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Twilight of the Leading Ladies?

Chris Harnick
Cast of Veronica Mars

As cancellations force more alpha female characters off the air, the question arises: Are we seeing television audiences and studios turn away from strong women as leads?

One is petite and blond, armed only with her sarcastic wit and a Taser. Another petite blonde is armed with a wooden stake and super strength. A third is tall, leather-clad, brunette, and carries a sword. They're Veronica Mars, Buffy Summers, and Xena, respectively, some of the strongest leading women on television. But they’re all leading women of the past. Both Buffy and Xena had an extended stay on television, but not Veronica Mars, which only lasted a brief three years. And this raises the question: does centering a show on a witty, independent, young female result in a show’s demise these days?

The Fall 2007 television season kicked off with NBC’s much-hyped remake of Bionic Woman, debuting to decent Nielsen ratings. But then viewers started leaving in droves. At the same time, The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster, tanked at theaters. In early October, Nikki Finke, a writer for LA Weekly, posted in her blog that several movie producers reported to her on a new decree by Jeff Robinov, who at the time was Warner Bros.’ president of production. In response to the failure of The Brave One, Robinov reportedly said, “We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead.” Then it was announced that Joss Whedon’s anticipated take on DC Comics’ Wonder Woman character had been shelved by Warner Bros. in favor of introducing the character in the proposed Justice League movie. The feeling, apparently, is that Wonder Woman could not carry a movie on her own.

From the fleeing audience of Bionic Woman to comments from industry types like Robinov, it's easy to draw the conclusion that there’s a mindset in Hollywood that strong women are no longer a commodity in television and film. In a series of interviews conducted in November of 2007, a number of analysts and media producers weighed in on whether or not this represents a real trend.

Rob Thomas, the creator of Veronica Mars, says he doesn’t think it’s a conscious trend, or that having a young woman as the title character turned people away from his show. “It wasn’t as if I thought the market had spoken in some big way about strong female characters on television and in some way rejecting them,” says Thomas.

Dr. Robert Thompson, nationally renowned as a television and popular culture expert, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, and a trustee professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, shared a similar opinion. “I don’t think we as a nation are rejecting powerful female characters,” Thompson says. “After all, we’re looking like we’re slouching towards perhaps putting a powerful woman character into the White House for the first time ever.”

However, Ryan Vaughan, a professor of English courses based on television and media studies at Binghamton University, says he thinks there is a change in the way women are depicted on television. “There’s a trend away from alphaness on TV in both women and men. It’s a progression,” he claims.

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock

Vaughan theorizes that current television programs are presenting audiences with “beta” male and females as lead characters. He says Xena and Buffy were alpha females, and offers Liz Lemon, on 30 Rock, as a beta female compared to her boss Jack, the show’s alpha male. Tina Fey plays Lemon, the show-runner for the fictional program The Girlie Show. A new network executive, Jack, played by Alec Baldwin, makes Lemon add a big-name movie star and change the name from The Girlie Show to TGS with Tracy Jordan. Both Vaughan and Thompson cited Fey’s character as a strong lead woman on television.

Vaughan also points out that strong women are still very much represented on television on shows such as According to Jim, Still Standing, and other “fat guy, hot wives shows.” Women on those shows are often depicted as smarter than their husbands, he says. “It goes back to The Honeymooners; it’s an age-old archetype. Women are not disappearing.”

But when female-driven shows like Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls are compared to shows like Buffy, Alias and Bionic Woman, there’s an obvious difference between them. Mars and Gilmore are more “real world” than the others -- though Thomas is quick to point out there aren’t many teenage private eyes like Veronica Mars running around in real life.

Veronica Mars had support from various aspects of the entertainment industry, but it didn’t survive past three seasons. The show had a cult fan following, including celebrities like Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith and Stephen King, and the support of dozens of critics. Yet Mars always seemed to be on borrowed time.

“When I start to look at why Veronica Mars didn’t get seasons four and five, I tend not to think of it in terms of the market rejecting the notion of the strong female,” Thomas states. Instead, he cites several failures in marketing and promotion.

“I don’t believe that Veronica Mars was a show... I don't think it's a highbrow art show by any means. But at the same time it’s not TV for the casual watcher in a way that a lot of television is,” he notes. “It’s tougher to find an audience for those shows, shows where an audience member sort of has to invest in it in order to really get something out of it. Either you’re a devoted watcher, or you don’t watch Veronica Mars."

Television expert Thompson agrees with Thomas’s theory on Veronica Mars failing due to lack of promotion. He also cites the show’s different timeslots, which at different times over its three-year run pitted the show against ratings giants House, American Idol, and Lost. According to Thompson, “The type of people who like Lost are the exact same people who would like Veronica Mars.”

Still, as the series creator, Thomas is willing to admit the possibility that having a strong female as the lead character might have been a contributing factor to the show’s failure to draw the viewers it needed.

“It is interesting, however, that the saying when I was writing teen books -- and it’s true to a certain extent in television as well -- was that girls will watch boys or girls, and that boys will only watch boys," Thomas points out. "Of course, that’s not true across the board. Certainly Veronica Mars is a show I like to think I would’ve watched had I not been involved in it.”

But Thomas says there is some truth to that generalization. He said UPN picked up Veronica Mars in the first place because it was looking to attract a female audience and wanted shows with a strong female lead.

Rae Hanson, editor and main contributor to Ramblings of a TV Whore, a blog about television by fans for fans, says she believes Veronica Mars didn’t find a large audience because of the smaller networks it was on, not because it was focused on a strong female lead.

