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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. Don’t get me wrong, these kind of ultra-bitch characters tend to be my favorites. But what’s the underlying message here? Career women can’t have any maternal qualities?

“16 Hours,” the fifth episode of “Political Animals” illustrates a lot of the issues Slaughter discusses — to the point where it almost feels like the episode is a purposeful dramatization of her argument. As Elaine sits next to her son T.J.’s (Sebastian Stan) hospital bed after his cocaine overdose, she laments to her ex-husband Bud (Ciarán Hinds) that they spent too much time on their political careers when their sons were teenagers, a time when — according to Slaughter — “being available as a parent is just as important as in the first years of a child’s life.” In the same episode, journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) also points to her decision to place her career before her personal life: “You wake up one day and you realize that while you were being brazen making a name for yourself, everyone made a life.”

Neither Elaine nor Susan speak explicitly in terms of motherhood or their gender. But even in the super progressive world of “Political Animals,” there isn’t enough flexibility in the workplace to allow women to have both families and a career. And in the case of Susan, much like Ellen Parsons, people are uncomfortable with her desire to place work before everything else. Sure, Elaine’s other son Doug (James Wolk) tells Susan during their intimate, wine-infused flight that he admires her courage — but the entire reason Susan’s boyfriend gives for cheating on her is that she was too focused on her career to pay any attention on him.

Some shows avoid the issue of women making compromises between their careers and their families by eliminating the family factor altogether. President Laura Roslin of “Battlestar Galactica” has no children. Her compassion for the Galactica fleet that she leads often seems matriarchal in nature, but her nurturing tendencies are actually looked down upon by much of her constituency, and she’s disregarded as a simple “schoolteacher” — an interesting choice of words for the secretary of education — who is unfit for presidency. Then there’s the opposite problem: female characters who are first and foremost mothers or wives who fail whenever they try to step out of these roles. It’s something I’ve criticized “Modern Family” for, but is also present on “The Sopranos” with Carmella, “Entourage” with Melissa Gold (hell, most people only know her as ‘Mrs. Ari’), and even Marge on “The Simpsons.”

Is the notion of women “having it all” so elusive and improbable that we can’t even make it possible in fictional realms? I’m not suggesting that if women on TV can have it all, the real world will follow suit (if that logic worked, we’d have had a woman in the White House already). Slaughter makes it quite clear that the road to women wielding enough power to create a society that works for all women is very complicated. But breaking down some of the stereotypes of career women seen on television is a step in the right direction — and it’d be refreshing to see some of the progressive changes to society that Slaughter discusses implemented on television.

I can think of one woman who has it all: “Friday Night Lights” ’s Tami Taylor. And I think few would disagree that TV needs more Tami Taylors.


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