Monday, July 24, 2006

Who is Television's Knowledge Class Heroine?

As part of our study of how the knowledge class gets married and has kids, we were discussing portrayals of smart women in popular culture. So I put it to two of the smart women in my house: who is the smartest, best educated, most cultured woman on television? A lively discussion ensued.

One important conclusion we reached was that there is no show that centers on such a woman. The examples we could think of were often in strong supporting roles. The closest we could come to a show centering on a smart accomplished woman was "Judging Amy," in which the central character is a family court judge. I believe this one is no longer in production.

There are a number of strong women on "House," especially the chief administrator of the hospital. "Grey's Anatomy," which seems to be the favorite show of college women at the moment, has a number of strong smart women. Likewise "Gilmore Girls," a big favorite in our house, centers on smart women. The scary-smart best friend, Paris, might grow into a cultured and erudite woman if she stops being psycho.

All lacked something, though, that suggested the kind of deep culture that one would want in a knowledge class heroine. Smarts, education, and a strong will would all be necessary components, of course, but beyond that, I would want to see some sense of reserves of cosmopolitan culture which produced wisdom, one of the rarest of television commodities.

My nominee: Shirley Schmidt, the most functional and wisest of the senior partners in "Boston Legal," played by Candice Bergen. In real life Bergen was the daughter of famous Hollywood performers, who sent her to the best schools -- Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles, the Cathedral School in Washington D.C. and then abroad to the Montesano (finishing) School in Switzerland. She briefly attended the University of Pennsylvania, which she wrote about amusingly as "My Bright College Months," before making her film debut at 19 in Sidney Lumet's "The Group," a dark satire of a Vassar-like college for privileged women. As if in answer to the question, "where are the smart, educated, cultured women on television?" she famously said "Hollywood has been vulgarized, mostly by television, which vulgarizes everything."

I especially welcome your comments on this category.

18 comments:

Russell Smith said...

Your qualifier "on television" needs to be modified to "on fictional television" -- for all the examples you produced were from nighttime TV dramas. What about Oprah? Ellen? the crew from The View? They're broad in their interests, cultural creatives, and have shows that appeal to what might be considered a "knowledge class"
Russell

Gruntled said...

Fair enough. I have never seen The View. Oprah and Ellen, on the other hand -- and, indeed, practically all talk show hosts -- play regular gals and guys to set their guests and audience at ease. They may be educated, cosmopolitan, and cultured, but that isn't what they are paid for.

Victoria Crowell said...

I agree with Russel Smith, when I clicked the entry I could think of a few real women on television that I thought were very smart and cultured. You're right, however, in saying there are very few fictional characters that seem to fit the bill. That's not only television, though. In any form of media, there seems to be a great difficulty in finding a truly wise heroine, even literature.
Back to topic, I think the woman I most look up to on television (though she is a real woman) would be Joyce Meyer. She is one of the few women preachers on television, and the only one who seems to step out on her own in her ministry. Still, I feel slightly let down when, for reasons that I'm sure are more PC than anything, she says things like, "I'm often asked what I think about about being a woman minister. I think if a strong man would step up to the plate, we wouldn't have to ask that question". It's a neverending issue of mine, the lack of strong women in Christian culture, but that's another soapbox for another day.

Gruntled said...

A variant on the main question: what woman is the most educated character on television?

Gannet Girl said...

Gray's Anatomy? Sandra Oh's character Christina has both an M.D. and a Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

What about SJP on Sex and the City?? She is independent, savy and has her own collumn...but of course she and her friend's lives also revolve around those of men. So close, and yet, so far!

Brendan said...

Veronica Mars, title character of her teen noir show on the CW, is portrayed as fiercely intelligent, in school and out. "Cultured" and "educated" are debatable, as she only begins college in the upcoming season. (The show's producers are very eager to get into the same programming block as Gilmore Girls.)

D-rew said...

While slightly deafeating the point due to the writers overuse of her as a sex symbol Jennifer Garner on Alias (at least when i watched it regularly two or three seasons ago) was also shown to be a smart capable sophisticated woman, though typically put in outlandish situations.

But my ultimate nomination would have to go to House, but not the hospital adminstrator but House's ex played by Sela Ward. She played a lawyer at the hospital for what i think amounted to about half a season and was quick-witted enough to typically keep up with House's jabbing.

Becky Eberhart said...

I would have to put a vote in for Gwen Ifill.

Anonymous said...

I like the female lead characters on The Closer, The 4400 and King of the Hill.

The smartest female character is Lisa Simpson.

Anonymous said...

Yes, finally someone said it -- Lisa is the one to beat!

That having been said, Joss Whedon, of "Buffy the Vampire" fame, was recently given an award by Equality Now for his creation of "strong women characters", and certainly his smartest, strongest and wisest were Zoe, Inara, Kaylee and River, who had too brief a life on "Firefly".

God bless Joss for creating them.

Stephanie

Paul Jolly said...

I have to agree with both Lisa Simpson and Veronica Mars, but I think both of them have the POTENTIAL to be cultured women, right now they’re both just girls (Veronica is a young lady at best). I think Bones, on the Fox show with the same name, is the smartest female lead character on TV right now.

SQ said...

I'd nominate the CSI chickies, then. They have a deep knowledge of high and low culture, but they don't wave it about.

Jim said...

For the right definition of intelligent, River was certainly the most intelligent woman on television. That definition just needs to include something about extensive neurosurgery by amoral scientists in a sci-fi setting. It was a darn good show, though.

Gruntled said...

Never saw it, or even heard of it until after it was cancelled. What is she like?

Jim said...

Insane. Not really a knowledge class heroine. Basically her brain was rewired by evil scientists to make her into a supersoldier. Zoey, from the same show, was a tough career soldier. Certainly smart, but not intellectual. Kaylee was cute and silly, but otherwise a lot like Scotty from the old Star Trek.

Daria?

Maybe we need a show about a heroic female librarian. By day, a mild-mannered reference librarian, ignored by the dazzlingly handsome circulation desk guy, Larry Lane. At night, she sheds her glasses, puts in contact lenses, lets down her hair and solves library mysteries and tracks down bad library patrons. In the pilot episode, she buys 500 rats from a scientific supply shop and sneaks them into the home of some guy who keeps eating in the library, despite repeated warnings. Larry Lane falls in love with her alter ego, while continuing to ignore her during the day. For the cliffhanger at the end of season 1, somebody returns the DVD of a PBS documentary, but the disk is missing. The patron claims that the box was empty when she got it home. Further investigation reveals that the last person to check out that documentary was none other than... Larry Lane! (to be continued)

Rebecca Bush said...

I've been thinking about this...

Dana Scully (X Files)

Though it was a sci-fi show that was no doubt geared for the single, male, Trekkie types, she didn't fit the stereotypical female roles for the sci-fi genre. She wasn't a sex kitten or a dominatrix. Instead she was always conservatively dressed, always professional, and never flirtatious. Even her looks were strong (think pre-raphaelite red head).

She had a great analytical mind and a broad understanding of the sciences. Most importantly, she wasn't just Mulder's sidekick, she was his equal.

I was in middle school at the height of the series' success, and my family watched it together every week. I'd like to think that a lot of the girls who grew up with the X-Files actually decided to pursue careers in the sciences, forensics, or the FBI on account of Gillian Anderson's role.

Gruntled said...

Yes, Dana Scully, M.D. is a fine choice. She was also, at the time, the most beautiful woman on television, which didn't hurt. Was it necessary, do you think, to her credibility that the underlying attraction between Scully and Mulder could never be consumated, or even admitted?