The Psychology of the Non-Threatening Female Lead

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Last night I watched Northern Lights on Lifetime. It’s an adaptation of a Nora Robert’s novel and it very well could be the worst thing I’ve seen on TV in years. How did I come to watch it? That’s not important, but I’ll say that it has something to do with losing a bet.

But forcing myself all the way though it made me reflect on something I really hadn’t thought about in a while. About how television is marketed towards women, and to me it seems to be all about the non-threatening female lead.

In Northern Lights, LeAnn Rhymes plays an Alaskan pilot who falls in love with the new town police chief, Eddie Cibrian. He’s trying to solve the murder of her father and blah blah blah the banker did it.

But it got me thinking about how this TV movie, and a lot of other television is sold to women. My roommates (who are female) were swooning over Eddie Cibrian the entire movie (and I will admit, he is a dreamboat), but I constantly found myself constantly wishing that LeAnn Rhymes would be hotter so I would at least have some remote reason to watch this thing.

Then it hit me, LeAnn is a prime example of the non-threatening female lead seen everywhere on TV these days. She’s cute, but not too cute, and certainly not hot. This allows the female audience to sympathize with her, but not be intimidated by her in the least.

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OMG soo pretty!

Look at the female-targeted shows on TV today (and there aren’t even a whole lot of non-reality based ones). Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy, Serena Van der Woodsen on Gossip Girl and the prime shining example Betty of Ugly Betty. About all of these girls a female audience would say “oh she’s so pretty!” like they say about their less than attractive friends. This phenomenon seems to be an unspoken rule of the gender, that you have to say all your friends are cute, even if they’re not in the same hemisphere as good looking. But if it was a girl they hate? She could be a Victoria’s Secret angel and they’d be like, “that bitch is fugly!”

And I can’t continue without first referencing the historical precedent set by the four girls of Sex in the City. Casting Sarah Jessica Parker as the lead allowed every woman watching the show to think “wow, I’m definitely prettier than her” and 95% of the time, they’d be right.

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The hotness, it’s just too much to handle.

I simply don’t believe that if a truly stunning female actress was cast as the lead in a female-directed show, that she would do nearly as well as her non-threatening counterpart in the ratings. I think that the vast majority of the audience would be more likely to view that girl as a threat, and therefore be more jealous than happy when she landed that handsome man of her dreams.

Sex in the City, along with the other shows previously mentioned, balance out the mediocre women with an endless parade of hot men, despite their acting skill (looking at you Chase Crawford, Patrick Dempsey and more recently, Eddie Cibrian). It’s comforting to see that a “normal” girl gets to end up with a really hot guy, as opposed to only women who look like Angelina Jolie getting Brad Pitt in real life.

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How nice for her!

I wouldn’t be making such an issue out of this if I thought it was a universal issue across all genders, but it’s simply not. This kind of thing doesn’t happen with guys.

Until writing this article, I’d never stopped and thought about the attractiveness of the male leads in the shows I watch. But now that I do, I don’t have a problem that Lee Adama is gorgeous on Battlestar Galactica, I don’t care that Tim Riggins is a hunk on Friday Night Lights and it doesn’t irk me that I could never hope to be a fraction of the man that Jack Bauer is on 24.

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 The man may be sex on a stick, but I’ll be damned if I care.

I think that men often look up to their favorite characters on television, idolizing them as the peak of what they could be. Contrastingly, I think that women often may look down on their gender icons, constantly reassuring themselves that they in fact are better in every way. It may give them a sense of satisfaction to see that they’re prettier than a character all done up in braces and glasses, but if there was a male equivalent to that show about some dweeby nerd? It wouldn’t get nearly the same male audience as Ugly Betty gets female.

It may seem like a lot of speculating and assumptions I’m making in this article, and yes, it is. But I’m basing my theories on years of field research, watching the way girls interact with their friends and their enemies in real life, and it’s just recently that I’m starting to notice the trend carrying over to television.

Am I some completely crazy misogynist? Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard that one, but no, I don’t think so. I’m just observing, and I think I may be on to something.

Bonus: Other hot guys from shows I like – Michael Westin from Burn Notice, Don Draper from Mad Men, Sawyer from Lost, I should probably stop now, huh?


  • Dorkus Malorkus

    I think the problem is that men are supposed idolize Jack Bauer or someone strong and capable, while women are supposed to idolize the average girl who gets the guy. We don’t want to “look down” on average looking women; we want to know that even if we, ourselves, are average looking, we can still get the hunky guy. Your role model is the awesome guy, while ours is the boring girl (but with a HOT GUY!) I don’t think it’s you who is misogynist; it’s the TV writers.

  • Jilliterate

    Dorkus Malorkus nails it. There are so many male characters on television that run the gambit from capable to scheming to hilarious to…anything. Female characters frequently lack personality, and mostly exist to sit around as eye candy. Now, I don’t think all television shows are attempting to make some sort of statement like, “Women, be beautiful and keep your mouth closed.” But for a lot of chicks watching at home, I think it must be frustrating to see female characters who are constantly exemplified as “teh sex”, and knowing it would take a team of NASA beauticians for they themselves to reach that level of beauty.

    And then again, maybe not. Eliza Dushkue is clearly on “Dollhouse” for her legs and not her acting, and yet, I can’t find myself envying her at all. Must be those godawful outfits…

  • Cpl. L. Charlie

    I’ll give ya Sawyer. XD

  • Good point Dorkus, you are ever insightful. And Jilliterate, you’re completely right about Dushku. She’s the low point of Dollhouse when she should be the badass female lead, but was clearly mostly chose as eye candy.

  • dahlia6

    Are you kidding me? What about all these commercials and shows where the guy is an absolute schlub who has zero ambition, abysmal social interaction skills, and is eaten up with the man-child syndrome, yet somehow always ends up with a super-model wife? Dose of reality much?

  • Yeah, those “fat-guy/hot-wife” shows are just the best, right?

    As a chick, I feel the need to state that I can’t stand watching that Lifetime drivel any more than I like King of Queens. I don’t even tolerate boring characters in my real life, I’m not going to sit and take it from television.

  • Dorkus Malorkus

    Point taken, dahlia6 and Robyn. Granted, I only watch TV at other people’s houses, but just a flip past a “King of Queens” syndicated rerun is enough to make the bile rise. So, I guess the point here is that TV is effed up no matter who you are or what kind of person you want to see.

  • I think you’re sort of right. But you’re completely forgetting that things are not different at all for men. Have you not seen ANY of the Judd Apatow movies? There’s a veritable plethora of films and TV shows out there where the fugly dude gets the hot chick.

    That being said, if they can’t act, I’m not gonna be watching. I don’t care whether they’re hot or not.

  • Is it ok if I syndicate this post on my site?