TV's new image of women: strong, capable characters who decide to take charge

November 17, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

pregnant mom launches her own investigation of a murder to clear her teenage daughter's name. Another mother goes to a dark and lonely bus stop night after night, using herself as "bait" to trap her daughter's rapist. A woman accused of murder has only herself to count on in catching the real murderer before he kills her.

The titles of the TV movies described above -- "She Says She's Innocent," "A Mother's Justice" and "The Woman Who Sinned" -- point to a major change in the television environment: The made-for-TV film has become a woman's world. And, in a considerable number of these movies, the women portrayed are strong, capable characters who take matters into their own hands when the traditional male authority structures fail them.

The change didn't happen overnight. For at least the last decade or so, the old Hollywood adage that there are few good roles for women has applied less and less to TV. But this year, there seem to be almost nothing but films about women on both broadcast and cable TV. It is the most dramatic development to date of the fall programming season.

Tonight, like other Sunday nights when the networks roll out their best programs because viewship is at its peak, is a good example. On ABC, Susan Lucci stars in "The Woman Who Sinned," the story of a woman involved in an extramarital affair and a murder. To clear herself of the murder charge, she has to admit to the affair. CBS presents "In a Child's Name," with Valerie Bertinelli as the sister of a woman who is murdered. The two-part miniseries deals with the custody fight for the slain woman's children between their father -- who also happens to be the killer -- and Bertinelli.

As actors, Bertinelli and Lucci may not be the Redgrave sisters, but they are enormously popular TV stars; Bertinelli consistently draws audiences of 15 million or more TV households to her movies. And tonight, these films are all theirs. The men play second fiddle.

Last week, Veronica Hamel, Roseanne Arnold, Virginia Madsen, Judith Light and Susan Ruttan starred in films that ranged from Arnold's comedy about a women's football team to Ruttan as a pediatric nurse who kills babies.

There's more on the way in the days and weeks ahead. Tomorrow night, it's Betty White in "Chance of a Lifetime." Next Monday, it's Meredith Baxter in "A Mother's Justice." The week after that, Jessica Tandy stars in "The Story Lady."

The explanation for the proliferation of these films starts with numbers -- Nielsen audience survey numbers. According to the research firm, about 60 percent of the TV audience on any night is women. And the percentage of women is even higher for dramas, which includes most made-for-TV movies.

But the trend is more than an attempt to reach that audience. Another factor is cable -- specifically, the number of companies producing their own films.

In the 1980s, cable networks gave women opportunities that they were not getting elsewhere to star in and produce films. Those networks weren't necessarily more enlightened, just pragmatic: Women could be hired for less because they had fewer opportunities to work. Reacting to the success of such cable films as last year's "The Josephine Baker Story," the broadcast networks are now imitating the formula.

Cable, meanwhile, has grown to the point where an entire network, Lifetime, is "narrowcasting" exclusively to women. Lifetime has a billion-dollar commitment to such programming and a production schedule that includes the likes of Diane Keaton making her debut as a TV movie director this year, according to Pat Fili, senior vice president for programming.

Another reason for the trend is that there simply are more women in positions of power in Hollywood today. Shelley Duvall produced Arnold's film, "Backfield in Motion," for example, and such actresses as Marlee Matlin and Angela Lansbury now have their own production companies and network commitments to air their films as part of their contracts to appear in weekly series.

There are surely other, less easily identified cultural factors at work. Films like "A Mother's Justice" seem to explore some of the same psychic terrain as the feature film "Thelma and Louise," for example.

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