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[COMMENTARY] How to Succeed while Keeping Your Soul

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  • madchinaman
    How to Succeed at Vampire Slaying and Keep Your Soul By Jane Espenson, Jane Espenson, a TV writer and producer, has worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 20, 2005
      How to Succeed at Vampire Slaying and Keep Your Soul
      By Jane Espenson, Jane Espenson, a TV writer and producer, has
      worked on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Gilmore Girls" and many other
      shows. She is co-executive producer of "The Inside," a Fox TV show
      scheduled for the f


      Children are the world's most ardent traditionalists. They like
      things stable and categorized.


      I've been a television writer for a dozen years, and I've been
      fortunate to put words in the mouths of some great female
      characters. They've been working women, mostly, and I like to think
      they've become role models for a generation of girls trying to
      figure out their futures.

      But let's be honest: TV isn't going to change anyone's perceptions
      of working women in the real world just by promoting fictional
      females to ever-higher positions of authority. And I'm not doing my
      job if I put a woman's career before her character.

      Deciding what a character does for a living on a TV show is often a
      matter of convenience. "What if we had a set where Ellen could meet
      her friends other than in her house?" a writer might ask. "How
      about, um, a bookstore? A coffee shop? A bookstore with a coffee
      shop in it?"

      Other times, the career is so tied to the character that they are
      really one and the same. It's hard to say where Buffy Summers ends
      and "The Vampire Slayer" begins, for example. Television's early
      working women were gender-cast as maids — Hazel, Alice from "The
      Brady Bunch" — secretaries, nurses and teachers. The women who had
      settled into long-term careers — Jane Hathaway on "The Beverly
      Hillbillies," Sally Rogers on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" — regretted
      not having found themselves a good man instead. The exceptions, even
      small ones, stood out. I remember watching an episode of "Leave It
      to Beaver," already in reruns and looking ancient in its plucky
      black-and-white. I had never, in all my 11 years, seen a female
      principal. I actually remember the exhilarating "Oh, girls can do
      that" feeling.

      Children are the world's most ardent traditionalists. They like
      things stable and categorized. They want to know what girls can do
      and what girls can't do. Television, like it or not, teaches them a
      lot of these rules. Diahann Carroll's nurse on "Julia" and
      communications officer Uhura on "Star Trek" weren't just important
      for African American girls. They were important for the rest of us
      too. And even though I understood that simpering, Jethro-grabbing
      Miss Hathaway was supposed to be a pathetic figure, the tightly
      crimped power she seemed to have at the bank was certainly

      In the '70s, things changed. Mary Richards' job as a TV news
      producer was more than something to do until she married. And then
      single working mom Ann Romano of "One Day at a Time" and waitress
      Alice Hyatt of "Alice" came along. These were the "woman but" shows —
      as in "She's a woman, but she works!"

      Heavy-handed? Oh dang, Skippy, they could be heavy-handed. When
      societal shifts dictate storytelling, you end up with your star
      pouring coffee in her lecherous boss' lap as the audience hoots in
      solidarity. But these shows made their point, and we came out the
      other side with a more balanced television landscape. Finally a
      woman could work without writers having to point a big neon sign at
      her (now we just point those at gay characters).

      Today the percentage of female judges, college professors and
      detectives seen on television is a pretty good reflection of the
      actual world. (In the case of judges, I wouldn't be shocked to find
      out the number on television exceeds the number in real life — what
      is it about those black robes that makes us think ovaries?)

      But merely thrusting more women into more prestigious on-screen jobs
      doesn't necessarily make the working world a better place for women.
      If you were to show people images of two real-life professionals,
      one a man, one a woman, and ask them to rate their competence
      knowing nothing but job and gender — I bet people still give the
      guys the edge.

      It's not television's fault, exactly. But television can help fix
      the problem. Not by writing women into better professions, but by
      more accurately showing them as complex people contending with the
      sort of snide, generous, ambitious, incompetent, sad and hilarious
      co-workers who populate real workplaces.

      Lorelai Gilmore of "Gilmore Girls" manages her own business, an inn,
      despite a lack of formal education. That's not what makes her feel
      real, though. Viewers love Lorelai because of her human foibles —
      and the way she loves her daughter. That's why they can imagine her
      as someone with a life — and lifework — that continues even when the
      camera doesn't happen to be pointed at her.

      Back in my sitcom days on "Ellen," we writers had a puzzle. Star
      Ellen DeGeneres' character, who had just come out as a lesbian, was
      unemployed as we began the show's final season. We made a few
      halfhearted attempts to put her into a career. (Remember her stint
      as a radio host? No? Just as well.)

      The thing was, we knew that giving her a job was not what we were
      there to do. She lived that last year with freedom and humor and
      grace. She dated, she found a girlfriend, she struggled with her
      self-identity. Viewers judged her not by her job, or lack of one,
      but by the content of her character.

      It's true you don't worry about the mortgage quite as much when
      you're fictional. But anybody who conjured Ellen's resolve and basic
      decency would be well on the way to success as a nurse, teacher,
      bookstore-coffee shop manager/radio host, judge or sitcom writer.

      Then there's Buffy, the teenage "vampire slayer." A woman warrior,
      she refused to answer to her profession's stuffy, male-dominated
      Counsel of Watchers. She had the power, she reasoned, and that gave
      her the authority to decide how to use it. She didn't figure it out
      overnight or without a struggle, but after seven TV years, she had
      learned how to make it in the graveyard.

      I can't make real-life workplaces safer and more fair for women just
      by showing them with briefcases or crossbows. But I can try to grant
      my characters the quirky gift of humanity — whether they're
      adjudicating torts or dishing tortes or saving the world. And hope
      the little girls watching do the rest.
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