point for cultural debate. For that purpose, he adds, "Ally McBeal" is a perfect heroine for the time. "The idea of a woman failing at feminism is exactly the kind of woman that's interesting to put into the popular culture," he says.

* Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is goodaleg@csps.com

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