Monday, April 1, 2013

TVs Super Women: What Scandal, Buffy, Parks and Rec, Bones, and Weeds Have in Common

It occurred to me recently that there is a common thread among many of the TV shows I watch. Perhaps it is the feminist in me that enjoys shows featuring a strong female lead whose abilities surpass the expectations of those around her. Whatever it is that draws me to that plot, there are several shows that fit the bill: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Weeds, Parks and Recreation, Scandal, and Bones. (SPOILERS for all of these shows.)

In addition to strong female leads who might be considered super women, all of those shows feature a running theme of community and support networks. Taken together, they can be seen as pop culture's lesson on trying to "do it all." You might be able to do it all, but you can't do it all alone. 

Consider these similarities.

They all feature a strong-but-flawed female protagonist

Buffy- Buffy Summers

Strengths: Anointed as the Slayer, a legendary individual whose sole purpose in life is to slay vampires and other creatures from the supernatural world, Buffy is literally a super hero. She is marked by her physical strength, endurance, strong decision-making skills, and confidence.
Flaw: Despite her strength, she has trouble letting others in and battles the desire to be a normal person free of the responsibilities her power gives her. This theme comes up again and again in the show, culminating in several episodes where she abandons her post, leaving her responsibilities in the hands of people without her capabilities.

Weeds- Nancy Botwin

Strengths: When her husband dies, suburbanite mom Nancy turns to selling pot around her upper-crust neighborhood to make ends meet for herself and her two sons. Several insanely unrealistic plot points later, she has gone through multiple marriages, birthed another son, and done time in prison. Through it all, her remarkable communication skills, ability to see connections and opportunities within ideas, and networking capabilities make her a force of nature. 
Flaw: Nancy's character flaw is reiterated to her over and over and over again: she's selfish. She acts impulsively on what she thinks is best without any input from those around her, and she is manipulative to the point of abuse. 

Parks and Recreation- Leslie Knope

Strengths: One can tell within a few moments of viewing this quick-witted comedy that Leslie is ambitious, hard-working, and caring. She devotes herself unwaveringly to the causes she believes in and works more efficiently and effectively than most people think possible. 
Flaw: She takes it all on herself. Leslie has trouble delegating responsibilities to others, and that can leave her with too much to do, especially to the perfectionist standards she sets for herself. 

Scandal- Olivia Pope

Strengths: This high-powered D.C. "fixer" (a lawyer who covers up high-profile scandals for politicians and celebrities) is smart, quick-thinking and fast-talking, and incredibly driven. 
Flaw: She alienates herself from those around her, making even her closest friends question her ability to connect and trust. 

Bones- Temperance Brennan

Strengths: A genius cultural anthropologist, Temperance ("Bones") is able to solve the toughest crimes with only a sliver of information. She is intelligent, dedicated to her work, driven, and confident. 
Flaw: Temperance uses the excuse of logic and rationalism to justify her sometimes isolated stance and inability to connect to others. As the series progresses, we see cracks in this defense and begin to realize that Bones is actually refusing to connect with others because of abandonment issues from her childhood. 

who finds herself in impossibly complex situations, 


Buffy fights demons, vampires, a god, and a whole slew of unpronounceable villains. At one point she dies and goes to heaven before coming back and leading a group of would-be slayers into an all-out brawl against original evil. She doesn't have an easy day job.


It's hard to feel sorry for Nancy since most of her complications are of her own design, but it's impossible to deny that they are, indeed, complicated. Whether it's hiding her son from a Mexican drug kingpin after he kills a woman with a mallet, sneaking a bag full of hand grenades around New York while living in a halfway house, or convincing the little league team to allow her son to play, she's constantly in a complicated situation. 

Parks and Rec-

One appeal of Parks and Rec is that it makes the goings-on of a small-town city department appear as complex and underhanded as the depths of DC. Whether it's Leslie fighting her arch-nemesis on the city council or rallying the troops to clean up a polluted river, Leslie is constantly in high-pressure situations. 


