From lawyers to writers to spin doctors in trench coats, some of the most important female characters in pop culture have graced the small screen. They came into our lives week after week and made us feel like someone else was also struggling with work and relationships and family (they just had a better wardrobe). Here are ten shows every professional woman should watch.
Ally McBeal (1997-2002)
“If women really wanted to change society, they could do it. I plan to change it. I just want to get married first.” —Ally McBeal
This is an oldie but a goodie (and is currently streaming on Netflix, so you can watch the whole series!). Ally McBeal was a revolutionary show because it showed an extremely smart, independent woman who was a dynamo in the courtroom but a mess when it came to her love life. And she did it all in a mini skirt. Some said, like the editors at TIME in a 1998 cover, that the show marked the end of feminism because of Ally’s obsession with finding a man and her short hemlines. I think under some layers of crazy (Ally had recurring hallucinations and worked with quite a cast of characters), it actually showed a very real woman who just wanted to have it all. Biggest tip from that show? Get a theme song.
“It’s a dirty little secret. And dirty little secrets always come out.” —Olivia Pope
Not only is Scandal the first network show to feature an African-American woman as the main character in 40 years, but it is a great show about a driven career woman. Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, a White House Communications Director leaving to start her own crisis management firm only to discover she hasn’t left the past behind (like her affair with the President of the United States!).
The show is great because Pope is a very powerful woman, but she does it without being known as a total word-that-rhymes-with-witch. “[Olivia Pope] is a fully realized woman,” says Oprah. “She’s not just in this role because she is African-American. [She represents] a new moment for our culture.” Plus, her wardrobe is to die for!
Sex & the City (1998-2004)
“The most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you that you love, well, that’s just fabulous.” —Carrie Bradshaw
Yes, this show was mostly about sex, but it was also a lot about professional women dealing with the stereotypes of being single and career-focused in their 30s (and 40s, for Samantha). One of my favorite scenes on the show was:
Miranda: Society views single people our age as sad and pathetic. I don’t need that, so I go on the offensive and make them laugh.
Carrie: Okay, Shecky. Sometimes I think couples look at us and wish they had our lives.
Miranda: No. We make them uncomfortable and they don’t know what to say.
The show had women talking about society, sex, and relationships in a way we had never seen before. The real romance on the show was between the four women and their relationship with the magnificent city that was New York. They all wanted to pursue their dreams, and the guy was really just another fabulous accessory. “When I first moved to New York I bought Vogue instead of dinner. I just felt it fed me more,” Carrie once said. I feel like every young woman can relate to that in her own way.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
“I’m an experienced woman. I’ve been around… Well, all right, I might not’ve been around, but I’ve been… nearby.” —Mary Richards
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a great moment in history for women. The pilot opened on a woman who had left her fiance to be single and career-focused. This was a drastic change from how we previously knew Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie, the doting wife of Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Now America saw her as a charming girl living the fabulous life with her co-workers and best friend Rhoda.
But there was a lot of pivotal moments in the series, too. Her character was the associate producer of a six o’clock news show in Minneapolis, and often made it a point to bring up the discrimination that took place to her boss. From Hope Reese of The Atlantic:
“More women entering the workplace saw Mary as a role model, envying her cozy apartment and vibrant friendships. The show moved away from the domestic sphere, featuring a woman in an office. It was one of the first to explicitly call a male character gay and to mention the Pill. But one of the show’s greatest strengths, Armstrong rightfully notes, was its subtlety. The show was able to push boundaries by filling the cast with cynical, hardened characters like Lou and Rhoda so that Mary ‘seems especially wholesome when contrasted with those around her,’ Armstrong writes. Mary ‘represented “good girls” and had a sense of vulnerability,’ which is the ‘secret to her unique power.’ The “producers learned to skillfully walk a line between innuendo and explicitness that often allowed them to push boundaries while acting innocent—a reflection, perhaps, of their main character herself.”
Way to go, Mary. And guess what? She did make it after all.
The Good Wife (2009-present)
“At what point is our job wrong?” —Alicia Florrick
The Good Wife is an excellent show and a great example of showing that a woman can reenter the workforce successfully after taking time off to raise children. Alica went to Georgetown Law, practiced for a few years, and then stopped to raise her two children and support her husband’s political career.
The show is also not afraid to show the blatant sexism in certain industries. Diane (Christine Baranski), a senior partner at the firm, is left out of the loop on a client deal because the men discuss it at a basketball game.
Political Animals (2012)
“I’m going to run for President again, and this time I’m gonna win.” —Elaine Barrish
This was actually only a mini-series that debuted in the summer of 2012, but it made a major impact. Sigourney Weaver played the ambitious and stately Elaine Barrish. In the series, Weaver’s character accepts the President’s invitation to become Secretary of State after she loses the race for her party’s presidential nomination. She also divorces her husband, a former President with a history of infidelity. Hmm, sound familiar? Weaver said, ”We’ve had three remarkable women who’ve been our secretaries of state in our last three administrations, but somehow we’re not willing as a country to elect a woman president,” she says. “And I think this show partially investigates what that’s about.”
