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  Research
More television dramas redefine women's roles
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From "Xena: Warrior Princess" to "Judging Amy," television shows are redefining women in dramatic roles by telling diverse stories about their lives, a University analysis shows.

In the mid-1990s, more dramas were created to feature female characters as the primary protagonists—and many of these shows succeeded, says Amanda Lotz, assistant professor of communication studies.

"It took the success of several single female characters, as well as changes in business of television, to redefine how women are portrayed on television," Lotz says.

She hopes subsequent female dramas will explore many stories about women's lives that still are not represented, involving characters who are lesbian, not white, in stable relationships, or who lack rewarding careers.

Lotz's analysis explores 16 female-centered dramas airing in the late 1990s through early 2000s. The shows are based around one or more women, and notably expand from the character-types and stories common in television's past.

The number of female-centered dramas jumped to 14 in 1985-1994, up from eight shows during 1975-1984. In 1995-2005 the number jumped to about 37 shows, peaking in 2000 as television executives and advertisers saw the value of developing strategies to target the female audience.

"The proliferation of female-centered dramas in the late 1990s made good business sense because the fragmentation of audiences among new broadcast and cable channels made 'narrowcasting'—or explicitly targeting just a female audience—a more viable strategy," Lotz says.

Also, female-targeted cable networks expanded from one (Lifetime) to three (adding Oxygen and Women's Entertainment) during the early 2000s, and in some of these years, Lifetime was the most watched network among all cable offerings.

Since its beginnings in the 1940s, television often portrayed women as wives and mothers who did not work outside of the home. If women had lead roles, networks confined them to comedies such as "I Love Lucy," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Roseanne," and "Murphy Brown," and to individual characters in male-dominated dramatic settings.

Women achieved central roles in dramatic narratives that included emphasis on adventure, such as "The Avengers" and "Police Woman," but they often were partnered with a man. By the late 1970s, some dramas starred women without male partners, including "Charlie's Angels," "Wonder Woman" and "The Bionic Woman." Like their predecessors, these women relied on their sex appeal yet were featured in empowered roles, she says.

A shift in shows emphasizing sex appeal and empowerment occurred in 1982 when the able female cops of "Cagney and Lacey" led to fairly conventional roles for women in "Murder, She Wrote" (1984), "Sisters" (1991) and "Touched by an Angel" (1994).

The situation then changed significantly as empowered heroines in action dramas such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" offered complicated depictions of characters balancing loyalties and competing demands; post- Baby Boom characters in "Ally McBeal" and "Sex and the City" negotiated personal and professional lives amidst the gains of second-wave feminism; and many characters in series as varied as "Providence," "Judging Amy," "Gilmore Girls" and "Strong Medicine" provided new stories about the complexities of families and work.

Also, even though Lifetime, Oxygen and Women's Entertainment seek female audiences, they do so through substantially different programming strategies. "This too adds to the diversity in stories about women's lives available on contemporary television," she says. Lotz analysis appears in her new book, "Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era."

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