My heroines: Cagney, Lacey, Xena and She-Ra
The Powerpuff Girls turned out to be a template for a new generation of feminists
She-Ra, a warrior person from the gender-essentialising world of Eternia. She had a tautologically monikered brother, He-Man
Given the day that’s in it, I’m going to use my pop cultural corner of The Irish Times to talk about more of my favourite television heroines.
Who among us hasn’t had a work frenemy? Watching Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lang channelling Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as they bickered on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? will probably remind you of the sharp-tongued repartee between you and Nigel from accounts over your purloining of his “desk meats” (“Those are my desk meats, Karen, I thank you kindly not to use them for your lunch.” “F*** you, Nigel. I do as I please.”) No offence to you and Nigel, but Bette and Joan are smarter and nastier and are engaged in their socio-politically pointed battle of wits against the backdrop of a heartless, woman-hating studio system.
Ostensibly part of the wider Marvel universe, Netflix’s tales of Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) are relatively self contained and, unlike, say, Avengers Infinity War, they do not require you to watch while consulting a lengthy reference book or sitting beside your nerd friend Stu, who has wasted his life (sorry Stu). In short, a charismatically sarcastic abuse survivor with super strength goes around punching bad men. It was probably pitched as “Krysten Ritter Punches the Patriarchy”. So, if you feel like watching Krysten Ritter punching the patriarchy this is where to go.
Diane Lockhart from ‘The Good Fight’
In a recent episode of The Good Fight, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) stops microdosing LSD, an escapist habit she has indulged for an entire season (seriously) in order to face up to the realities of Trump’s America. I vowed there and then to also stop taking hallucinogens in the workplace because whatever Diane Lockhart does I scribble into my notebook of #lifegoals.
The Good Wife spin-off has been masterful in taking the anxieties and simplifications of the culture wars (#metoo, Black Lives Matter, alt right vloggers) and spinning them into formalistically stylish and morally-nuanced legal dramas. And in among its ensemble cast of remarkable women, Lockhart shines like the unapologetically career-focused, happily childless badass that she is.
“It’s alright that the world is crazy,” she said last week, no longer tripping balls, “as long as I make my little corner of the world sane.”
She’s the clear-sighted, calculating elder stateswoman of law that we all want to be when we grow up. Her signature move is to laugh loudly in the face of absurdity. I’ve recently taken to looping footage of Lockhart/Baranski’s clipped laugh in my head in times of crisis. I’ve been hearing it a lot recently. But then, I have been microdosing (note to HR: I have not been microdosing).
Hamble from ‘Playschool’
When Playschool first emerged on the BBC it featured an eerily silent Greek chorus of toys, chaired, sexistly, by officious egg man Humpty (played by Peter Ustinov). My favourite, however, was always creepy baby toy Hamble sitting there giving Big Ted her inscrutably wonky side eye. I could tell she was undermining the patriarchy from within. She later wrote the feminist ur-text Lean Over.
Velma from ‘Scooby Doo’
In Scooby Doo, four teenagers live in a van and solve crime rather than make a fortune on the chat show circuit with their lucrative talking dog (millennials, eh?). In fairness, the verbose canine is clearly meant to be a metaphor for a greedy, self-medicated nation. He is accompanied by a cowardly, twitchy hippy called Shaggy who is always “hungry” for “food”, a lavender-garbed heiress-in-distress called Daphne, and a pretentious neckerchief-wearing jock named Fred, who is the group’s leader purely by dint of his gender (he has the edge on Shaggy purely because he’s not on the heroin).
The best of the bunch, but probably on half the money Fred is on, is bespectacled, sensibly-pullovered Velma. Velma is usually the first to notice that the “ghost” they’re investigating is yet another masked, rent-seeking crank trying to squeeze fraudulent income from a depreciating asset. Never has the manner in which the baby-boomers haunt America been better demonstrated in fiction. Anyway, Velma 2020!
Xena: Warrior Princess
Xena and her friend Gabrielle wandered the mythical past having sporadically self-aware adventures. Xena (Lucy Lawless) was more warrior than princess, preferring to wear armour and hit things with a big sword than don a fancy frock and siphon tax. Hitting things with a sword is, my female friends tell me, something they want to do a lot nowadays.
Cagney and Lacey
“Hey, fellow 1980s TV executive, why don’t we do a story about cops, but why don’t we make the two main cops…” Dramatic pause.
“What? Tell me? Spacemen? Werewolves? Mavericks who play by their own rules? Babies? Ducks? A type of moss?”
“Women, eh? I don’t know. Seems a bit far-fetched. I mean what are women, even? Is John a lady name? Can one of them be called John? John Ladyperson, maybe. And he could be a man. Would we have to give them ‘woman guns’? It seems a bit of a risk.”
“I know, but bear me out. What if we made it...” Dramatic pause. “Good.”
And so it came to pass that one of the most grittily realistic, working-class shows of the 1980s was born and it was helmed by two awesome women. They decided not to do it again for a while.
Ilana and Abbi from ‘Broad City’
Not all the best television ledgebags are necessarily good role models. I tried living like Ilana and Abbi from Broad City for a weekend and I’m now what doctors call “clinically dead” (note to payroll: I’m not clinically dead). In other times and other places, the shenanigans of these work-shy, drugged-up, sexually-fluid anarchists would see them burned as witches which is why, right now, they are so very funny.
She-Ra is a warrior person from the gender-essentialising world of Eternia where she and her tautologically monikered brother, He-Man, battle a muscley goon with a skull for a face. His name is Matthew McConaughey, or possibly Skeletor (I can’t access Wikipedia right now). She-Ra may have started out as an attempt by Hasbro to market their body-builder action figures to girls as well as boys but like most things written by William Gibson (like I said, I can’t access Wikipedia), many of the farsighted things depicted in She-Ra came to pass. Ergo, all men now wear furry underpants-and-boot combos (see byline picture), cats are huge cowards who become violent when riled (see journalist’s cat) and “She-Ra” is now a common first name for Irish girls (see journalist’s niece).
The Powerpuff Girls
Launched the same year as Sex and the City, the Powerpuff Girls was also a TV programme about empowering female friendship, but one in which three flying children created by a mad scientist battled evil superintelligent monkeys instead of having expensive brunches and complaining about the quality of single men in New York. It was, as it turns out, a useful template for a new generation of feminist activists. Though the brunches were fun too, to be honest.
And all of these telly heroes are as nothing compared to all of those real women who have been out there telling their stories and knocking on doors. Whatever happens today, thank you.