The show focused on Barrish’s struggle to juggle the demands of Washington, D.C., with her complicated family that includes two sons—one who helps with her political career (James Wolk) and another (Sebastian Stan) who brings a lot of issues to the party, and not the good political kind. We also got to see Carla Gugino as an intense Maureen Dowd-like journalist who will do anything to get the story. Her boyfriend happens to be her editor, but it is not your typical relationship which was also interesting. Politics, women in power, sex on Air Force One? It was quite a show.
Parks & Recreation (2009-present)
“I’m a feminist, okay, I would never ever go to a strip club. I’ve gone on record that if I had to have a stripper’s name, it would be E Quality.” —Leslie Knope
Though we usually remember the character of Leslie Knope for her humor, above anything, she is a great politician and a strong female role model. Her constant optimism is absolutely infectious. She does everything with passion and earnestness. It was especially fascinating to watch Leslie’s battle with sacrificing her relationship to run for city council last season. From Kate Dailey of The Daily Beast:
“Leslie’s a staunch advocate for the advancement of all women through mentorship programs, positive role models, or grating, often unsolicited pep talks. She believes in equal opportunity for, and the untapped potential of, women. She cultivates and values female friendships: witness Galentine’s Day, the amazing ritual she puts on for her female friends every February 13, complete with gift bags and affirmations for the important women in her life. She interacts with her female coworkers, talking to them about more than boys and babies.
“Leslie is competent. She’s good at lots of things—hunting, golf, her job—and isn’t afraid to admit it (due, in part, to her social tone-deafness: ‘Guys love it when you can show them you’re better than they are at something they love,’ she says in one episode). Her work is valued, her eagerness tolerated, her role respected by those who know and love her—and her friends and co-workers do love her, rather than pity her, patronize her, or put up with her.”
Murphy Brown (1988-1998)
“I finally have a chest and the only man in my life doesn’t know what to do with it!” —Murphy Brown
Murphy Brown premiered on CBS in 1988 and gained a lot of attention and praise, including Emmy wins for “Outstanding Comedy Series” in 1990 and 1992. It centered around a tough female newscaster who was assertive, hard-nosed, and didn’t sugarcoat things, and it was great! The show and Candace Bergen’s character of Murphy Brown, however, came under fire during the 1991-1992 season, when Murphy decided to forgo marriage when she became pregnant and raise her child as a single mother. Vice President Dan Quayle pretty much blamed the L.A. riots on Murphy Brown choosing to be a single mother. “Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong,” Quayle told his California audience. “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown—a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman—mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’”
“All work and no play? That sounds like no fun.” —Juliette Barnes
Though this freshmen series is all about women, show business, and romance, there are an unsurprising number of catfights. And that is because Oscar-nominated writer Callie Khouri created it. In an interview with Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein, she said:
“None of us, including Hayden and Connie, none of us, are interested at all in that particular slant. We just don’t think there’s anything to do in that. In my mind, that’s what network television has evolved into. It’s just not the kind of thing that appeals to me. But we are interested in having a show that talks about where women are at different points in their career, what’s expected of them, what the obstacles are for them, what the problems are with each other, and the competition in a field that has a limited number of spaces. How do you compete in the market place, how you stay relevant after many years of being in the public eye—all of that. Their approach, their differences are based on how they feel about their work. One of the characters, she’s all about artistic integrity, while the other is a character who is driven to make it. We’ve started her in the pursuit for credibility as an artist. To me, that’s interesting and that’s real. But women who just don’t like each other because the other one is a woman and ‘women don’t like each other’ myth—that’s not interesting to me at all.”
30 Rock (2006-2013)
“You didn’t realize emotion could be a weapon? Have you not read the poetry of Jewel?” —Liz Lemon
Liz Lemon launched a whole new breed of quirky female TV characters. Until Liz debuted in 2006, we hadn’t really seen anyone like Liz on the small screen before. Sure, we saw women who were into their jobs like the tough lawyers on Law & Order, a few of the female doctors on E.R., and C.J. Craig on The West Wing, but Liz was one of the first who was very into her career, was single, and a bit of a social mess.
Liz was known for being a fashion disaster, her disgusting eating habits (“Working on my night cheese,” she sang in one episode), and her terrifically failing relationships. Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s television critic, pointed out that we got to see a woman be the George Costanza and not the Mary Richards, who was single and career-focused but very much the antithesis of Liz Lemon in many ways. Nussbaum wrote:
“From the beginning Liz Lemon was pathetic. That was what was enthralling, and even revolutionary, about the character. Unlike some other adorkable or slutty-fabulous characters I could name, Liz only superficially resembled the protagonist of a romantic comedy, ready to remove her glasses and be loved. Beneath that, she was something way more interesting: a strange, specific, workaholic, NPR-worshiping, white-guilt-infected, sardonic, curmudgeonly, hyper-nerdy New Yorker. In the first episode, Jack nails her on sight as ‘a New York third-wave feminist, college-educated, single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says “healthy body image” on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for … a week.’ Even Liz had to admit he scored a point.”
What’s your favorite TV show to watch as a professional woman? Tell us in the comments!
Ask Linda Simensky, Vice President of Children’s Programming at PBS, what her favorite TV show is!