March is Women's History Month and thinking about that leads me, as most things do, to thinking about television. Because I see TV as central to our ongoing cultural dialogue, a mirror that reflects the times, parses the past and can fuel the future, I believe that the female icons of the small screen played a large role in moving the women's movement, in its various forms, forward. They inspired, they showed possibilities and they got people used to seeing women in roles of responsibility and authority. Those women weren't shrinking violets; they were on the front lines, willing to engage in risky or risqué behavior to get the job-whatever it was- done. If you are dubious about the suggestive power of fictional characters, consider Nichelle Nichols, who followed her posting as Lt. Uhuru on Star Trek's USS Enterprise with years of successful work on behalf of NASA to recruit and encourage women and minorities to the space program. Yes, women who break through glass ceilings on TV frequently do so wearing short, sassy skirts (McBeal, anyone?), but I don't have a problem with that. Impressive and well dressed? Well, that's just a double win.
As the entertainment director for SELF, a magazine dedicated to celebrating women at their best, I look at pop culture through the filter of the female experience. I think about the icons of power women on TV, like Mary Richards, Rhoda Morgenstern, Murphy Brown and Lt. Uhuru, who demanded respect for their talents rather than just approval for their appearance. Then there are the my favorite childhood TV icons: Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman. Mock all you want. The hot chick saved men and mankind every episode, rather than damselling in distress. They both rocked. At the turn of the century, Carrie Bradshaw and friends and Buffy and the gang were minting a new brand of "girl power" for whole new generations of girls getting the job done. They stood up for their friends, showed bravery, battled creatures of the night and, week after week explored the notion that although they didn't need a man to save them... those men might have other purposes.
Rather than lamenting the morass of reality TV and feuding boys with late-night show toys, let's appreciate the women who are currently leading the charge on prime time. There are a few that have the makings of true icons.
Mad Men's Joan: Christina Hendricks' curvy career girl is already a fashion force (Paris runways are showing hourglass looks) and a symbol of a certain kind of powerful woman. When she slapped her fiancé last season, didn't you cheer? When she showed up in the season finale, you knew she'd square things away for the clueless-looking admen.
The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick: A perfect role for our times. Scorned wife rises above her husband's misdeeds to recapture her own career, care for her family and maybe, just maybe, forgive him- the ultimate power move. Juliana Margulies breathes life into the cliché of the unfathomable wife standing by her man.
Lost's Kate Austin: How often does the pretty girl on the show get to be the one trying to live down a violent crime; decide between myriad suitors; steal, raise and return another woman's baby for altruistic reasons; wield a gun like a badass; and have amazing hair while surviving a jungle island? Evangeline Lily's Kate revels in the contradictions that make her an amazing character. Few female roles are this nuanced.
Bones' Dr. Temperance Brennan: The emotionally challenged genius, unaware her partner is besotted with her, who does mixed martial arts and is always jonahing for a bigger gun is SO not usually the girl in cop buddy shows. Emily Deschanel gives Brennan the perfect mix of prickly brilliance and vulnerability.
The Closer's Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson: She leads a team that solves every murder, no matter how gruesome, on the highest-rated basic cable show of all time. The show allows Kyra Sedgwick, as Brenda Lee, to use her emotional side- the side often portrayed as the weaker, feminine side- as her greatest strength. It gets her inside the minds of the criminals she interrogates.
Grey's Anatomy: Meredith Grey is a much maligned character whom I'd like to make a case for. If you look at the arc that Ellen Pompeo has brought her character through on the hospital drama, you'll see that her evolution from dark and twisty intern Meredith to mature, married medicine woman Meredith has been achieved with incredible dignity and courage. The tortured protagonist with mean-genius parent issues is almost always a man living up to his father. Meredith learned that by looking at herself she could find the tools to forgive her mother and finally open up and grow as an adult. And marry McDreamy with a Post-it.
30 Rock's Liz Lemon: I wish The Powers That Be would give her a slightly better social life, but Tina Fay's scattered, wicked smart head writer of TGS (the show within a show SNL stand-in) is the natural heir to Mary Richards and Murphy Brown. She balances her crazy boss, her crazy stars, and her crazy writers and never even has to say out loud how incredible it is that she's the head of a comedy writing staff.
Every one of these women is imperfect, but that's what makes them so incredible. True heroes are never all good; their bravery and achievements are testaments to their ability to perform despite, or because of, their flaws. Men have been written this way since the beginning of time. It is a true breakthrough that the women on TV right now have the chance to be human yet kick some ass.