Thanks to grass-root actions including last winter’s women’s march, there’s been an increased focus on exploring women’s intellect. But a scan of programming choices across the television dial suggests that we also care about their brawn.
From NBC’s “Blindspot”to AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” recent years have seen plenty of heroines who can handle a roundhouse kick or brandish a katana while still landing piercing dialogue and saving the day while picking up a paramour or two.
“Blindspot” and “Supergirl” executive producer Sarah Schechter would like to see even more shows like them because “diversity and representation is so important so that people can feel inspired.” Among Schechter and producing partner Greg Berlanti’s latest projects is the upcoming CW series “Black Lightning” which follows a retired superhero who gets back in the game on the insistence of his teenage daughter.
“Supergirl is Ginger Rogers. She has to do everything that Fred Astaire does, but backward and in heels and she doesn’t get any more credit for it,” Schechter explains. “I think that’s what it’s like to be a woman in today’s world, because we can’t be too bitchy. We can’t be too needy. We can’t be impolite. We can’t be nasty. There’s so many things that women aren’t allowed to be, so I think it’s our real responsibility to show that they can be strong. For women to succeed in this world, I think that they need to be stronger than men.”
Its storylines may be fictional, but television has reminded that this universal need for strength can be intuitive. Jaimie Alexander’s Jane Doe on “Blindspot” started out the series with her memory wiped clean, but as Schechter points out, she “didn’t ever forget how strong she was.” “Westworld” executive producer and co-showrunner Lisa Joy says in a reversal of the genre, it’s the women of her show’s futuristic Western-themed amusement park who end up being the strongest. “When we were approaching this, we thought that if the men had to be good at protecting themselves, just think of how good the women had to be,” she says. “They’re even more exposed in those ways.
“We wanted to tell this from the point of view of characters who we hadn’t seen explored in a traditional Western and that leads itself to these female heroines.”
If there’s anything “The Walking Dead” fans have learned after seven seasons, it’s that meekness will only get you so far after the apocalypse. Melissa McBride’s Carol Peletier has gone from a devout, protective mother to a leader of a regime fronted by a guy who keeps a tiger as a pet. Danai Gurira’s Michonne knows how to wield a sword, but she’s also smart enough to use it sparingly. And this cycle introduced the women of Oceanside, widowed survivors of an uprising who have developed their own community and rules. Then there’s Pollyanna McIntosh’s Jadis, the leader of another tribe who is willing to make (human) sacrifices for the safety of her people.
“For our show, there’s always been these female characters who are ass-kickers and a lot of that comes from characters in the comic book,” says Angela Kang co-executive producer of “The Walking Dead.” With the world of Oceanside, the writers thought about, “what would it be like if you had a group that had lost all the men? This is a thing that can really happen in the world, so how do we translate that to a fictional context? There’s war around the world and that’s a contemporary fear that sticks with us, but we wanted to show a group that had to be self-sufficient so they became strong and came up with an ideology.”
She says that they didn’t start out to make the season particularly pro-women, refuting theories that villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his harem of wives was meant to be a commentary on Donald Trump. They plot the episodes too far in advance for this to be any more than a “happy accident,” says Kang. “It felt like it was a good time to showcase some of these characters who have been with us a long time.”
TV writers may not immediately write the headlines into their shows, but “Westworld’s” Joy considers the current political landscape as an opportunity, calling out the 2005 recording of the “locker room talk” between Trump and Billy Bush on an “Access Hollywood” tour bus. “That is exactly why strong, empowered women role models on screen aren’t just needed in this age in particular; they’re needed in all ages,” she says.
“There has been this implicit bias,” she says. “It just now has come to the forefront of the conversation. It’s not just a glass ceiling. There are glass walls. There’s all sorts of biases that you don’t talk about. You don’t talk about how those locker room conversations can trickle down and create a pervasive bias. The most damaging part of pervasive bias, whether it’s implicit or complicit because sometimes it can be well-intentioned, is when that bias gets internalized and women start self-centering and stop thinking that they’re incapable of achieving what they want and achieve empowerment.”
Plus, this isn’t exactly the first time we’ve seen strong women fighters on screen. Jessica Alba broke through with her Golden Globe-nominated role as a genetically modified elite soldier in James Cameron and Charles Eglee’s “Dark Angel” in 2000. Children of the 1970s grew up on Lynda Carter as the most iconic butt-kicking heroine of them all in “The New Adventures of Wonder Woman.” A character who, it’s worth mentioning, is also headlining her own movie this summer and is played by no less than Israeli Defense Forces veteran Gal Gadot. Female MMA fighters Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey have also found mainstream success through films like “Deadpool” and the “Fast & Furious” franchises.
“Westworld” exec producer Joy’s infatuation with tough gal fighters on screen started with creator Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Although she says her personality was more on par with Buffy’s bookish sidekick, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), this series “was transformative in that she was a female character who definitely kicked ass, but at the same time was vulnerable and human.”
“There was a power in those characters that I had reached for from mythology,” says Joy, who is also penning the big screen adaptation of “Battlestar Galactica,” another franchise known for ferocious female characters. “There are characters like Athena, who were these female warrior gods amongst us. And that’s bled into the world of superheroes. I think people like to see these empowered, for lack of a better term, gods. They’re things we’re telling you about — superheroes shaping the world — are things we gravitate to as inspiration or cautionary tales, in the case of villains, of who we can be has always influenced me.”
For Schechter, who grew up pining for ways to celebrate her female crime-fighting role models — especially after she saw that Superman underwear only came for boys — the growth of butt-kicking women on TV is less a discussion on the need for gender equality as it is for common sense.
“I am a woman; I want there to be great representation for women, but also these are just great stories to tell and it would be silly not to tell them,” she says. “I think it’s so difficult for women to grapple with all of the strength that they have inside of them because we don’t live in a world that encourages or rewards that. To be able to tell a story that celebrates the strength of women is, to me, not just an opportunity but a responsibility.”