Late this spring, Professors at Indiana University and the University of Michigan published a study documenting the effects of watching TV on 400 preadolescent boys and girls. The results? If you’re a white boy, TV will boost your self-esteem. If you’re anyone else: Nope! Do not pass go, do not collect $200! If you’re a girl, or any type of minority, sorry kids, TV ain’t gonna make you feel better about yourself. In fact, it’ll make you feel worse about yourself! Whoopee!
I did have a few questions about the study: Mainly, how exactly does one measure “self-esteem”? The report also didn’t make any specifications or correlations about the types of TV the different children watched, instead just focusing on the amount of time they spent in front of the tube. But if you wanted to make a meaningful study that didn’t just repeat the mantra of “TV is bad for you, kids! Bad!,” which I am more than a little tired of hearing, but instead demonstrated how TV can be good, I’d study how specific TV shows affect different types of people. So, you know, we can keep making the TV shows that have positive effects, and finally start canning the harmful stuff. A girl can dream, right?
This study did, however, make me examine my own favorite female heroines on TV, and think deeper about how the majority of them are, indeed, white. Not to say that these characters can’t inspire young women of all stripes everywhere, because I firmly believe that they can, and do. But as the researchers in the report said, “Children who are not doing other things besides watching television cannot help but compare themselves to what they see on the screen.” And if the person on screen doing awesome things doesn’t look like them, they might still think they can do those awesome things themselves, but they might feel just a bit more unsure about it. And that bit of uncertainty can change everything.
This all conjured up this idea: if I could hand young girls a list of TV shows they should watch to boost their self-esteem, which shows and characters would I include?
It was important to me to choose main characters, because goodness knows, we are really great at having diverse sidekicks in our entertainment. But sidekicks aren’t normally the ones who inspire self-esteem. (Emphasis on "normally." I love you, Neville Longbottom.) I also want to stress that the point of this list I made isn’t just to pick out characters who look different from everyone else, just as writers shouldn’t include diverse characters in their shows just so they can say, “Hey, we’re diverse.” It is to point out the importance of showing that all people of all identities can have multidimensional and nuanced storylines, thoughts, and emotions. These are some cases where I believe that task was actually executed well, but in making this list, I intend to ask: why isn’t everyone executing it well?
I also wanted to stick with basic cable/major network shows in order to take into account the most likely shows that girls of all socioeconomic levels would have access to. For ones that aren’t currently on the air—I did choose a few because I think the characters are so important—I chose ones that I feel good about being reasonably easy to find reruns of.
So here we go: in no particular order, my very incomplete, partial list of Diverse TV Ladies That Can Help Young Girls Learn How to Kick Ass.
Cristina Yang, Grey’s Anatomy
Photo courtesy of ABC
Yes, the true main character of this show is a whiny white girl, but Cristina is undoubtedly the second most important character in the show. It is Meredith and Cristina’s friendship that is the strongest, most dynamic, most important relationship throughout the whole series, the true love story of them all. And yes, Cristina’s overly-driven doctor-ness does dip a bit into a frighteningly overdone Asian stereotype, but I believe she’s well-developed enough to beat it. Along with Bailey, another extraordinary strong character, she shows girls that they can set their goals high and achieve them without all those, you know, silly emotions we’re always so distracted by getting in the way! At the same time, she can be cut-throat competitive without completely falling into that awful Successful Heartless Bitch category. She still harbors a whole complex cache of emotions within herself. Important Lesbian Storyline aside, Cristina Yang and Miranda Bailey are the best part of this show.
Betty Suarez, Ugly Betty
Photo courtesy of ABC
I still miss the delightful campiness, the earnest heart, and the wonderful diversity of this show in its heyday. Not only was Betty Suarez ground-breaking in her role as an aspiring Latina writer making her way in the fashion world through sheer gumption, hard work, and belief in herself, but her entire family in Queens was ground-breaking, too. Her dad, her sassy sister, her gay gay nephew—they were all solid, well-developed characters. I can’t think of a Latino family that’s been so prominently and warmly portrayed before or since. It takes some good writing to get both a leading character and her whole family right. And heaven knows kids need to see some good families on their TV screens, too. Sure, it’s annoying how frequently they refer to her as—well, ugly—when she’s clearly not, but the facets of her character still shine. And it’s important to show that people are frequently going to be jerks to you and you can rise above them anyway. Betty falters, frequently, but she always gets back up. She is adorable-but-smart, relentless but with a heart of gold. Vanessa Williams was also of course fantastic here in her role as queen of the fashion publishing world, who almost fell in to that Successful Heartless Bitch category I just mentioned, but who you were able love, too. Work, Vanessa.
Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers
I include Buffy because of the countless young girls I know she’s inspired, because of how radically different she was from any teenage girl that came before her in TV history, because when I think “strong female character,” she is still the first thing that pops into my head. I also include her to be able to say: where are our non-white Buffy Summers? If a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be so successful, how come we haven’t seen more girls — more diverse girls–like her in the years since? They don’t have to all be stake-wielding girls of super strength. While that part was great, it was the respect given to her character as a person — a person who examined their flaws, who contemplated big ideas like mortality, who was funny at the same time that she was deadly serious, who was as mature as any adult on the show — that made her character on TV special. I do give Joss props in that whenever past slayers, or the potential future slayers, were shown, they were always a very diverse crowd. Buffy, we miss you. The girls of the world still need your strength.
The female cast of Glee
Photo courtesy of Fox
We’ve all talked about Glee enough that I don’t think I have to go into it in too much detail, but I really think Glee just got it right in terms of casting. With such an ensemble cast, there are no real “side characters,” even though there are of course the favorites of our hearts. But Mercedes, Santana, Tina, Becky: they stand on their own. While the writing can often make us want to rip out our hair, the overall message and idea behind all of these characters is where TV should be headed. Love it or hate it, the positive influence this show could have on kids on multiple levels is extraordinary.
Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show
Photo courtesy of NBC
That’s right! I’m bringing The Cosby Show back! I will want to bring The Cosby Show back until the day I die! Clair has to be on this list because she is divine. Other than being a successful lawyer and a mother to some strong, beautiful women, her and Cliff’s relationship is one of the most mature, equal, and loving marital relationships to ever be portrayed on TV. It is a true partnership while still being full of romantic and tender moments, all of which is something that young girls—gay or straight—really need to see. Also, she is fluent in Spanish! And sometimes busted it out on the show and it was so wonderful each time! I feel like we, you know, as a society, don’t pay enough homage to Clair Huxtable’s super hot multi-lingual-ness. If you need a refresher on Clair’s overall ability to kick ass as a human being, here’s one for you:
(Oh, Elvin. Elvin, Elvin, Elvin.)
So of my five picks, one show went off the air in 1992 (The Cosby Show); the other went off the air in 2003 (Buffy). It’s 2012, y’all! How come we haven’t seen, to my knowledge, any more Clair Huxtables or Buffies since then? I hope it’s just ignorance on my part of the options that are out there today, but for the love of all that gives girls self-esteem, give us more Clairs and Buffies!
What do you think? Do you agree with the findings of the study? What do you think of the diversity available on our TV sets today? If you made your own list of diverse kick-ass ladies, who would be in your top five? Who am I missing from mine?