Why Do So Many Female TV Characters Sound Like Sexy Halloween Costumes?

Photos: Courtesy of Fox, Courtesy of Fox, Courtesy of CBS, Courtesy of NBC.
Last fall, we met all sorts of interesting women on TV. An aspiring teacher with a five-year plan that included saving herself for marriage (Jane the Virgin). A college professor and former CIA analyst who begrudgingly becomes the secretary of state (Madam Secretary). A law professor who teaches a class on evading murder charges, but ends up having to do exactly that when her husband winds up dead (How to Get Away With Murder). Week after week, these women demonstrated that they couldn’t be summed up with a simple, reductive character description. They’re complex and evolving — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. They finished the season in a different place than where they started, and will continue to change in season 2.

This fall heralds the arrival of a new bunch of women. But will they be as complex as their 2014 predecessors? We're not so sure. Looking at the network drama slate, I can’t help but notice that many of the female characters can be described in an alarmingly sparing manner. To wit: Sexy cop (Jennifer Lopez on Shades of Blue); sexy FBI agent (Priyanka Chopra on Quantico); sexy ballerina/stripper (Raychel Diane Weiner on Flesh and Bone); sexy naked tattooed woman (Jaimie Alexander on Blindspot); sexy superhero (Melissa Benoist on Supergirl); and sexy sorority sister (Emma Roberts on Scream Queens).

These descriptions sound awfully familiar, almost as if we’ve seen them somewhere before. Oh, right, we have! At every store selling Halloween costumes — and at every college party on October 31. In an effort to create an easy shorthand to quickly convey character attributes to viewers, the networks seem to have gone straight for an appealing physicality (sexy), combined with an intriguing profession or identity, such as cop, superhero, or ballerina.

Now, I must to pause to note that I have yet to see all of these shows. Screeners were only made available for Quantico, Flesh and Bone, and Blindspot; I attended extended network upfront presentations for Scream Queens and Supergirl. Also, I can fully acknowledge how hard it is to nail three-dimensionality in a pilot. So, I hope beyond hope that my initial snap judgment of these characters as one-note sexy Halloween costumes turns out to be flip and facetious. There's every chance that it will be, given recent history. Prime example: Joan Holloway on Mad Men, who's so much more than a sexy secretary. Plus, there are many characters this season that promise depth and complexity right off the bat, like Kirsten Dunst's on Fargo and Mireille Enos' on The Catch.

My biggest problem with what I've seen of other characters is the perfect packaging. These women are presented to us as one thing, and they’re not allowed to take off the costume or the makeup to become something else. Even in the midst of a terrorist attack — which she's later accused of committing — Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) on Quantico is running in heels. When Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander) is pulled out of a duffle bag on Blindspot, naked, save for the fresh tattoos covering her entire body, her eyeliner is flawless, lashes thick with mascara, and hair freshly cut in a choppy bob.

Their lives may be temporarily messy, but their aesthetically pleasing appearances remind us of the status quo to which they will boomerang back if we just wait until the end of the episode or story arc. The sexy cop's hair might get a little ruffled, but it'll be that windblown, Beyoncé performance kind of mussing. She'll never stray too far from that sexy cop aesthetic, for that is the way in which she has been defined.

Yes, women can use their sexuality in an empowering way. Viola Davis does it with loads of agency and aplomb as Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder. And in the first oh my god scene, in a season filled with them, she strips off her makeup and wig to remind us that reducing her character to any one description is crude. She calls the shots when it comes to her body, decisions, career, and life. Don’t try to put her into one box, or be fooled into believing that the armor she wears on a daily basis is anything more than a costume that’s removed on her terms.

Maybe the blame is to be placed on our own limited attention span as audiences, and how quick we are to judge new offerings. With so many new shows, networks and creators need to rely on familiarity and recognizable tropes to hook viewers immediately, lest they tune out or spread negative buzz on social media.

But here's a radical idea for the networks: Come up with more interesting characters that make viewers forget those old tropes — give us complex women whom we haven’t seen before, like Jane Villanueva on Jane the Virgin and Olivia Pope on Scandal. Here are just a few ideas: the first female coach of a Division I men’s basketball team, a character based on Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Meyer, and a female Uber driver who inadvertently becomes part of a drug cartel.

You probably won’t see any of those costumes on Halloween, but remember, Halloween only lasts 24 hours. Compelling TV characters shouldn’t be a one-night stand or a novelty. We’ll like them just as much the morning after, even when they’ve taken off their costume. It should be entirely up to them if it's sexy.
For more vital info on what to watch, read, and listen to this autumn, check out Refinery29's full Fall 2015 Entertainment Preview coverage. Happy planning!

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