THERE IS A NEW WOMAN ON television this fall.
Defined more by intellect and competence than by physical beauty or her relationship to men, she belies depictions of women that have dominated prime-time television for more than 50 years. In several of the new fall programs, including ABC's Commander in Chief or Fox's Bones, the New Woman can be found in the Oval Office and the most rarefied realms of science and math, places few female characters have gone before.
Yet, this empowered New Woman owes her existence in part to five inarguably sexy suburban housewives living on a TV cul-de-sac called Wisteria Lane, the five neighbors of ABC's Desperate Housewives.
Network lineups last fall were overpopulated with businessmen, entrepreneurs and adventurers -- the likes of Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, Donald Trump and Sylvester Stallone -- headlining testosterone-charged reality shows. Audiences roundly rejected all except Trump's, while embracing ABC's Desperate Housewives, making the darkly comic drama a runaway hit.
In the new season, network television has backed away from the male-oriented reality genre and instead is offering ladies with groundbreaking leading roles. From Academy Award-winner Geena Davis, who stars as the president of the United States in ABC's Commander in Chief, to Emily Deschanel as Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan, a forensic anthropologist who writes novels in her spare time in Fox's Bones, strong and largely self-defined women in non-traditional roles are emerging on all the networks.
"We are very focused about putting empowering female roles on the air," said Francie Calfo, an executive vice president at ABC involved in the development of Desperate Housewives and Commander in Chief. "Desperate Housewives showed there is a definite audience looking for that point of view."
The most talked about new female character is Mackenzie Allen (Davis), of Commander in Chief, whom viewers first will meet as a 45-year-old vice president of the United States. In the pilot episode, which airs Tuesday at 9, fictional President Theodore Roosevelt Bridges dies during an emergency, and Allen succeeds him.
It's a stormy transition, with Allen, an Independent who had been brought on a Republican ticket only to get female votes, being asked by both the dying president and his party to step aside in favor of the secretary of state (Donald Sutherland). She declines to follow the script written by male party leaders and seizes power with a steady hand: "It is certainly the role with the most gravitas that I've ever been asked to play," Davis said.
The scene in which President Allen first addresses the nation has an electricity that's generated by more than just Davis' superb performance. The added energy comes from seeing a woman take control of a symbolic space -- the Oval Office -- that previously had been off limits for her gender. A cultural taboo is shattered, if only in the small-screen world of television drama.
"For us, Commander In Chief is historic," said Marie C. Wilson, co-founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day and president of the White House Project, a national and non-partisan organization dedicated to advancing women's leadership.
"When push comes to shove in Hollywood, women are still portrayed as leading ladies but not as leaders. One of our goals with the project is to help people understand how these images they see on television and the movies are really shaping their opinion. You can't be what you can't see. Once people see women in top leadership roles on the screen, they can imagine it happening."
Allen and Brennan, of Bones, aren't the only strong female leaders in new series this fall. On CBS' Friday night drama, Threshold, Carla Gugino plays Dr. Molly Caffrey, a worst-case scenario analyst and contingency planner heading up an elite government unit charged with halting an alien invasion. On NBC's Surface, Lake Bell stars as Dr. Laura Daughtery, an oceanographer and single mom investigating a mutant and threatening form of life from beneath the sea.
The fact that Caffrey, Daughtery and Brennan all have doctoral degrees in the sciences is not lost on the White House Project's Wilson. She notes how much more enlightened network television seems in this regard than Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summer, who in January set off a fierce debate when he suggested that women might not have the same innate ability in science and math as men.
"One of the biggest public arguments we've had in the last year followed Larry Summer suggesting women can't [excel in science]," Wilson said. "It could be a real step forward to see women on TV this fall who have backgrounds in science -- and are called upon to lead Homeland Security efforts."