Katherine Heigl made news when she very vocally departed her job playing Dr. Izzie Stevens on the hit show Gray’s Anatomy because she didn’t think that the part was meaty enough. She wanted to play more substantial characters.
It’s a common complaint in Hollywood. You hear it mostly during awards shows either from presenters or nominees/winners. I’m guessing 5-10 years ago the complaint sounded something like “Isn’t it a shame there are better roles written for women these days but fortunately we got five nominees here to the rule.” In more recent years Hollywood has turned to patting itself on the back for doing a better job on the line goes something like “Isn’t it wonderful that they are finally writing better roles for women and boy have we got five doozies for you tonight!” Even though things are getting better, a recent sketch on Saturday Night Live featured a stereotypical character that was a poorly written female character in a badly written movie. It was funny because you’ve seen that character dozens of times in romantic comedies.
The irony of Haeigl’s boisterous departure is that she went on to star in several forgettable romantic comedies (Knocked Up, 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth), most of which her character was much more forgettable and less substantial than when she played Izzie on Gray’s. With her starring in the new NBC drama State of Affairs, one would hope that she was finally getting what she was looking for in the role of a tough, self-assured, well-written role model of a female role.
Before we get to the review of State of Affairs, I have to comment on the state of affairs of female roles in movies and TV shows. My guess is that the current state of affairs is going to turn out to be a case where the women say “It’s just what I asked for but it’s not what I want”.
Certainly we’ve come a long way in the types of characters being portrayed. Look at the career of Katey Sagal for example: She has gone from ditzy housewife Peg Bundy on Married with Children to a more believable struggling widowed single mom Cate Hennessey in 8 Simple Rules to Gemma Teller in Sons of Anarchy. While Gemma certainly is a more substantial role than Peg Bundy, is it any improvement in the way women want to be portrayed in media? They don’t want to be the airhead housewife but do they really want to be sociopathic biker gang matriarchs who kill their daughter-in-law and end up starting a gang war by covering it up? Do they really want little girls growing up to be Gemma Teller? I can appreciate the gals want to move beyond June Cleaver and Carol Brady but at what cost?
Shonda Rhimes who created Gray’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice, and the new How to Get Away with Murder seems to be the champion of writing meaty roles for women. She has done a lot for that cause. We also have Nurse Jackie, Homeland, Shameless, Black Box, Revenge, The Good Wife, and Madame Secretary all featuring strong female leads. While these are certainly better vehicles for actresses to show off their skills, are they really doing women any favors by portraying these characters? Here are just random observations that I’m able to come up with off the top of my head. I’m sure the list is more extensive.
Meredith Gray, Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating, Jackie Payton, Carrie Matheson, Fiona Gallagher, and Catherine Black have all been so obsessed with the men of their lives that it has nearly destroyed their careers. Although they are all “strong, independent women” sometimes they can’t help being guy crazy like a teenage girl in puppy love.
Carrie Matheson, Catherine Black are certifiably mentally ill. Also if you count vengeful, murdering, sociopaths as mentally ill we can throw in Gemma Teller and Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke as well.
Fiona Gallagher and Jackie Payton are drug addicts and the list of alcoholics and near alcoholics is too long to mention.
Carrie Matheson, Catherine Black, Jackie Payton, Fiona Gallagher, and Bad Judge Rebecca Wright can easily be described as nymphomaniacs. Carrie Matheson, Gemma Teller, and Amanda Clarke have had sexual affairs with enemies in order to manipulate them.
With the exception of perhaps Meredith Gray, all of the women listed in the previous three paragraphs have cheated on their husbands or steady boyfriends.
So that brings us to Katherine Heigl’s new role in NBC’s State of Affairs. She certainly is a “strong, independent woman” in that she is a top CIA analyst whose job it is to give the daily threat assessment briefing to the President of the United States. The president happens to be female and African-American so we got another cutting-edge role there. The show is just dripping with women making it in a man’s world by taking on roles traditionally reserved for men only and championing the feminist cause! Heigl is so macho her character’s name is “Charlie”. But it’s not short for “Charlene” or “Charlize”. It’s short for “Charleston”. You remember the last Charleston in Hollywood? He rode chariots in Ben Hur, parted the Red Sea, and declared “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” Okay so that was Charlton not Charleston but you get the point.
I have to wonder if the creator of the show went into the network executive and said “I’ve got this great idea for a show about a guy named Charlie whose job it is to brief the president on the terrorist threat of the day.”
The executive yawns.
So the producer says “but wait the president is female”.
Slightly smaller yawn.
“Oh I forgot to mention she’s black.”
Mild frown but no yawn this time. In frustration the producer says “Okay, Charlie is a woman also. We get some hot looking broad who wants to play a meaty part to portray her.”
The executive says “You mean someone like that broad Katherine Heigl who walked out of Gray’s Anatomy because it wasn’t substantial enough? (Makes air quotes around ‘substantial enough’) Get her and it’s a deal.” I don’t know if that’s what happened but my narrative certainly fits what I’ve seen of the show so far. The female leads just seem like a gimmick by NBC to try to re-create the Shonda Rhimes success over on ABC. They just don’t ring true at all.
So Heigl gets a meaty part. But how does she fair as a role model for young girls? Basically she suffers from PTSD because she witnessed her fiancé being killed in an ambush in Afghanistan while on some sort of a press junket. She copes with the loss by drinking to excess and sleeping with guys she picks up in bars. And her dead fiancé just happens to be the son of the black female president. And there some sort of big conspiracy rose about how he died. So while we got a female centric drama with some action scenes. It’s still all about a woman obsessed with a man and her inability to get over losing him. So she drinks and screws are way out of her misery.
There is some hope for the ladies. Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife somehow manages to balance her career, her role as a mother, the death of a boyfriend and somehow keep her dignity. She does throw back and occasional glass of wine at the end of the day but doesn’t appear to be an alcoholic. I suppose technically she is cheating on her husband but it’s a marriage to a cheating politician that she maintains for appearances only. Téa Leoni’s character Elizabeth McCord in Madam Secretary is a high-powered job, balances career with husband, kids, friendships and seems to be a loyal non-cheating wife. If I had a daughter I would much rather she use either of these women as role models then some of the crazy women I’ve discussed in this article.
So I declare the “state of affairs” for actresses in TV and films to be much improved. They’re getting the meaty complex roles that they really want. But the “state of affairs” for how women are being portrayed in TV and film is questionable. I’m sure the ladies are glad that we don’t see June Cleaver anymore but I have to wonder if at some point the awards presenters are going to start complaining again. “Why are all the meaty roles for women as drunken nymphomaniac sociopaths? Why can’t they just portray us as mothers and wives. Working mothers and wives but mothers and wives nevertheless?” As I said earlier, I fear it’s just what they asked for but not what they want. Nor should they. Then again… If I really knew what women want, I wouldn’t be an amateur entertainment blogger.
So now what do I think about the TV show “State of Affairs” my recommendation is “skip it”. If you want action and international intrigue and conspiracy theories with strong female leads, go watch “Homeland”. If you want Washington drama with strong female leads and juicy plot twists watch Scandal. And if you want international intrigue, Washington drama, and drama that arises out of the actual situation and is not some contrived “let’s put a woman in a man’s role” type of show, watch Madam Secretary or if you don’t care for DC politics then watch The Good Wife.