Fascinating and flawed
Fully realised dramatic character ... Christina Hendricks stars in Mad Men.
Once, the ladies we watched on television were either very good, like Charlie's Angels, or very bad, like the Freak from Prisoner. Now, the ladies we watch on television - and in public life - are divided, fascinating and flawed. Hannah from Girls. Joan from Mad Men. Carrie from Homeland. None of them is perfect. It's unsettling and a little like real life; particularly like the real parliamentary life we saw on October 9 this year.
Depending on where you stand, Julia Gillard's now-famous ''misogyny'' speech was either a) a cri de coeur that will sound throughout the ages or b) an insincere outburst made to woo the crossbench. Whatever our view of the Prime Minister's motivations, though, we can all agree that this mad as hell moment with an enraged, conflicted woman at its centre was memorable. It was certainly good television.
Human imperfection makes equally good drama in real life and in performance; perfection, on the other hand, tends not to be that entertaining. We haven't been enjoying King Lear these past 400 years because he was a sweet guy. And we didn't give Gillard a bounce in the polls because she'd been behaving nicely. We pay attention to kings, prime ministers and the heroes of drama not because they are angels. We do so because they are everyday sinners.
In this second golden age of television, sinners abound as never before on the box. From the crooks of Boardwalk Empire to the cooks of Breaking Bad, we have more tragic flaws than commercial breaks.
The wonderful news for fans of moral decay is that we can now see women fall into chaos in greater numbers than ever before. 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, Selina Meyer of Veep and dozens of confusing broads appear on screen.
Through fire, ice and elaborate headdress, the women of Game of Thrones command our respect by eating just as many corpses as the chaps. Of course, Brienne, Daenerys and co don't have the best time of it, what with all those mediaeval sexual politics to overcome. But that this dynamic is depicted at all is quite something. In Game of Thrones, as in Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, the codes for male and female behaviour are evident in the narrative and drive a great deal of the drama.
It's not always pretty.
By vivid way of example, both Game of Thrones's Daenerys and Man Men's Joan Holloway are sexually abused in their respective universes. In each case, the assault, committed by the women's partners, is an act sanctioned not only by social norms but by the women themselves. Not only do the women accept the violence, they fall more deeply in love with their abusers.
On the face of it, such depictions might seem to have about as much feminist value as, say, a second-hand Wonderbra. In one reading, here we have a victim too defeated to fight back. In another, though, we have a character whose responses make perfect narrative sense. It would be far more melodramatic and far less powerful for Joan to exact violent revenge; watching Joan return quietly to a man who has abused her is harrowing.
This era of television is rich in just this kind of moral agony. Like the protagonists of the best comedies and dramas, we're conflicted at every turn. Why doesn't Joan leave? Why won't Hannah in Girls just shut up about her weight? Why won't Carrie spend more time learning Arabic and a little less thinking about sex with enemies of the state?
The answer? Because these women are imperfect.
Displays of imperfect womanhood long remained uncommon - everywhere from politics to television drama. So when Gillard unburdened herself of frustration, we could not help but take notice.
That day in October was an important one and many observers saw it as the public expression of a ''new wave of feminism''.
I'm not sure I agree. That Gillard - who, we must remember, was not aiming for the loftiest of gains - represented a new era of feminism in her speech is questionable.
What is beyond doubt, though, is that this speech gave us a different public woman. She was not strong because she was good; she was strong because she was so very warts-and-all.
In the terms of television, we are reminded more by Gillard of Skyler White in season three of Breaking Bad than, say, Mary Tyler Moore. Flawed, glorious and perhaps a little crooked: this is the new female archetype. And thank the goddess for that. Girls who are either very, very good or very, very wicked are, almost without exception, very, very boring.
The record of television has not exclusively featured two-dimensional gals. We could hardly call Lucille Ball a line-drawing of a woman. Cagney and Lacey, Agent Dana Scully and (my personal role models) all four of the Golden Girls are some exceptions to the historic rule of Total-Simpering-Ninny-Slash-Bad-Girl-Slash-Victim. But it does seem there has never been such a large population of complicated dames as now.
They're not role models and they're not bad girls. They are neither empowering, nor are they good for the sisterhood.
They are, at last, fully realised dramatic characters.