Oliva Pope's entire existence is based on high-pressure situations. If you wake up with a body in your bed and no idea how it got there, you don't call the police; you call Olivia Pope. If the president thinks he's impregnated an intern, it's Olivia's job to clean it up. Divorces, murders, rapes, and affairs are her bread and butter. 


As if solving murders isn't high-pressure enough, Bones seems to court the most bizarre situations imaginable. Having been the target of multiple serial killing madmen, Bones has spent time buried alive in a car, fighting for life after being shot with a bullet made of blood, and on the lam after being framed for murder. Life's not easy.

bolstered by her misfit support group

Buffy- The Scoobies

The Scoobies is the nickname for Buffy Summers' support group: Willow, Xander, and Giles. Giles is an intellectual type who lacks Buffy's passionate ability to jump into action but bolsters her skills with the research and context to make them effective. Xander and Willow both start out as people Buffy views as inferior in her position as the slayer, but invaluable in their ability to give her some reprieve in the real world. As their friendship grows, so does their role in her life until they have both become active participants in Buffy's responsibilities, often shouldering the pain, work, and loss that comes when Buffy is in over her head or abandons her responsibilities in moments of weakness. 

Weeds- The family

Nancy claims that she does everything she does (from drug dealing to covering up murder) in the name of her family. That family sticks with her through several moves across the country and through various amounts of crime and deceit. Her sons, Shane and Silas, each have their own issues to work out, but they are both (sometimes to their own chagrin) devoted to their mother. Her brother-in-law Andy is hopelessly in love with her and continues to be drug into more and more absurd plots as he becomes enmeshed in her life. Doug started out as a tagalong former neighbor but ends up a crucial member of Nancy's inner circle. 

Parks and Recreation- The Parks and Rec employees

Leslie gets her start in politics in the Parks and Rec department of a small town in Indiana. The other members of that team don't take their job nearly as seriously, but they are seriously devoted to helping Leslie. Ann is the nurse-turned-public-employee best friend. Andy is the lovable goofball who constantly throws everything out of whack. April is the dark, brooding sidekick who tries to hide her intelligence and love in a veil of apathy. Ron, while ostensibly standing against everything Leslie believes in, is actually her strongest supporter. 

Scandal- The Gladiators

Olivia assembles her team out of broken but brilliant people society tried to discard. Harrison is a lawyer who was on house arrest when Olivia swept in and saved him. Abby is a domestic abuse victim trying to get her life back together. Quinn is living a double life after a tragedy derailed her once-promising start to success. Huck, perhaps the most broken of all, is a former American spy whose past keeps catching up to him. Through their personal flaws, all of them see Olivia as a savior, but once her own facade of strength starts to break down, they are there to hold her up. 

Bones- The Squints

Bones works for the Jeffersonian, and she is bolstered by a team of incredibly talented support. Her best friend, Angela, is an artist with a kind heart and insightful perspective. Hodgins is an incredibly rich man with almost as many degrees as he has millions. Sweets is a psychiatrist who is trained to see the weaknesses in others but never uses that to their disadvantage. These people all demonstrate themselves to be kind, competent, and talented in their own right, but they work tirelessly to ensure that Bones gets the glory and recognition she deserves.

and a series of love interests who waver between more and less serious, 


Buffy has a series of love interests throughout the show. Among her most serious flings are Riley and Spike, along with a handful of casual dates made increasingly complicated by her true identity. 


Nancy sleeps with anyone if she thinks it might help her reach her ultimate goals. Over the course of the show, she marries a DEA agent, a Mexican druglord, and a rabbi. She sleeps with hitmen, her prison cellmate, and random people who have something she wants. She leaves in her wake a series of people who have been damaged by their relationship to her.

For instance, this is how Nancy handles a dispute with a rival drug dealer. 

Parks and Recreation-

Early in the show, we see Leslie's attempts at dating, and they are often disastrous. Among her more serious relationships are Ann's friend Justin and ex-police sergeant Dave. She has trouble finding someone who can match her life ambitions and passion, though.


