Joanna Weiss

A season of strong women

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / June 21, 2011

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NOW THAT summer is officially upon us, it’s time to look back on an extraordinary spring for women in politics and culture — a time of asserting power and defying expectations.

For instance: Which Minnesotan did you think would leave last week’s Republican presidential debate with the most positive buzz? Raise your hand if you said Michele Bachmann, who managed to erase a lot of crazy-lady buzz to establish herself on the national stage.

And five years ago, when Katie Couric took the “CBS Evening News’’ anchor chair, how would you have expected her departure to be received? Once, there were widespread doubts about her gravitas. But when she left at the end of her contract last month, the great sense was that the format had failed her. Why should she waste her formidable talents on a timeslot largely watched by the Med Alert set? Unleash her on daytime talk, and let her try to become the new Oprah.

The theme of spring, it turned out, was that good can come to women who pair their ambition with fearlessness — who prove themselves, in still-male arenas, by taking risks and setting their own terms. No one did that better than Oprah Winfrey, who left her signature show after 25 years, with a remarkable hour-long sermon. Whether her cable network succeeds or fails, she’s transcended TV. She’s a religion.

But women don’t have to be sacred to make good. The surprise-hit movie “Bridesmaids’’ proves that they can also be profane, and handle gross-out humor as brilliantly as the boys. “Bridesmaids’’ also manages to relegate men to the parts women usually play: the quiet boyfriend, the bland fiance. This may be the first romantic comedy in which the men are incidental, and marriage is merely a backdrop to more interesting female conflicts.

That jaded view of marriage — that it’s one of life’s relationships, but not the be-all one — has bled perfectly into this season’s political sex scandals. There’s something infectious about the wives’ newfound intolerance for bad behavior. Maria Shriver knew where America’s sympathies would lie (besides, Oprah was in her corner). And no one questioned why Anthony Weiner’s wife was absent from his self-flagellating press conferences. She left the shame where it belonged, with her husband alone.

That’s a great lesson for young women of America: For better or worse, take care of yourself before you just stand by a man. Even young-adult culture has seen a delicious shift in that direction. The “Twilight’’ series, last year’s big deal, focused on a girl who’s defenseless and weak, torn between the overtures of two monstrously powerful boys.

But “Twilight’’ is fading, in the public eye, in favor of the trilogy “The Hunger Games,’’ about a dystopian future in which teenagers are sent to an annual, televised death match. Its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is the opposite of weak: an expert markswoman, an instinctual revolutionary. Boys fight over her, yes — and the movie version, currently filming, is said to play up the love-triangle — but for Katniss, they’re mostly beside the point. She’s fighting for something greater.

And for those who think Katniss is the ultimate empowered teen heroine, I offer Daenerys Targaryen, the bold blonde princess in HBO’s fantasy series “Game of Thrones.’’ The medieval-era show, which ended its first season on Sunday, is arguably the most feminist TV series to date. By season’s end, the sword-wielding men had largely schemed themselves into oblivion. The women were ruling behind the scenes. And Targaryen had grown from a frightened child bride into a fearsome, fearless leader, someone who could command respect without a powerful husband to back her up. (Also, she ate a horse’s heart. Raw.)

To be sure, TV’s view of women hasn’t changed completely. Two of the network shows set to premiere next season are based on 1960s Pan Am flight attendants and Playboy Bunnies. Purportedly, they’ll offer “Mad Men’’-style views of nascent feminism, but still. Playboy?

And the Supreme Court dealt a blow to women suing Wal-Mart for gender discrimination — though the women on the court were all dissenters.

Still, events from this spring might persuade the TV writers to go bold with their storylines, at least. The public has proved its appetite for women who make unpredictable strides. It will be interesting to see who steps up next.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at