The Portrayal of Women in Television

Television has been with most of us for all of our lives and one of the issues that has vexed feminists (and anyone else with good taste) is the portrayal of women in movies and television. Thanks to the deluge of reruns from the past on SKY we can now compare what was and determine if what is has improved the plight of women kind. So I took it upon myself to answer this rather important question. So I have watched the Jones channel and cast my world weary gaze upon the offerings found there.


Two programs I focused on, largely because I watched them as a child and thought they were incredibly cool, are Chips and Knight Rider. Both of these programs enjoyed a huge popularity in the day. Chips reigned supreme in the 1970’s and Knight Rider bought us KITT in the 1980’s. I also took the time to  see plenty of cringe worthy material in Buck Rogers and the original Star Trek. I also observed  things that occurred in Wonder Woman that are abominations inflicted on woman kind.


It did not take long before I noticed that the women portrayed in these TV classics seem to spend an inordinate amount of time flouncing and simpering and swooning into the arms of  muscle bound heroes all of whom have great teeth. I cringed so hard on some occasions I put myself at risk of a personal injury. For the sake of completeness, I also took it upon myself to study the portrayal of the human male in action movies and I have to say that the cringe factor is alive and well there also.


These movies have a strong focus on cliché male heroes who manage to take on entire armies whilst armed with nothing but a sharpened ball point pen and a range of one liners as they dispatch their multitude of foes. Normally there will be a sea of car wrecks and blown up buildings in their wake and when the villain is vanquished there are no repercussions from either the law or angry building owners. It is simply accepted that everyone will recognise the hero did what he had to and the sea of carnage left behind him was merely incidental to the need for the hero to get it on with the heroine and kill the bad guy.


I can only conclude that the cultures and experience of the times were not helpful in portraying either gender in a way that does not result in massive cultural cringe when viewed later in the context of our modern society. Thankfully there has been a welcome shift for both genders though male characters underwent a revolution first. Back in the day the household names were Michael Knight, Jon and Ponch and um Mr T for television. The beginning of the 21st Century bought us Tony Soprano and later characters like Al Swearengen in Deadwood who were gritty and real and multi-dimensional. The hero gave way to the anti-hero and simplistic clichés were no longer acceptable.


But what about women in modern television? It took a little longer to break women out of the pat insipid formulas that women have been historically subjected to. The reason for this is because women are much harder to portray in a meaningful way then men. The depth of character required for a valid portrayal of women did not fit well into the program structures of the 20th century. Each program was designed to run for 40 odd minutes (an hour with ads) and to have a conclusive ending at the end of each episode. This left no time for any realistic portrayal of a female character.


The Sopranos changed all that when producers were introduced to the 12-episode series structure that allowed deep story lines and opened the path to the development of character’s previously limited under the older previous model of television production. This was exactly what was needed to finally portray female character’s in a way that pays homage to the complexities and the subtleties of women kind.



There are two women I want to focus on when examining the modern female thespian and the portrayal of women in modern television. The first woman is found in the Walking Dead. All the women in this series are incredibly authentic but one stands out above the others. Melissa McBride acts as Carol Peletier who starts off in the original series as the wife of an abusive husband who was a survivalist even before the dead took over the world.


Originally the writers intended on killing Carol off in season 3 or so rumor says but the incredible depth the character bought to the show and Melissa McBride’s acting stayed the executioner and now Carol is one of the pinnacle characters in the series.


Watching Carol turn from a mouse afraid of her own shadow to the woman she becomes demonstrates the major advances in portraying women on television. In her way Carol Peltier is as inspirational as the main male character Rick Grimes and I would willingly follow either into the gates of hell in the event of a zombie apocalypse. The fact that such two diverse characters of different genders are equally inspiring is a testimony to the development of the modern female in television.




"Who I was with him, she got burned away, and I was happy about that. Not happy, but... at the prison, I got to be who I always thought I should be, thought I should've been. And then she got burned away. Everything now just consumes you."


"Just tell them a story. It's what I've been doing since I got here. Because these people are children, and children like stories."



Melissa McBride

Acts as Carol Peletier

Series The Walking Dead


Mj Kim/Contributor Getty Images

Tatiana Maslany

Acts as just about everyone

Series Orphan Black


Mike Windle/Staff Getty Images

The next woman I would like to talk about is a woman who is inspirational both on set and off. I refer to the acting phenomenon that is Tatiana Gabrielle Maslany. Tatiana plays multiple roles in the series Orphan Black. Orphan Black is about clones and Tatiana plays every single one of them. Each clone acts very differently from her sister clones and sometimes we are treated to one clone pretending to be another clone. The acting skill required is beyond anything any thespian has previously ever achieved in my view.


The clones themselves have their own followings. Just about all Orphan Black fans have their favourite clone and I will detail the main clones here:


Sarah Manning: Streetwise Punk, drifter and scammer.


Elizabeth Childs: A policewoman who takes her own life.


Katja Obinger:  Katya is suffering a disease due to genetic anomaly in the cloning process.


Alison Hendrix: Stressed soccer mum with hard core tendencies.


Cosima Niehaus: Dreadlocked lesbian scientist also suffering the same disease as Katya.


Rachel Duncan: Cold as an iceberg and ruthless to boot. Cold alluring and very dangerous in her way.


Helena: No last name known. A psychotic killer who can be very loyal and possesses a great love for children. The creepiest and most dangerous of the clones but loved by many fans. The consensus appears  to be that Helena may be a psychotic killer with impulse control issues but she is our psychotic killer!


These are the women that Tatiana has bought to modern television. Orphan Black is considered one of the most female focused series ever made and it does its job brilliantly. Tatiana is one of the most brilliant actresses ever and I can never help but smile whenever I see her working at her art.


Thanks to the efforts of modern writers backed by the brilliance of women like Melissa McBride and Tatiana Maslany the role of women in modern television is not only safe but it is thriving and opening up a whole new era of storytelling. Women are bringing new and exciting concepts to entertainment just as the industry was getting bogged down by a lack of original material.  In this we are truly blessed.