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Where TV Meets Reality

How fictional female characters help us make sense of real life

We've had our Lucys, our Marys, and even our Buffys, but for the most part, American television has been dominated by men. Historically, women have been the wives, the girlfriends, the therapists, and neglected characters who operated in the background of stories about men. When they did appear, it was to talk to a man, or about him. The inability of many shows to pass the Bechdel Test (a test that requires at least two women to talk to each other about something other than a man) demonstrated that when it came to TV, our stories just weren't being told.

But now it's different. It's a great time to be a woman on TV. Women carry many of today's most popular shows—including dramas like Homeland, Scandal, and Orange is the New Black, as well as comedies like Girls, Parks and Recreation, The Mindy Project, and Super Fun Night. Many other shows feature female characters who have their own complex inner lives (Skyler White on Breaking Bad, Peggy Olson and Joan Harris on Mad Men).

We live in a media-saturated world, and the lives of these 'leading ladies' reflect the stories of individuals found in society while also shaping the discussion of how to respond.

Why look to fictional women at all when we have a Bible filled with examples, both positive and negative, of the struggles we as women face? It would be easy to say biblical women like Deborah, Rahab, or Mary should be our only influence, but that's not an honest answer. We live in a media-saturated world, and the lives of these "leading ladies" reflect the stories of individuals found in society while also shaping the discussion of how to respond. And they are certainly shaping the way women who don't look to the Bible as a primary influence view their role as women in society. How many non-Christian (or, for that matter, Christian) women do you know who describe themselves as "just like Liz Lemon" or "totally a Peggy"? Stories help us understand the people who create and consume them—their hopes, their fears, their values—and offer an insight into the ways people are answering the biggest questions of their lives.

Faith is not played up as a key aspect of any of these current female characters' stories (in fact, it's almost entirely missing in all of their fictional lives). So what do TV's leading ladies have to offer us as Christian women who are seeking models for how to live multi-dimensional, faith-filled lives?


It's exciting to see our stories on TV, and it's also empowering. Stories are powerful because they reflect something of our own reality, but also because they open us up to new realities we might not have encountered in our regular lives.

For example, Olivia Pope, the high-powered "fixer" played by Kerry Washington on Scandal, runs her own PR firm and commands authority from some of the most powerful men in the world. Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent played by Claire Danes on Homeland, proves over and over again that she can hang with the boys in a male-dominated field. And Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler's small-town bureaucrat in Parks and Recreation, wins over everyone she meets with her intelligence, determination, hard work, and kindness. They remind us that, as women, it's okay to strive.

Under pressure

These women of culture also remind us how hard it is to be a woman who wants. Each of these women is driven to some degree by the pressure to be perfect. Killing it at work, maintaining a stylish and clean home, cooking a healthy dinner, spending quality time with the kids, and being sexy for the husband or string of attractive suitors are each expected qualities, and many of the women we see on TV are defined by their struggle to keep up in one or more of these areas. Hannah Horvath, the primary 20something "girl" in Lena Dunham's Girls, is crippled by OCD, anxiety, and insecurity as she struggles to figure out how to go from being a girl to being a woman in 2013. Peggy Olson, a secretary who rises up the professional ranks on Mad Men, gets the career but not the husband and family, while Joan Harris, a secretary who can't help but attract male attention, just wants to be taken seriously at work.

These women reflect back to us just how much there is to want in this world, and how difficult it is to, as Liz Lemon put it on the recently ended 30 Rock, "have it all." Even when one area of our life comes together, another inevitably falls apart. Perfection is the standard, and we all know the familiar disappointment of failing again. This idea of "having it all" is nothing new, but recent books like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and think pieces like The Atlantic's "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" continue to develop and reshape the question for all of us who see a bit of ourselves in Liz Lemon, Leslie Knope, or Olivia Pope.

I know I do. And I know I'm not alone. Recently I was sitting at a friend's kitchen table with two other women, each of us in very different stages of life. One woman is married and stays home with her toddler, and the other works while her husband launches a new business. I work in publishing and am single. As we shared the deepest struggles of our hearts, I realized I have spent so much emotional energy envying parts of their lives—wishing I were married, wishing I had kids I could stay home with, wishing parts of my body looked more like theirs. But as we talked, I realized they wished the very same things about parts of my life, wishing they had a fulfilling career, free time to pursue interests and explore the city, or a supportive church community.

We all feel like if we could just plug in those last few pieces of the puzzle, we'd have it all figured out. We really would have it all.

Longing for wholeness

But I know perfection is impossible, at least by the terms the world has set—and that's okay. They get us started by reminding us how much our hearts long for wholeness. It's not because our desires are too strong; it's because we're looking to the wrong sources for satisfaction. It's not in a better work-life balance, or a healthier body image, or even in lowering our standards for what "having it all" really means. Wholeness is only possible when we find our identity first and only in Christ. Psalm 37:4 is a powerful verse that is often misapplied: "Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart's desires." This doesn't mean that God operates like some kind of magic genie, who will conjure up a perfect husband, two kids, and a comfortable home if you pray hard enough. It means that when you spend enough time seeking God, enjoying his presence, and pursuing the things he values, your desire will be for him and the things he promises: unconditional love. Eternal life with him.

But like the strong women we know in our own lives, and like the strong women we watch on TV, we are learning to acknowledge our own failures while pushing forward toward a better self and a better world.

While sitting around that same kitchen table, my friends and I began to talk about the search for wholeness in our own lives. We all feel it. There will always be something that needs improvement, some way in which we don't feel we measure up to other women or to the ideals we long ago internalized for ourselves. Even if we did, there are other things that are out of our control: our friends and families are scattered across the globe, injustice persists everywhere we look, people we love hurt each other, and sometimes we hurt people we love. Living in a fallen world is a big part of what it means to be human. But like the strong women we know in our own lives, and like the strong women we watch on TV, we are learning to acknowledge our own failures while pushing forward toward a better self and a better world.

I have never rubbed elbows with the powerful elite like Olivia Pope, or been a female doctor at an all-male practice like Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project. I have never struggled with mental illness like Carrie Mathison, or faced the difficult decisions Joan Harris has had to face. But through their stories I now know more about the women around me who have lived those kinds of stories, and I can love them better by understanding them more fully. And I can see in their brokenness just how badly the kinds of things I tend to chase after fail me as I strive to "have it all."

It's only when I allow God to shape my heart that I know I can make it after all.

Laura Leonard is associate editor of BuildingChurch Leaders.com. Follow Laura on Twitter at @lmarieleonard.

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Culture; Influence; Leadership; Pop Culture
Today's Christian Woman, November Week 2, 2013
Posted November 11, 2013

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