So Long, Jack Donaghy: The Rise of the Female Mentor on TV

A year ago, pretty much the only TV characters giving out career advice were male. What a difference a season makes.


Last fall, Jezebel asked a question I'd never considered before: Where are all the female mentor characters on television?

The piece focused on NBC's 30 Rock, complaining about Jack Donaghy's unbound influence over mentee Liz Lemon—specifically over matters in her love life and why the show couldn't have written Liz a female mentor to help her with "appearance and dating." The general questions raised by the piece were founded: Why don't fictional universes put their intelligent females in mentor roles more often? Why do female characters so often have to be "saved" by a man?

As the author wrote:

In all of the films, shows, and books I can think of, the woman's mentor is normally a male, either gay or a potential love-interest. If a woman happens to give the heroine some mentoring, it's limited to certain advice-giving incidents, which are often questionable and sometimes destructive.

The problem, of course, was bigger than 30 Rock. There was Glenn Close as the highly powerful litigator Patty Hewes on Damages, but her mentor skills would always be undermined by the fact that she tried to have her own mentee killed. Gina Torres brought another powerful lawyer mentor, Jessica Pearson, to the small screen when Suits launched last summer, but Harvey Specter and his protégé Mike Ross, were the true heart of the show (think buddy cop for lawyers). And while Glee was continuing to traffic guest mentors in and send the kids to Miss Pillsbury for awful pamphlets, Mr. Schue would always be the one who gave them something to believe in

But now, nearly a year after the Jezebel piece, a number of female TV characters have come into their own as leaders on their respective shows, while a few series have introduced new mentor/mentee relationships. At the same time, web pioneer Felicia Day launched her Geek & Sundry channel, and Comediva has rolled out an ever-expanding repertoire of online entertainment for "the funny girls." All of this points to fact that TV's female mentor situation is improving, while there's also plenty room for growth.

On NBC's Parks and Recreation, recently elected Councilwoman Leslie Knope and Amy Poehler have melded into one beacon of girl power—the Pawnee Goddesses could easily have their own spinoff on The Smart Girls Channel And credit is due to the show for distilling these changes through the increasing irrelevance of national treasure and mentor Ron Swanson. From the loss of his Pawnee Rangers and his distress at Google, to Leslie officially surpassing him on the political food chain, the show officially expunged any speculation of him being a roadblock to her growth. NBC's forthcoming period of "transition" most likely means the inevitable drop of "pride" shows like Parks, but at least fans got to see Leslie and her reluctant mentee April Ludgate, come into their own. The campaign's positive influence on April's attitude, whose apathy was getting to be grating, proved that an easy way to fix annoying female characters is to give them interests. Go figure.

In the most recent season of Mad Men, Peggy Olson got a new job and symbolically graduated from TV mentee-hood, where she had resided under Don Draper's tutelage for five seasons. At the same time she became a mentor in her own right—to Don's wife, of all people. Given the ease of Megan Draper's ascent, it was easy to assume Peggy would be hostile to the new copywriter, but instead she took Megan in as her protégé and consistently defended her to the peanut gallery. Yes, Peggy initially snapped when Megan told her she was leaving the firm, but her subsequent remorse, in contrast to, say, Pete Campbell's glib reaction ("They do whatever they want"), bared the subtleties of female work alliances, and thoughtfully threw into question the motivations behind them.

Meanwhile, a number of new shows have introduced some nascent female mentor/mentee relationships that have the potential for growth. For starters, if Newsroom's Mac, Maggie, and Sloan just carved some time to hang out, they'd surely find other things to talk about than guys (which clearly, none of them know anything about anyway). This isn't to suggest Newsroom turn into Girls; despite the critic grumblings, a show solely about making the news needs its romantic tensions to stay interesting. That said, why not have the women rely on both the men and one another to survive? They are, after all, a team.

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