The past few seasons of television have seen the rise of a number of intriguing female characters: On Fox, “Empire” lead Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) is fighting a brutal battle for control of a music company; on HBO, exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is gathering energy to make her play in “Game of Thrones’; and on Netflix, “Orange Is the New Black” delivers an astonishingly strong ensemble cast dominated by women of color. But a new survey conducted by marketing agent Trailer Park in partnership with research consultancy QC Strategy suggests that, across generational and gender lines, audiences’ favorite female character is a bit of a throwback to an earlier generation of television. And the reasons suggest a way forward as television tries to attract younger audiences who are drawn to more complexity in their characters and crave stories that don’t adhere to traditional gender roles.
Twenty-one percent of the 1,200 survey respondents named “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” main character Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) as their favorite female character on television, a finding that held consistent across genders and almost all demographics. Nineteen percent of men named her as their favorite character from the survey options, and 22 percent of women said the same. The only demographic where Benson didn’t come out on top was with 18-to-24-year-olds, who named Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon-wielding conqueror on “Game of Thrones,” as their favorite woman on TV; with them, Olivia Benson came in second. Twenty-six percent of survey respondents named Benson the most relatable female character on the list. (Trailer Park provided an early draft of the study to The Washington Post; the report will be released online later this month.)
D’nae Kingsley, head of integrated strategy at Trailer Park, suggested that Benson is so popular because she falls at the center of a Venn diagram. For all the innovation in storytelling we’re seeing, audiences still love stories about elite detectives and top lawyers, women solving mysteries involving their own families, women getting revenge and women with special powers or abilities. And Benson also possesses a set of characteristics that female viewers see in themselves and want to see on television but that rarely show up in existing fiction.
The female viewers in Trailer Park’s survey suggested that their ideal female character would be independent and compassionate, as well as intelligent, self-confident, strong-willed, beautiful and tough. Independence was the characteristic they craved the most after intelligence, and compassionate came in fifth on the list after self-confident and strong-willed. But those characteristics didn’t crack the top-five list of characteristics female respondents actually reported seeing in their favorite fictional women. Benson is popular in part because she’s the rare female character where compassion and independence are critical, regularly reinforced elements of her character.
Overall, what the men in the survey say they want is basically what they’re getting from their favorite characters: fictional women who are beautiful, strong-willed, tough and self-confident. (Across gender lines, audiences said the least attractive characteristics in fictional women were weakness, submissiveness, clumsiness, selfishness and passivity.)
If there’s room for television to better meet the needs of female viewers of all ages, the survey results also suggested that younger audiences of both genders crave deviation from the stark traditional gender roles that often define television series.
Respondents age 25 and older told interviewers that they would rather see female characters as the leads in stories about young people “living in the big city, managing their careers and relationships,” moving “to a new city to start over and [finding] love in an unexpected place” after a breakup, and “straight out of college unknowingly [taking] a job at a corrupt organization.” By contrast, they’d rather see a male character who “investigates who killed his family,” a man in the lead role in which “a master detective and his elite squad of agents investigate murders” or “a doctor and his residents save lives of people with rare diseases at a major hospital.”
But younger audiences show preferences, in some cases strong ones, for stories that pay more attention to men’s emotional lives and that spotlight women in professional roles previously reserved for men. Viewers between ages 13 and 17 showed a strong preference for stories about “the adventures of four young men/women living in the big city, managing their careers and relationships” when told those stories featured men, and a slight preference for stories about men moving to new cities after bad breakups. They also got much more excited about a show in which “a master detective and his/her elite squad of agents investigate murders” when that detective was a woman rather than a man, and slightly more excited about the medical show concept when the lead doctor was a woman than a man.
Kingsley attributed some of these findings to a new definition younger viewers use to explain their feminism, which they see as a push for equality across genders, rather than a simple push to get women access to roles previously reserved for men. She suggested that generation gaps in who identifies as feminist may be due to those shifting definitions; older audiences may reject the term because they see it as rigid and exclusionary, while younger audiences are more likely to embrace the label because they see feminism as a movement that helps both men and women. If that means seeing tough, competent women play the president on television, it also indicates a craving for men to get an opportunity to move into a new range of roles as well.
“It’s okay for men to show the emotional struggles or the awkwardness of being a teen, and some of the other things that were ‘Oh, men wouldn’t like that because it puts them in a bad light,’ or ‘Those aren’t traits that men typically have; these were traits that boys were supposed to grow out of,’ ” Kingsley said. “People are saying, ‘We want to see women in these really powerful roles, but we also want to see men in these loving roles, in these compassionate roles.’ ”
And while viewers between ages 18 and 24 are a “transitional” demographic, according to the report, describing themselves as slightly more traditional than the young teenagers coming up behind them, they’re more likely to be self-described progressives than 25-to-34-year-olds by a margin of 30 percent to 23 percent. They’re also more likely to say that they are “strongly feminist” than the age group right above them, with 22 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds claiming that label against 16 percent of so-called older millennials aged 25 to 34. These 18-to-24-year-olds report that they’d prefer medical dramas or a show where “the President of the United States runs the country while raising her/his children and maintaining a loving marriage with her husband/his wife,” where the main character is a woman, while their slightly older peers showed a preference for versions of those shows with the lead roles played by men.
The findings of the study suggest that the old models Hollywood uses to define generations may not be as useful in the future.
“What we’re thinking is more saying at the end of the day, it’s probably going to be more important — and this is something I’m already talking to clients about — to target values and shared interests than it is to target shared age and shared gender,” Kingsley told me. “Because the old 20-year split, that was pre the digital age when the world started to get more connected but also more fragmented.” New generational groups seem to be emerging faster and mutating more quickly than they did in the past.
These nuanced generation gaps present a conundrum for the people making television.
“Is their preference for non-traditional gender roles influenced by life stage or by culture? Will they espouse more traditional gender roles as they get older? And finally, will their preference for gender reversals reinforce a movement that will continue with the generations following them?” the report says.
But Trailer Park suggests that it’s better to take a risk and develop content young viewers might grow out of than to lag behind: “Regardless, content creators and marketers who want to develop early affinities with younger generations and create larger pop culture franchises should develop content now that espouses non-traditional gender roles. They should position themselves as leaders in appealing to future audiences rather than following the pack as younger generations gain more influence and buying power.”
With any luck, this might mean more nuanced, intriguing characters as networks and streaming services try to cater to the demands of audiences raised during the so-called Golden Age of television.
“Younger audiences want more dimensions to their characters,” Kingsley said. “They want more complications, more complexities, which they consider realities, a more realistic view of themselves.”