BY Will Cook

If Australian TV producers had their way, Australian women would be a repetitive mix of blonde, beautiful and constantly lustful. This begs an important question - does the TV you watch change the way you see gender roles?  

Sipping Cosmos in the fleekest Manhattan lounges. Stumbling through an obstetrics examination. Chasing down sex offenders in NYC. While my mother might not have been all these things. Her cultural connectivity and relatable coach potato-ism, introduced me to a world that had finally taken the hammer to the glass ceiling and commenced a process of redefining the bounds of gender. Fictional TV worlds are in a constant struggle of revaluing gender roles. Luckily, I grew up with a diet of female characters that had finally begun to portray something more akin to those they were supposed to represent.

Celebrating 20-years since first airing, HBO comedy Sex & The City set the tone for 21st Century television that was ready to shackle the chains that had relegated the characterisation of female gender to type-cast mothers and daughters. While one would be right to question my mum’s negligence in subjecting her young sons to the brazen sex lives of Carrie and co, the ladies of Sex & The City proved that women could be unapologetically complex, and, more importantly flawed. Far from a show suited only for the oft maligned Sisterhood, across six landmark seasons, and two atrocious feature films, the world of up-town Manhattan hosted four women that each grappled with relationships, singleness, work and unemployment, with one continuing factor: each other. From the vivacious Samantha, to the stay-at-home mum turned business women Miranda, each of the central four exfoliated the primed veneer of the upper class, proving that even the faultless had faults.

One year after the arrival of the foxy upstate ladies, American television again introduced the world to another character that would go on to subtly reject her expectations. Across more than 430 episodes, most of which mum and I have seen in re-run rotation, we have witnessed the career and personal progression of Detective Olivia Benson. While Law & Order: SVU has welcomed, farewelled and killed off many an officer of the NYC Sex Crimes Beurre, the serial has served as a 20-year exposé of Benson. In her quest to serve the mistreated and expose the vile, Benson has grappled with turmoil. A determination stemming from her superiors continual refusal of her ability and passion, Benson’s trek through the badged ranks to prove herself exposed me to the relatable trope facing many women. Whether creator Dick Woolf intended for such a purpose or not, the procedural has effectively traced the Century’s reassessment of the expectation and acceptance of women in the workforce.

Heading down-under, the remoulding of gender roles has been an undercooked process. In Offspring, highly strung, high-flying obstetrician Nina Proudman still lusts after hot-doc after hot-doc. Meanwhile, Jessica Marias’ breakfast TV producer in The Wrong Girl was again forced to chose between two dashing suitors. Yes, mum’s appointments with soapie dramedies rarely presented me with gender representations with more depth than a layer of Bondi Sands on a Home & Away character. Intended as relatable, commercial TV’s love of creating programs about people “like us” seems only to give us heterosexual females that did little more than chase their beautiful heterosexual suitors around Sydney’s inner-east. 

This is subject to one late, great exception: the reprisal of 1980s classic Prisoner, in the form of the fist-throwing, drug smuggling Wentworth. Set in a women’s prison that grapples with its own illicit actions, offenders range from alcoholic mixed race murderers, to LGBTQI+ identifying victims of domestic violence. Gone are the restrictions of the blonde white woman from middle class Australia. While mum might question her sons bringing such a friend home for dinner, Wentworth shows that women can be a glorious rainbow of genuine mess. Buoyed by Logie wins and a cult (turned mainstream) following, across six bingeable seasons, the drama has reinvented what our nation demands from female representation on screen.

While the representation renovation is far from done, I can only thank mum for her television addiction. Outside of hours devoted to Big Brother and Home & Away, she introduced me to women searching for more than a new boyfriend. Determined, powerful and high-functioning alcoholics, real women are the best type.