TV/New Media

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Kayla Upadhyaya: Why fictional women still can't have it all

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published September 17, 2012

Summer is over, and with it went the simple, comforting pleasures of summer reading. Perhaps you — like me — used the extra, textbookless time to drift away in some fiction or refill your magazine stockpile. But of all the things I read this summer, few were as pervasive as a particular article in the Atlantic that was emailed, tweeted at and shared with me too many times to count: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the State Department.

Being both a feminist and a TV columnist, I’ve been thinking about how Slaughter’s argument holds up on television. Are fictional women still confronted with obstacles in the workplace? The answer isn’t as simple as no, but it’s a far cry from a yes. So let’s look at why women still can’t have it all … on television.

First, some parameters. Slaughter’s piece focuses on a very specific group of women — upper-class, educated, predominantly white women in positions of power. She recognizes her narrow scope, and while I see a lot of limitations to her viewpoint, I will look at a similarly privileged group of television’s highest ranked female characters for the sake of consistency.

Many women on television are either really good at their careers or really good at raising a family — rarely both. And if they prioritize their career, they’re demonized. No example makes this clearer than Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) on FX’s legal thriller “Damages.” Patty made a firm choice early in life to place her legal career before everything else, and the other characters and the show itself paint her as quite the monster. She’s a ruthless ladder climber who bullies and manipulates her son Michael (in his words: “You wanted to completely control of my life, so you took away my free will. Some pretty terrific parenting, real mother-of-the-year type stuff.”) and habitually forgets her granddaughter’s birthday.

At first, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) of “Damages” seems to be the anti-Patty. She is dedicated to her family and her career. She even turns down her initial interview with Patty’s firm to attend her sister’s wedding. But as the series continues, Ellen is forced to make difficult choices — and the second she starts placing the legal stuff over the personal stuff, she’s criticized for it. In season four, her boyfriend tells her that there are two types of lawyers: the ones who want “more” (kids, a family) and the ones who want success. Ellen’s the latter, destined for emptiness and regret later in life. Yes, he literally breaks up with her for being too ambitious.

After all, “ambition looks better on men.” Or so says the fictional Supreme Court Justice Diane Nash (Vanessa Redgrave) on “Political Animals.” She’s talking to Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), the secretary of state who has decided to run for president on the USA miniseries based very loosely on the life of Hillary Clinton. Diane’s words sting, but she’s right. Ambitious men are impressive. Ambitious women are cold and heartless. Look at any description on the Internet of “The O.C.” ’s Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), “Ugly Betty” ’s Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) on “Once Upon a Time” or Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) from “Desperate Housewives,” and you’re guaranteed to see the words “ambitious” and “devious” in succession.

And we see this distinction in media all the time, even if it’s not super blatant. Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) of “Veep,” President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) of “24,” Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) of “The Good Wife” — all these women are powerful and good at what they do. But they’re also, at least to some extent, calculating bitches. And some of them are stripped of traits widely considered as feminine.