The New Girls Take Over Television

New Shows Attempt to Portray Complex Women, but Get Bogged Down in Contrived Situations




Scenes from various femme-driven television shows. Clockwise from top left: “The Mindy Project,” “Girls,” and “New Girl.”

The cult of domesticity in the early twentieth century promoted women as domestic angels: cleaning, cooking, removed from the grit of the real world.  Feminism in the latter half of the same century encouraged strong women who took no orders from men and lived on their own terms.  The result is a generation of women who are an amalgamation; women who want to be strong and soft, ambitious and romantic, heroes and princesses all in one, and the art of the day reflects that trend—specifically on the great equalizer of TV. Today’s female-centric television series attempt to capture modern young women of today, yet they often miss the base in many ways.

Characters such as Jess Day in “New Girl” (Zooey Deschanel), Mindy Lahiri in “The Mindy Project” (Mindy Kaling) and Hannah Horvath in “Girls” (Lena Dunham) have ambitions and goals that are personal as well as career oriented. Kaling’s character is a private practice doctor with an addiction to romantic movies (at one point she declares “I’m basically Sandra Bullock”). Deschanel’s is an incurably optimistic elementary school teacher who starts a new life after leaving her unfaithful boyfriend.Dunham’s is a twenty-something aspiring writer who is trying to make it in the big city.

These women are emotional, naïve, ambitious, uncompromising, idealistic, neurotic and quirky. The shows don’t portray their characters as utterly confident or glamorous In fact, “Girls” tries very hard to demystify women’s glamour—they often actively showcase Hannah in unflattering angles and situations in various states of dishabille. Mindy’s male coworker comments on her weight (though she jabs him about the obviously sensitive topic of his divorce).  Even the drop-dead gorgeous Jess is pleasantly surprised when her roommate Schmidt tells her he’d sleep with her. The rise of these self-doubting females, who often appear and seem like everyday women, signifies the end of TV’s “perfect woman,” a tradition that stems from the saccharine sweetness of “Father Knows Best” to the over confident and often shallow cast of “Sex and the City.”

In most of these new female-centric shows, the aim is to provide viewers with an accurate depiction of today’s modern woman. Judd Apatow, producer of “Girls,” said the show would feature characters that are “realistic females,” which is noble.  But in attempting to showcase well-rounded, imperfect women, these shows often go too far. In the pilot episode of “The Mindy Project,” the eponymous Mindy gets very drunk at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and makes a very embarrassing toast.  In “New Girl,” Jess’s boyfriend’s infidelity causes her to become so self-conscious that she contracts the yips and accidentally chokes a new boyfriend in an amorous moment.  They are not realistic interpretations, because on the whole, real women do not typically act this way. In many ways, the use of “girl” in these titles is justified—these characters are not emotionally mature or logical; they are bundles of pathos wrapped up in self-consciousness, rarely thinking about the consequences of their actions.

The female-centric shows of today have eschewed perfect-looking women with flawless lives in favor of flawed females with real problems. In the search for a “realistic female” show, however, the producers and writers of these new programs have overshot the situations.  These female protagonists are true “hot messes”—they are almost too imperfect, too messed up, too damaged. What the creators of these shows have neglected to realize is that women (and people in general, for that matter) can be both confident and doubtful at turns, both knowing and naive, both logical and emotional. In effect, most people are a happy medium, not an extreme; a fact that should be documented if today’s TV shows are truly searching for a realistic female-centric series.