Likable Female TV Heroes Still Have To Be Hot (Male Ones Don’t)

Have we talked about how much I love Political Animals?

Oh, I love this show. It is a very thinly disguised fantasy about the Clintons hanging out with Maureen Dowd. There are a lot of reasons I love this show. I love that Elaine Barrish is a clear stand-in for Hillary Clinton, and Susan Berg is Maureen Down. I love that someone decided that those would be people that America wanted to watch. I love the way the way it contains all sorts of dialogue that is meant to be snappy, but just misses the mark – Ellen Burstyn, who plays the Hillary Clinton character’s mother gets mad at the Maureen Dowd character and exclaims “you just write really smart, really nasty things about people!” – because in doing so, it sounds more like the kind of awkward things people would actually say. And I love seeing Sebastian Stan playing the couple’s gay son, because I really, really miss Kings. I like the way, at first glance, the Bill Clinton character seems sleazy, and you’re dismissive, and then he grips the Maureen Dowd character’s hand and say “act as though you’re conflicted, because you want to give me what I want, but you can’t” and you think “yes, I would probably sleep with him.” This is exactly how I feel about Bill Clinton himself.

And most of all, I love Sigourney Weaver‘s take on Hillary Clinton. As someone who is always bemoaning the fact that the entertainment industry doesn’t showcase enough competent female characters, I love that Elaine Barrish gets to stride around confidently making good decisions. And I love that the men in the show are constantly hitting on her. I haven’t been able to enjoy a female character this much since Candice Bergen played Shirley Schmidt.

“This is so nice,” I thought to myself, “people should hit on Hillary Clinton because she is smart and competent.”

And then I remembered they are hitting on her because she is played by Sigourney Weaver. Which is different.

Because to be an admirable female lead on any major show, you still have to be hot. And while Hillary Clinton might be a perfectly nice looking lady, she is not Riley from Aliens.

This is something so built into my perspective of how TV shows with female leads work that I don’t think I even considered it. Why would it? It holds up throughout history. I Love Lucy? For all she’s supposed to be an average housewife, Lucille Ball was a successful fashion model prior to the show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Crazy beautiful. Sex and the City? The show was about how hot they were. As for Girls - they’re good looking, okay? I know that Hannah is supposed to be average because she is 13 pounds overweight, but that is also seen as a symptom of her life not being pulled together. And all the other girls are super pretty.

Then look at male leads from a similar period. Ralph Belamy on The Honeymooners. Not a looker. Archie Bunker on All In The Family or, for that matter George Jefferson on The Jeffersons. Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld. Today on critically acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad Walter White – who was initially seen as intended to depict someone that “everyone would see as a good, admirable man” – is not really someone anyone would say was traditionally attractive. In fact, when a man, like Don Draper on Mad Men, is too good looking, it’s almost seen as something of a character flaw (he’s good looking so he has tons of affairs! It’s all a mask!)

Male characters can win people over by being funny and smart and a host of other qualities. Female characters can do that as well, but they also have to be hot. That is seemingly non-negotiable.

Just so we’re clear on this: Ned Stark, a political leader on Game of Thrones, wasn’t hot. Elaine Barrish, on Political Animals, pretty much has to be.

Will McAvoy on Newsroom claims he’s Don Quixote. Not that great looking. Mackenzie MacHale on Newsroom also claims to be Don Quixote – super pretty.

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    • Lo

      Since you mention Game Of Thrones, I’m going to bring up Brienne. The plot is full of jerks who mock her appearance and then really wish they hadn’t. Brienne herself has various issues, but a strong sense of honour and loyalty, so she goes on the list.

    • Diana

      Ok, not to be all persnickety, but it’s RIPLEY, not Riley. She was and always will be who I want to be when I grow up.
      I think you have a point, though in that female leads are hot and usually very inappropriately dressed. I come from a cop family and I’ve never seen female officers wear some of the outfits that TV police wear. And Why did Buffy go patrolling in tight dresses or skirts? Pants and sensible tops are your friends, TV women!
      And, just for the sake of argument: Ned Stark isn’t hot? What have you been smoking? Sean Bean is ALWAYS hot.

    • Jamie Peck

      I think Ned Stark is pretty hot.
      Also, Hannah’s weight is not a character flaw! People need to stop equating weight with any kind of moral anything. None of the other characters have their shit together either, but they just happen to be thin and perfect. This is part of Hannah realizing life is unfair, IMO.
      That said, this is a hard conversation to have because not everyone agrees on what constitutes “pretty” and “ugly.” But I can’t think of anyone I don’t think is pretty who plays a female protagonist on TV. I will throw in for Brienne, but she’s not a main character.

      • jocelyn

        THIS. perfect. thank you.

    • Renee

      I think this question is salient if off topic: Why would anyone want to be, claim to be, Don Quixote?

    • endn

      Oh lord I love this show too. So out of control. Love every actor. However, Sigourney may have a history of being considered attractive, but not in a traditional way– she’s always been more of an amazon, you know, badass, dian fossey instead of jane goodall. plus the woman is over 60 and she looks it, she does not have a thin body, she has wrinkles… but she’s very graceful and confident and the men hitting on her are younger and hot and I freaking LOVE that. I think sigourney is great because she’s not unrealistically attractive and she has that badass persona that she’s more remembered for than her looks.

    • Brian

      Ah yes, “As the West Wing Turns.” Wonderful cast, not sold on the writing at all.

    • Andrea

      I basically agree with you, there are few exceptions. I would say Nurse Jackie is not your typical hottie, both because her looks are not conventional and she’s older. Cathy from The C Word is conventionally hot but older which is almost just as bad. Gabourney Sidibe starred in a movie and defied almost every convention of beauty. And Sigourney is an improvement from Geena Davis’ character as president. Weaver is going to be a stand out among any normal 60 something year old woman, but she clearly is older and thus not a typical sex symbol. BUT I agree we have a ton of work to do here.

    • C

      I completely agree! I hate how the “strong”, “tough” women on TV always seem to be portrayed by insanely attractive actors that wear super tight mini-dresses and six-inch heels. That’s one of the reasons why I like Game of Thrones, the women look normal, pretty but normal. They’re all attractive in a I-don’t-do-meth-and-have-a-professional-do-my-makeup way. However, the male characters are, for the most part, unrealistically hot. And that includes Ned Stark! Ha.

      • C

        I got it! Okay. Theon Greyjoy’s sister. She’s a complete badass and isn’t conventionally pretty or sexy. You look at her and think, “hey, that’s a person” not “hey, that’s a woman”.

    • jeli

      Watch BBC TV shows, it’s not all about looks. Sure they often go for pretty, but it doesn’t all hinge on that.