In the show, we see her begin something undefined with her previous fiancé Edison, and she's currently caught up in a bizarre dating scene with Jake, who is spying on her for the President.


Bones is incredibly secure in her sexual desires, and she frequently has sex with men for the pleasure. We also get glimpses of her dating throughout the first few seasons.

but she always circles back to "The One," with whom the relationship is incredibly complicated. 


Throughout it all, though, she is drawn again and again to Angel, a vampire who was cursed with the return of his soul. Upon sleeping with Buffy, he loses his soul again, returning to his (very) evil ways. In the course of their relationship, they take turns dying for and killing one another and are still unable to truly be together. 


Nancy's brother-in-law, Andy, is the one person with whom she maintains a physical distance even though he professes his love for her repeatedly. She uses this to tease and lure him into staying on several occasions when he's smart enough to try to pack up for good. In the end, he gets what he wants only to realize that he no longer wants it. 

Parks and Recreation-

Leslie begins a relationship with Ben. An otherwise perfect relationship becomes increasingly complicated because it is ethically forbidden. They spend several episodes hiding their relationship and lying to their friends. Eventually, they decide to come clean, but then their relationship is complicated by distance when Ben takes another job offer.


This is about as complicated as a relationship can get (okay, Buffy might win this one, but Olivia is a close second). She gives up all of her personal scruples to get him elected, tries to avoid a relationship with him, and then calls it off a thousand and one times before it gets called back on again. Secret Service men kidnap her for secret rendezvous, and all the while she'd rather just forget him.


Despite her sexual confidence, Bones has constant (and unfulfilled) sexual chemistry with her FBI partner Booth. It is not until they slip into sex accidentally and she becomes pregnant that they actually begin a relationship in earnest.


So, even those these shows span multiple decades and genres, I now realize that I've virtually been watching the same story over and over again. It's obviously a story that resonates with me, as I don't watch very many television shows in their entirety, but I've watched all of these up to their finale or most recent episode. 

To be fair, Bones, Parks and Rec, and Scandal are all still on the air, so they could have some sort of surprise twist in the wait. It seems, though, that a main theme of all of these shows is demonstrating that the super woman who does it all on her own is a myth. Even the most extraordinary women need a strong support system to be successful. 

I find it interesting that Weeds shows us someone who is not, ultimately, successful in maintaining that support system. In the end, Nancy has taken too long to realize their value and she's left without their willingness to hold her up. Without them, she's not sure what she will do with her life or even how she will define herself. Interestingly, this failed narrative of super woman success is the only one that does not include at least one woman among the crew. Are these shows demonstrating the power of female friendships?

As for the love interests, it's worth noting that all of these men are viewed as equally capable partners. In some of the relationships (such as Olivia and the President, for example), there is tension that stems from the woman's position of power. In the successful ones, though (Ben and Leslie, Booth and Bones), the couple have to navigate an equally shared partnership that allows them both to follow their careers as well as their love. 

So, now you know how to make a television show I'll watch. Have you been watching the same show over and over?


  1. I haven't seen it. Does it do the same thing?

  2. The Closer is incredible!! I think you would really enjoy it :) Strong female lead and the most racially diverse cast I've seen in awhile. Writing and acting are absolutely superb. The series just ended but I want to say it's probably on Netflix somewhere.

  3. I think it's so interesting you picked Nancy from "Weeds." That show was so intriguing and yet SO frustrating. At first you do feel bad for Nancy, but then you realize how unhealthy and toxic she actually it's hard to root for her through the course of the show. She is SO dependent on the men in her life and has such unhealthy relationships with them, that it makes it hard for me to see her as a superwoman. Interesting!

  4. I have similar problems with Nancy. I certainly don't see her as a heroine, and I don't think she was successful at the superwoman model, but I think that's what her character is trying to achieve. She saw herself as someone who could do it all (and she didn't think she needed the support system; she always saw them as holding her back). I think she's the foil to the other, more successful (at least so far) superwomen.