The Girl Whisperers

Secrets of TV heroines who corral female fans.

By Shannon Rupp 6 Nov 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor at The Tyee. Find her previous columns here.

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Hewitt and her omega male.

Prime time TV producers might be billed as women wranglers, since they're pros at corralling the audience advertisers want: women from 25 to a-certain-age. As Joanne Thomas Yaccato points out in The 80% Minority, women buy the most of everything.

So a few off-the-rack female fantasies are always prominent on the fall schedule. But the growing popularity of un-reality shows seducing viewers has me wondering just how many women are looking for a respite from the real world?

Too many, judging by Blood Ties and Moonlight, new vampire shows -- those bloodsuckers really are immortal -- and the whimsical Pushing Daisies. Regardless of what critics think, these new offerings are joining established shows like Ghost Whisperer in answering Freud's famous question, "What do women want?"

Whiny, snarky, irresistible

Apparently double-Xers love a heroine who is imperfect -- make that relentlessly selfish and/or demanding -- but is nevertheless worshipped by ideal men. She's always attended -- and I do mean attended -- by an omega male. Not an omega in the pejorative sense -- these are all handsome, capable characters who just happen to put their mates first. Sort of a reversal of the classic TV wife role.

A critic pal refers to this as the "bitch-goddess" archetype. He cites irritating, self-centred characters like Meredith of Grey's Anatomy (she isn't even pretty!) and her pal Christina, played by Canadian actor Sandra Oh (who made Maxim's un-sexy actresses list!) as examples. They're whiny, snarky, and/or abusive, and yet men are entranced by them. He points to the late, unlamented Crossing Jordan, (about a self-righteous, know-it-all pathologist) and Medium, the other girl-with-ghost show. Apparently the husband in the latter was a cipher who was seen mostly doing housework. (Everyone knows omega males make fine domestic partners.)

Since most of these shows aren't going to win any awards, he doesn't understand their large, devoted audiences.

The explanation is obvious, of course. The Girl Whisperers, as I've come to think of them, feature heroines who are powerful and unapologetic; obnoxious and adored; or even weird and endearing. In real life they'd be a friendless lot, but in TV-land they, and by extension the viewers, are celebrated for being themselves.

Vamping with vampires

Blood Ties, based on Tanya Huff's romance novels, is certainly in the bitch-goddess vein. Bespectacled heroine Vicki Nelson is a cop-turned-PI who is supposed to be tough, but on screen is just rude and annoying. Yet she's courted by an ex-boyfriend cop who never got over her, and a 400-year-old vamp with the body of a 20something. Both boys are essential to her work. And despite having the blonde bombshell looks that Hollywood demands, it becomes apparent that both men love her more for her brains than her impossible body. They even find her nasty, dismissive manner charming.

Critics were lukewarm but viewers love it; Lifetime ordered up a full season.

Moonlight is more than another variation on the demon lover archetype. This vamp, a private dick played by soulful Australian actor Alex O'Loughlin, escorts another blonde bombshell into an underworld that provides fodder for her fledgling career as a reporter.

As metacritic.com confirms, the overwhelmingly male band of reviewers at the major news outlets all think it stinks. They give it 38 out of 100, while (female) viewers adore it, offering 9 out of 10.

Soothingly self-absorbed

These shows are no Deadwood, but it's easy to understand why they're hits with women. In a society that is forever telling us we're not quite good enough, any series featuring 43 minutes of women being self-absorbed without consequences is downright soothing.

Moonlight's vamp may think he's blondie's guardian angel, but she's more a damsel in control, as in an episode where she saves his life by offering her own blood.

"You're really just a fragile flower," she teases the super-strong immortal who is paving the way for her professional triumphs. The line is both tender and smug. Was she about to break into a sack dance? I would.

Critics love the quirky comedy Pushing Daisies, which is as sweet and strange as any Tim Burton film, but it's just another variation on the formula. It's a fairy tale about a man who makes pies for a living and resurrects dead things with a touch. A second tap causes the undead to shake off this mortal coil permanently. The drama hinges on his bittersweet romance with the childhood sweetheart he lost and then encountered as a corpse (confusingly named Chuck). The pieman brings Chuck back to life just so he can bask in her presence.

He worships Dead Girl, despite their erotic limitations and in each episode they invent a new way to be intimate without getting hot and slippery. They kiss through plastic wrap. They don bee-keeping suits and dance. Do I have to point out the obvious?

Okay, I'll break the code: no matter how impossible these heroines are, each one is adored without reservation by a man who is interested in someone other than himself. Yes, no matter how career-obsessed, whiny, emotionally dysfunctional, self-involved, or dead these women are, each one is adored, unconditionally, by some lovely man who usually does the cooking.

Whisperer of ghosts and girls

Which is why Ghost Whisperer, in its third season, is the ultimate Girl Whisperer. The critics really hate this one. When it debuted, they called the series sappy, sentimental, and pointless -- and I'd concur.

And yet, I find the show oddly restful.

It's not the small town setting. As with the Gilmore Girls village, I always suspect the townsfolk are secretly plotting an assault on the abortion clinic, or a campaign to force Intelligent Design into the classroom.

I'm certainly no fan of the hollow scripts. Ghost Whisperer combines all sorts of things I despise starting with magical thinking. Jennifer Love Hewitt is cast as a saccharine psychic who helps ghosts "crossover into the light" by resolving their earthly conflicts. Officially she owns an antique shop, but that's little more than a hobby -- her vocation is being sweet to strangers.

I suspect the dirty little secret of this one's success is that while the spirit nanny is the ultimate career gal, there's nary a complaint from her handsome firefighter husband. Talk about the perfect omega male: he's her sounding board, her knight-errant, and her chef, while apparently asking nothing more of her than that she continue being her crazy self. I'm sure he's even responsible for the perpetually clean trophy kitchen in her romantic, Edwardian house.

And JLH isn't even beautiful!

And therein lies the real fantasy.

As for the frequent use of supernatural settings, I suspect they're crucial to persuading female viewers to suspend disbelief long enough to imagine these men might exist.

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