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Cobie Smulders, Tika Sumpter on Redefining ‘Strength’ in Female TV Characters

As the television landscape only continues to expand and gender parity, especially when it comes to salaries, is at the top of conversations, a few new fall shows are endeavoring to equally enlarge the footprint their female characters are having on- and off-screen.

For Cobie Smulders of ABC’s “Stumptown,” a pivotal part of her character Dex who is a war veteran and rare private detective who is not “a man or a teenage girl,” is her post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I feel like everyone is suffering from PTSD. I think if you’re a human being you’re going to experience some kind of trauma — obviously there are varying degrees on that,” Smulders said at “ABC’s Leading Women: In Conversation,” an event thrown by the alphabet network at the Wing in West Hollywood, Calif. on Saturday.

Dex has certainly experienced one of the extreme versions of PTSD because of the killing she has seen, Smulders said, and she hopes the show will get Dex to a place where “she is getting treatment and getting help because I don’t think we as a country treat veterans very well.”

While that character growth may be aways away, given that the show only just premiered its first episode on the alphabet network Sept. 25, Smulders said that the early excitement around the character for her was to “play a woman who doesn’t really need to apologize for her behavior and who is suffering, like so many of us in this world.

“I get to play the quote-unquote strong females. And that usually means there’s stunts involved; she is in the military; she is in the Marvel universe, in charge, and that’s all wonderful, but I think what’s exciting for me about this role is she’s fighting a lot but she is also so damaged.” For instance, Dex “has trouble holding down a job,” Smulders continued. “To be able to portray both sides of someone [is] a nice combination of showing different shades of what ‘strong’ means.”

Similarly, Tika Sumpter expressed her own excitement at being able to portray a different kind of strength through her “Mixed-ish” matriarch role Alicia Johnson. “This woman in ’85 is a lawyer; her husband’s a stay-at-home dad. She wears the pants,” Sumpter pointed out. But, because Alicia is living in a time when her mixed race children are very much “the beta testers of this world,” she will own moments of vulnerability as well.

“We never get to show our fragility, we never get to show our goofiness, we never get to show these other aspects of who we are,” Sumpter, who noted that often she has often felt that “being a Black woman, we’re ‘othered’ a lot and not invited into the room,” said of the show. “I’m excited to open up this other space in which we can all dwell and thrive and not have this one-sided conversation of struggle. It’s not based in violence, it’s not based in, ‘I don’t have a quarter to afford an apple.’ There is another aspect; there’s happiness as well, and then there’s figuring out where you are in the world.”

Sumpter shared that storylines within the first season of “Mixed-ish” will take on pay disparity head-on. “A lot of the issues you see today, they existed in ’85 and they exist today,” she said.

One issue that Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”) still wants to see addressed within the industry, she implied, was how sex scenes are shot: “If there’s sex just for the sake of it or for the streaming of it all, no thank you,” she said. “There are some lady directors out there that I think are just as exploitive. I went there. I see you. I see what you did. A lot of upskirt shots in your show.”

While McLendon-Covey didn’t name-names when it came to the directors — male or female — she thought were exploiting actors or telling stories solely through the male gaze, she did cite both “Pose” and “Broad City” as examples of shows that are “very sex-positive” but not gratuitous.

Because the event was at the Wing, a workspace for women, a big part of the conversation also pivoted to advice for the young women trying to follow in these accomplished panelists’ shoes. Ming-Na Wen (“Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD”) shared that her go-to advice is to not “let anything be your excuse and limitation to make you go, ‘Oh that’s why I didn’t get that job.’ We can make every excuse in the book…so you can’t make excuses.” Telling a story about Danny DeVito, who Wen recently met at the Emmys, she noted that he is a guy who seemed like he “shouldn’t have made it in this industry — but he had the confidence and he had the talent and he had the smarts.” That is an attitude she felt strongly needs to be cultivated by everyone with a dream.

“You have to just believe in your heart that you have something to offer — your individuality, your uniqueness — and surround yourself with people who will support you in that endeavor,” she said. And if you don’t have anyone to surround yourself who do? “Find it in yourself,” she said.

McLendon-Covey added that the idea of competition needs to be taken “off the plate” because it’s a distracting idea that doesn’t really exist. “If something’s not meant for you, it’s not meant for you,” she said. “If you’re in this competitive field with all this rejection, aren’t you crazy for staying? It’s going to come to you when it’s meant to and in the meantime you’re sowing seeds, you’re getting an education.”

However, she also noted the importance of listening to one’s emotions because “if you’re in an industry that makes you feel like the self-doubt is so bad, then you have to switch industries. No one was meant to be miserable. No one was put here to be miserable. When you go into a store and a dress doesn’t fit, did that dress reject you? No, it wasn’t the right fit. You don’t want to be in a dress that doesn’t fit.”

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