The Wonder Woman Project: Female Leadership on TV

guest blog by Julia Kennedy

In popular TV shows of the last few decades, portrayals of women’s leadership vary from an ambitious local mid-level government bureaucrat who decides to run for City Council (Leslie Knope of “Parks and Recreation”) to a teenage girl chosen to protect regular citizens from demons (Buffy Summers of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). These various representations of female leadership beg the question: what does it really mean to be a leader?

On my Tumblr blog that I created a few months ago, “The Wonder Women Project,” I explore how female TV characters are portrayed as leaders. While some roles have women in traditional positions of power that automatically provide opportunities to lead, other characters may have a less flashy job and still exhibit leadership skills both at work and at home.

I believe the following characteristics make a leader: independence, bravery, initiative, creativity, and influence (for more information on my reasoning, read here).

Why these traits, and not others? Well, each offers an indication as to how much a person or character leads, and whether through their minds or through their actions. Liz Lemon of “30 Rock” is one of the more creative women to appear in television, both in form and in action, as she is the brainchild of a particularly creative woman, Tina Fey. Kerry Washington’s character Olivia Pope of “Scandal” has the bravery to stick to her guns and to fix the problems of Washington’s elite.

It is important to note that these characters are not without their flaws. Olivia Pope has a bizarre love affair with the President of the United States, who is also married, and this sometimes clouds her judgment. Liz Lemon often makes casual, disparaging remarks about other women’s choices. These flaws make these characters more human.

We need more varied representations of women in leadership roles on television. We often hear of this need in reference to women as doctors, lawyers or government officials, but what about unexplored roles on television such as female office managers or coaches? Throughout this upcoming column, I will examine various characters on television, beginning with Liz Lemon. Stay tuned for more on how these female characters lead, or fail to do so.

Julia Kennedy is a Barnard College senior and French major, and is currently an intern for the Athena Film Festival. She started The Wonder Women Project as a blog for her Athena Scholar project to address the representation of women and leadership in television, and continues to look for inspiring female protagonists on screen.