Gutsy young females are the stars driving some of today's mostsuccessful TV shows.
Goodbye, Murphy Brown, hello Buffy and Ally.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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."