Many thanks to Cat for the transcript

Star Tribune
(Minnesota, USA newspaper)

12 November 2000

The new wonder women of the air by Neal Justin

Don't even think about tying Nell to the train tracks. Nowadays, she'd probably yank a rail out of the dirt, wrap it around your neck, then stuff that mustache up your nostrils, long before the pitter-pat of some goofball Mountie's horse. Dudley, good night.

Meet TV's new superheroes -- women who will knock you out with drop-dead-gorgeous looks, followed by a roundhouse punch to the kisser.

Xena may be hanging up her boots in the spring, but she's spawned a legion of brazen beauties including sword fighters, bodyguards, relic hunters, computer hackers, space explorers and secret agents. It's no longer enough for a working woman to hold down a job and get dinner on the table by 6 p.m.: She's also got to save the world by bedtime.

TV women have flexed their muscles before, but this might be the first time they have done it while flexing their minds. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's one-liners can be more lethal than her high kicks. Contrast that with late-'70s heroines like "Charlie's Angels" or "Wonder Woman," who could stop bullets but couldn't start an intelligent conversation.

"'Charlie's Angels' was very enjoyable light fluff, but it was really just the world's greatest fashion show," said Rob Tapert, who co-created "Xena: Warrior Princess" and the new syndicated series "Cleopatra 2525."

If there are any bimbos in these new shows, they're men. In "Relic Hunter," explorer Sydney Fox (Tia Carrere) is both the brains and the brawn of the operation while sidekick Nigel Bailey is the nervous Nelly.

"You need protecting," coos an evil baron to the heroine of "Queen of Swords" as they sip champagne on the beach.

"I quite agree," she replies. "I'll get a dog."

On "Sheena," the Queen of the Jungle battles the bad guys while her love interest stupidly walks into a trap and is left hanging by his fingernails, waiting to be rescued.

Times have changed since Sheena first appeared on TV in 1955. Gena Lee Nolin, the Duluth native who stars in the new syndicated series, had several discussions with Irish McCalla, who originated the character. Even though McCalla could talk to the animals and swing through the trees, she still had to play second fiddle to the male species.

It's also quite a change for Nolin, whose biggest previous role was as a "Baywatch" lifeguard.

"Oh, my God. It's night and day," she said. "On 'Baywatch,' it was all about putting my lipstick on, sitting in the tower and running on the beach. This is totally different. It's such a growth for me. When I'm playing Sheena, my voice goes lower, my shoulders go back. I almost look like this brute."

A subtle brand of muscle

One reason women warriors are ruling the airwaves is that they are not like their male counterparts.

Female action shows don't rely as much on reckless violence, said Morgan Gendel, co-executive producer for "V.I.P.," a campy series about female bodyguards.

"I used to work on 'Nash Bridges,' and the difference is that these shows tend to be a little less vicious," he said. "Women seem much more reasonable."

Even "Xena" has made adjustments since its star, Lucy Lawless, became a mother. Most notably, she has toned down her trademark war whoop. "As a mother, trying to get dinner ready, I can hear that shrill voice from the TV," she said. "It fills the house, and there's nowhere to go."

Lawless theorizes that females can be more intriguing protagonists because it's harder to figure out their next move.

"You don't know which way a woman is going to go," she said. "If it's Harrison Ford, there's a comfort factor. You know he's going to do the right thing. Women are perceived to be less predictable."

James Cameron, co-creator of the new Fox series "Dark Angel," which focuses on a conflicted, cat-like heroine, has long been attracted to strong, complex female characters, from Sigourney Weaver's warrior in "Aliens" to Linda Hamilton's buffed-up avenger in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

"My film career spans from 1984 to the present, and that's a period of time when the power of women in society -- not just here in the United States, but worldwide -- has slowly been growing," he said. "So I think women respond to characters who appear strong, who appear capable. But you always have to balance that with a vulnerability so that they're real."

The lean years

But if women have risen so much in the last 15 years, where have they been on television? A revolution might have been brewing in 1976, the year "Charlie's Angels" "Wonder Woman" and "The Bionic Woman" all premiered, but the superheroine was barely on the scene in the 1980s and much of the 1990s.