“If the show had aired on a major network and still failed, then it might be a more valid question,” Hanson says. “I actually think Veronica being a strong but flawed female is what drew a large part of its audience in that first season.”

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars,

with co-star Jason Dohring

Hanson also asserts that marketing by the network failed Veronica Mars by not portraying what the show was really about. “They never could seem to find a way to capture the essence of the show in the marketing. If we’re talking about things that seem to turn audiences off, I think that’s more where the fault lies,” she says. “It’s not so much that people don’t want strong female characters in the lead, it’s that they hear ‘high school’ or ‘teenaged’ and they immediately dismiss it. I think that’s why the show never got the numbers the networked hoped.”

Still, the experiences of Veronica Mars can't account for the rest of television, or the directions chosen by studios. Contrasted to Mars, the revived Bionic Woman had the benefits of major network backing and an extensive marketing campaign, yet viewers dwindled rapidly. When asked about whether a parallel exists with his show, Thomas claims any similarities are not due to the television market turning its back on strong females, and he notes that Bionic Woman's ratings slip may have been because the show wasn’t being run properly. Behind-the-scenes changes that began in early September, like the sudden exit of executive producer Glen Morgan, reportedly because of creative differences, would seem to back up Thomas’s theory.

“It’s how well you do what you do,” Thomas says. “Buffy and Alias were successful because they were well done." Noting the ultimate need to maintain your appeal to an audience, he says, “Because they’ve been falling off and falling off, and falling off, my guess is that it’s not particularly well executed.”

Michelle Ryan as Bionic Woman

Thomas says that Bionic Woman's lack of success shouldn't overshadow the huge audience that tuned in at the beginning, because they were all set to “buy the big idea.” Thomas said writers tend to think they can sell anything as long as it’s executed well.

“The way television writers view why shows work versus the way studio or network executives view why shows work -- or don’t work -- are such different things,” he says. “Network and studio executives always think that it can be tracked back to the big idea; this is the premise, this is the show that can be described in one sentence. Whether it succeeds or fails is whether the American audience has bought that one sentence.”

Television blogger Hanson also says she doesn’t see a trend in strong women being rejected by Hollywood. She says Bionic Woman's dwindling viewers has more to do with the show itself.

“If anything, I think the fact that it started out strong should indicate to folks like the WB honcho that made the comment about female leads that there is an audience out there who likes strong female leads,” Hanson says. “But that audience won't stick around if the show/movie doesn't live up to the hype, just like they wouldn’t stick around for a male-led show that doesn’t live up to the hype.”

There may be other factors at work as well. Pointing to the mathematics of television gender disparity, Thompson says another reason the public may notice a trend in disappearing female leads on television is because of how networks develop shows. He says the odds are already against female-driven shows, because when compared to the number of male driven shows being developed, the scales aren’t balanced.

“If you throw 15 shows with male protagonists against the wall and the usual 90 percent suck, you’ve got one and a half hits,” Thompson says. “If you only throw five with female protagonists up against the wall and the usual 90 percent don’t work, you’ve got half of a hit.”

On the other hand, Mel Caylo, former editorial director for Wizard Entertainment, a company responsible for several fan conventions and publications based on comic books and popular culture, says he's definitely seen the industry move away from strong women.

“The current trend in film is that female-centric genre movies do not tend to do very well,” Caylo says. He cited such box office bombs as Elektra, Catwoman and Aeon Flux.

Cast of Terminator:

The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Speaking before the debut of the new series, Caylo introduces a new example: “This may be the same for TV in this case, and the reason is not very clear. It’s just the American taste these days. FOX, recognizing this, has renamed their forthcoming mid-season show from The Sarah Connor Chronicles to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

Changing the name is one indication that FOX might not have had initial faith that show, which features two female leads -- the title character Sarah Connor and a female Terminator -- could survive without the franchise tie-in being a part of the title.

Still, Thompson suggests that people take a different look at the female action movies that bombed at the box office. He points to other reasons why people weren’t flocking to the movies, including promotion and production value, and compares Catwoman to Spider-Man in regard to publicity for the films and pre-existing character popularity.

When it comes down to either television or movies, it seems it’s not the gender of the main character, but rather the support from the networks and studios that makes the difference. Critics are continuously raving about Tina Fey and 30 Rock, with numerous awards including Golden Globes and Emmys under its belt, but without correspondingly large audiences, how long is it before NBC really starts to worry about the numbers? Britney Spears recently guest starred on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, and gave the show its best ratings ever. In a recent conference call with several media outlets, Fey said she would love to work with Spears on 30 Rock -- which might indicate that guest star appearances for ratings may be required for the show's survival.

Of course, trying to divine television trends from the '07/'08 season is problematic, given the much-discussed winter writer's strike, which signed the death warrant on a number of series, including the aforementioned Bionic Woman. Simple bad timing may be the ultimate reason for series cancellations -- this year, at least. And in the time since these interviews were conducted, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles debuted to and maintained strong ratings, leading to industry buzz that FOX will likely pick the show up for a second season, while Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas has moved on to new projects, with three new pilots in development.

As for Veronica Mars itself, Thomas is still hoping to do a motion picture version of the show, although studios aren’t exactly clamoring to produce a movie of a low-rated television series. In the meantime, he's talked about taking Veronica to the comic book medium. Still, he said, the American public is ready to accept strong women. If fan response and campaigns -- such as the letter-writing campaign that had fans sending Mars Bars to the CW -- are any indication, the public isn’t done with Thomas and his characters, but with only three years on television compared to Buffy’s seven and Xena’s six, who knows what kind of fan base Mars could have developed.

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