There’s a strange situation you find yourself in when you work in television, either in the provision of the content or the provision of the ads that pay for it. We’re all pitching our stuff at the same person: the Main Grocery Buyer, aged 25-49. This person is usually female and is in charge of major household purchasing decisions.

I am Female. I buy groceries. I am 25-49. But I am not the person I am writing for. I have not met this person.  Neither have most of the rest of us working in TV, because we are well-educated and artistic and even, sometimes, politically knowledgeable. Our values tend to be progressive. Whereas she – the mythical beast TV is aimed at – is not well-educated, not artistic, not progressive and not politically knowledgeable. No. She is distracted, and conservative, and prefers her gender roles traditional, and is worried about prices, and germs. She is reactionary, and if we’re honest, she’s dumb. She doesn’t want to be challenged or surprised. She wants to be comfortable. And she only wants to see people on television who are just like her.

There is something very patronising about this fantasy figure we’re all writing about and for, with all kinds of assumptions and invisible lines of class attached to her. And I found myself thinking about this mysterious fantasy figure when I read Jessica Grose’s no-longer-all-that-recent but still very interesting post on the wave of new fall TV shows which feature young women.

At one point she asks:

Why don’t these shows have anything more inventive to say about young women at a time when they’re dominating both the workplace and the domestic sphere after eons of subordination? Part of the issue is that men ages 18-49 are still the most coveted ad demographic, and that segment of viewers doesn’t traditionally want to watch shows about unconventional female protagonists.

Maybe the US is different, but here in Australia, most primetime TV advertising is aimed either at men and women, or at the aforementioned Main Grocery Buyers – that is, women. Movies are all trying to attract young men, it’s true. But TV – network TV, that is – is geared towards selling us stuff.  Which returns you to the MGBs, and the question of who these women would like to see on their TV screens.

This got me wondering about the women we see on Australian TV. Drama no longer reigns supreme in the way it once did – the highest-rating primetime shows in Australia are reality TV franchises. But you only have to look at the rise and rise of Asher Keddie to suspect that there are actually some interesting female-focused shows being made: just to name two shows starring Keddie, this year we saw Channel 10’s Offspring, and the Ita Buttrose telemovie, Paper Giants, which was heavenly for the wardrobe alone, but also a striking choice for a mainstream network to make. Australian TV tends to do biopics about politics and sportsmen, so I was delighted to see a story about, more or less, 1970s feminism given the big-budget, story-of-national-importance treatment.

Offspring, which can trace its descent from the not-entirely-feminist but influential 90s show Ally McBeal, is a real attempt to create a female-focused show which attempts to capture the complexity of young women’s lives today; moving over to the locally-made cable networks, there are shows like Claudia Karvan’s charming Spirited (yes yes, Ghost and Mrs Muir, but I dug that show when I was a kid too) and the darker, Lantana-esque territory of Tangled.

TV, like the novel, is or could be the perfect medium for exploring the complexity of modern life. There is a new breed of TV drama – mostly produced on cable – which is taking us into interesting places, interesting situations, and new ways of looking at the human condition. Yet the focus in many of these shows remains very male. If you look at the critically-acclaimed TV dramas of the last decade or so, they’re all, to a greater or lesser extent, pretty male-centred: think about The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad. Shows like Mad Men and Six Feet Under are more evenly balanced, but both dramas are built around a conflicted and unhappy man, struggling to make sense of himself, his desires and the women in his life.

When are we going to see a show as strong, as striking, as sophisticated and as well-written as those uber-shows, that revolves around female characters? Nurse Jackie might be a step in that direction, but it isn’t it. (There are complex industrial and sociological reasons why men with distinctive visions get their shows up and women don’t. I get that. We’d have to change television, and advertising, and the world, and women, and men, for that to start happening. But it’s still worth asking the question.)

The stunning Danish crime show The Killing (recently remade for US television) is one answer, as the large ensemble cast is anchored by the beautiful central performance of Sofie Gråbøl as the detective who cracks the case. She is the kind of character you dream of: intuitive, intelligent, shrewd, subtle, with the obligatory troubled-home-life stuff thrown in (okay, it’s not entirely free of cop-show cliche). But what’s great about Grabol’s performance is that so much of it goes on behind the eyes. You can see her thinking, constantly. And you just don’t see enough of that in TV, ever.

As for the local scene, maybe it’s time for a Prisoner reboot? That was all-female. It was awesome. And Female Grocery Buyers 25-49 totally loved it.

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