Camille Bacon-Smith, the Philadelphia-based author of "Science Fiction Culture" and "Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth," blames the political climate. She said the Reagan years were tough for creative women, most notably in television and science-fiction writing, where pioneers such as Joanna Russ and Marion Zimmer Bradley suddenly stopped winning major awards.

"There was tremendous backlash that really was represented by the return of the conservative party to politics," she said. "Women basically disappeared from recognition in many of the fields. I think it's particularly hard in television. You can sit at home, write a book and nobody knows who you are, but television is very face-to-face."

There may be an even simpler answer. Television is a copycat business, and once the late-'70s series ran their course, nobody followed suit. But after the success of "Xena," which premiered in 1995, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997), everyone wanted to get back into the superheroine business.

Those shows came at a time when executives were keen on re-energizing slumping ratings. They became aware that -- surprise -- young girls watch TV, too.

"Marketing people suddenly realized there were bank accounts that weren't being tapped," Bacon-Smith said. "There were young girls out there with lots of spending money, and there was nothing on TV they wanted to watch."

"Buffy" came along at the right time, said Gail Berman, the show's former executive producer and now president of Fox TV entertainment. "I don't think there was even one other show geared to that audience," she said.

Teenage girls have become a key demographic, said Melissa Joan Hart, star of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," a gentler, kinder sort of superheroine.

"Girls rock," Hart said. "They are the ones right now who watch TV, buy the movie tickets, dress like the people on TV, and they want to see strong role models."

From TLC to Drew Barrymore, today's girls are finding plenty of tough, confident women to emulate. Even preteens are getting into the act, thanks to the animated "Powerpuff Girls."

"Queen of Swords" star Tessie Santiago said she's bowled over by the influence her character seems to have. "When I was growing up, I was put into ballet and piano, things that were considered to be girl stuff," she said. "But now so many little girls come up to me on the set and say, 'I want my mommy to put me in fencing.'"

The impact can be felt at Uppercut Gym, a boxing and kickboxing facility in Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood. Women make up as much as 80 percent of the clientele, said manager Lisa Bauch, who started the club four years ago. When the movie "Girlfight" opened a few weeks ago, there was a significant increase in the number of females inquiring about Uppercut.

Programs like "Xena" make a difference because they set off a light bulb in women's minds that might otherwise never get turned on.

The jiggle factor

Of course, not everyone watches to be empowered. A significant portion of the audience -- both men and women -- tune in to be turned on.

On "Xena," the male enemies are decked out in enough armor to cover a tank, while Xena sports a breastplate and leather miniskirt. The heroine of "Dark Angel" disguises herself as a call girl. On the season premiere of "V.I.P.," star Pamela Anderson changed costumes 10 times, wearing a pair of denim shorts that would make Daisy Duke look like a nun. Sheena doesn't hesitate to go native when she showers under a waterfall, while the Queen of Swords' blouses all seem to be missing the top button.

Santiago admits that her character often uses her sexual charms to get an edge. "It's just a matter of time before they say, 'Show a little more cleavage,'" she said.

Nolin said one has to be realistic -- sex sells. "You put a pretty girl in a bikini and it definitely helps," she said. "But it's nice to see that you can explore both worlds."

Since Xena is both a feminist icon and eye candy, producers play to one audience in one scene, then give the other something to get excited about a few minutes later. "I ping-pong between the two," said Tapert, adding that viewership is roughly one-third men, one-third women and one-third children.

"V.I.P." was designed for the male audience -- it was originally scheduled to follow Sunday-afternoon football games in many markets. But after producers discovered that women made up half the audience, they made adjustments, eliminating a swimming pool as one of their regular sets -- which drastically reduced the number of bikini shots -- and cutting back on sexual-oriented fantasy sequences.

Being sexy and strong is the ultimate goal.

Molly Culver, who plays the no-nonsense Tasha on "V.I.P.," said she has a problem being seen purely as a sex symbol, which was the primary reason she left a modeling career. "And then I get this show," she said. "But I've come to believe that you can look good and still kick butt."

Neal Justin can be contacted at


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