She’s doing It: Catherine Engh Wants More Female Characters Like Leslie Knopes

by Gloria Feldt on February 15th, 2012
in 9 Ways Blog, Employ Every Medium, Gender, No Excuses, Power Tools, She's Doing It and tagged , , , , , ,

Catherine Engh is a feminist and an aspiring writer particularly interested in the ways that girls and women are represented in fiction and television. She wrote this piece for 9 Ways–it’s a great example of No Excuses Power Tool # 8: Employ Every Medium. Plus there are some useful tips on how to be a media activist.

Catherine also likes to do as much yoga as is possible–perhaps she’ll write about that next.

Recently, I couldn’t help but notice that many of my favorite television shows are about men. Don Draper, Nucky Thompson, Walter White, Hank Moody and Vincent Chase are just a few male lead roles that come to mind.

It is not news that stories about the identity struggles of white men sell. Thus, they are more commonly aired than shows that explore women’s lives and choices. Though women are more likely to watch entertainment programming than men, the majority of those involved with television creation are male. Women’s Media Center  reported that in the 2010-2011 year, women made up just 25 percent of behind the scenes roles (producers, writers, directors of photography, cinematographers etc.) in television production and that just 12 percent of television directors were women. It is no wonder that 41 rather than 50 percent of all characters on television are female.

Amidst so many television shows concerned primarily with narratives surrounding the morally ambiguous choices of male anti-heros (see Mad Men, Breaking Bad), Parks and Recreation is a breath of feminist fresh air. The show centers on the life of Leslie Knope, a government bureaucrat in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. An overachiever driven by her desire to make Pawnee a better place for everyone, Knope is all any reasonable person could expect from a feminist character. She knows what she wants both personally and professionally and she is willing to do whatever it takes to get it. She is such a support to her friends and co-workers that Ron Swanson, her boss, says, “the biggest problem with Leslie is that she is too thoughtful.” Though she is a bit controlling and often hesitant to accept other’s perspectives, these flaws, along with her virtues, make her character human.

I will continue to watch and enjoy Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men for reasons unrelated to feminism. However, I will also continue to criticize these shows where I see female characters that lack depth beyond the recycled stereotypes they represent. I’m tired of seeing the overbearing mother, unstable temptress, and childlike ‘good’ girl figures over and over. Television needs more Leslie Knopes—female characters whose lives are interesting and compelling enough to warrant their positioning as the central force of a television show.

So what can be done to attack gendered stereotypes and advocate for a greater diversity of representation in television? Support one of the many organizations that work to bring about gender justice in media content, production and/or policy. Campaigns are offering media education courses, creating and airing PSA’s about inspiring women and connecting media makers, funders and academics. I have compiled a list of a few places to start for those of you game-changers out there interested in getting involved with the movement.

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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