Take a Class in Advanced TV Herstory

Only about 40 percent of all speaking characters on TV are women—but Cynthia Bemis Abrams is here to celebrate those who do. Her new podcast, Advanced TV Herstorytraces the lineage of women in TV, onscreen and off, from All in the Family’s Maude Findlay (whose handling of social issues such as menopause “was necessary to propel the conversation in the ‘70s,” Abrams says) to The Closer’s Brenda Leigh Johnson (who Abrams thinks “absolutely [nails] the thing as a strong woman.”)

A Minnesota leadership consultant and lifelong TV lover, Abrams still recalls ’70s and ’80s TV fondly—and believes that, in order to improve gender equality in TV today, we need to look to the past. By examining women characters through a leadership lens, studying how they grow and guide viewers to be better, she hopes to honor forgotten women characters.

“If there are major characters out there that really teach us things, why don’t we use them? Why don’t we talk about them?” she asks. “Were they extraordinary characters? Were they role model characters? Was there something teachable in them that makes you say, ‘This is a story that needs to be told’?”

Shortly after her podcast’s June launch, the Ms. Blog spoke to Abrams about her ideas for the program, crucial moments in TV history and why women should be role models in both their professional and personal lives.

On what inspired her to start the podcast. “For the first time in my life—I’m 50—I’m doing this without any plan for it leading anywhere, but I know I have to do it from my heart. I sat back and said, ‘OK, I’m a leadership consultant. I teach a class. I like TV. I know how to do research. I’m a good public speaker. I’m just gonna start doing this.’”

On the power of Charlie’s Angels. “I can wax on about Charlie’s Angels. That makes people roll their eyes, [but] here’s why: because the three of them were always off doing something. Even though it took three of them to get the job done, they rescued each other from the situation. Before Charlie’s Angels had come along, every lady cop was always saved by a man cop. He ultimately tackled the bad guy and he got her wrists untied or he shot the person before she was able to shoot him. If you were 12 at the time, as I was, that was huge. [Charlie’s Angels] were cool. They were working women.”

On the behind-the-scenes politics of The Bionic Woman. “You say the Bionic Woman and everybody laughs! Yet if you’ve ever seen The Bionic Woman, there’s something there. Lindsay Wagner, when she was renegotiating a contract, had the tiger by the tale. Her agent was like, ‘Yeah, we can get more money, more money, more money.’ And then she said—it’s only a woman who would ever say this—‘I don’t really know if I really want more money. I would like to have more control over my character, and the development and the plotlines.’ So they negotiated and lo and behold, some of what makes the Bionic Woman so unique, in terms of the fact that she’s always in a different role each week and she’s taking on new things and there’s not a lot of gratuitous violence, is because Lindsay Wagner was in such a decision-making role. That’s huge!”

On the enduring legacy of Sex and the City. “There’s like only one or two little personal, family-related side stories that ever take place in the seven seasons. That allows them to be self-absorbed, to get into their own pickles, to be clever and to get themselves out. They talk about the fact that they are going to take on some of the worst character traits of men. They are going to have sex without taking on the relationship that comes attached to it. And that’s why I think it continues to be a breakthrough show. Did the character of Carrie Bradshaw change things? I believe yes. And I think that SJP is as smart a person as you’re gonna find and I hope she’s got a lot of irons in the fire to make good things happen. A good thing not being Sex and the City: The Movie, which was a piece of crap.”

On an undervalued show everyone has forgotten. “China Beach. It starred Dana Delaney and Marg Helgenberger as two women in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. So it was a period drama. It was war through the eyes of women. It was premised a little bit on storytelling and story-gathering done in preparation for there to be a Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C, which was a labor of love by all these women who had served over there as nurses who said, ‘Our story, from that war, has not been told, let alone recognized and honored.’ … It’s phenomenal. Five seasons, incredible show. Life-changing show. And because it’s about two women, and the war, it’ll never get re-aired.”

On missed opportunities. “For all the talent you had in the women on Friends, there wasn’t a lot of there there, sadly. I just have to think, at the end of the day, Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow—in particular—really were much smarter. They could’ve put up something much better if they’d just gotten rid of the men.”

On why women TV stars should help other women both onscreen and off. “Because we accord them celebrity. They have more status, they have more recognition—name recognition alone, let alone physical recognition—that they have the clout. If they can rise to the level where they’re doing the financing and making decisions, then they can open up doors and floodgates [for other women].”

On why we still have so far to go before we achieve equality in television. “We’re losing ground. More than ever we need to pull out some of the stronger [women characters] and say, ‘This has been done before! We’re not asking for too much!’ The longer the silence, the longer the dearth, the harder it will be for your generation to muster up its own sense that there have been better days. It is very ripe for a great insurgence of women at all levels of the behind-the-camera as well as in front of the camera.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chad Kainzlicensed under Creative Commons 2.0.




Carter Sherman is a former Ms. editorial intern. She recently graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and international studies, and has previously interned at Elle and Los Angeles Magazine. Follow her on Instagram at @heyyymizcarter.