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.

Another show with female mentor potential is this summer's Bunheads, which is clearly setting up its former Vegas-showgirl-lead, Michelle, to get over her inexplicable distaste of teaching and accept her fate as an instructor at the Paradise Dance Academy for "troubled" ballerinas. And Don't Trust the B**** in Apt. 23, which had an unfortunate premiere date of April 11 (the very peak of Girls pre-buzz/backlash), is established on the more unorthodox tactics of its mentor Chloe, i.e. the "bitch." Case in point: in the pilot she sleeps with the boyfriend of her naive Midwest transplant roommate to prove he's a douchebag (the first of many lessons in becoming a cold-hearted city girl). Some might put these budding relationships in the wacky friendship category, while others might call them a testament to the fact that mentorhood, like any relationship, is hardly one-sided.

This raises an important question when considering mentorship on TV: Where do boundaries lie? Political Animals offers a more quixotic take on female mentorship. The show features a cast of characters whose dialogue over the exasperation at "having it all" speaks perfectly to the current discourse on the subject—perhaps a little too eloquently. Take, for instance, Elaine's meeting with Supreme Court Justice Diane Nash, in which Elaine was forced to convince her longtime mentor why she planned on running for president again. This involved some heavy-handed conversation about female politician stereotyping, and it felt like the two had never discussed the b-word before. That said, in a television landscape where it still seems a strain for women to talk about actual things with one another, this was a commendable scene. Also, Madam Secretary's allegorical speech in front of the elephant cage at the National Zoo to workaholic journalist Susan Berg, is TV mentor gold: "They're a matriarchal society, and when the males reach their mating age, the females kick them the hell out of the herd," Elaine says.

Other examples of female mentors on TV abound. Although New Girl doesn't focus heavily on Jess' career, the show is commendable for showing Jess fail in her struggles to be a good teacher—actually sabotaging an annoying student's science fair project in one episode. Sure, there's humor in making the country's most beloved Manic Pixie Dream Girl a bad teacher, but at the same time her story speaks to the truth about teaching—and mentoring in general: it's difficult to help people. And the people that need help, are often difficult themselves.

Characters like Veep's Vice President Selina Meyer and Damages' notoriously unethical Patty Hewes are much less sanitized. For better or for worse, Patty's influence on her former mentee Ellen Parsons is increasingly evident in their final season standoff on opposite sides of the WikiLeaks inspired McClaren case, and Selina is such the conditioned politician that she is unable to show genuine concern for anyone on her staff—let alone her own daughter. She is, in many ways, a sociopath, or, the anti-mentor. In their own respects these women are of course highly dramatized characters, but their awfulness makes them interesting. And although they haven't reached the same level of adulation as their anti-hero male counterparts (Walter White, Don Draper, and Malcolm Tucker, Selina's direct TV ancestor), they are respected by fans and critics, not to mention front-running their own shows.

"Where are all female mentor characters?" is a question worth asking in a world where mentorship is a complex component of female relationships—and in which women are actively seeking out characters they can relate to on TV (as was made clear by Girls, and the celebration of its FUBU, i.e. "for us by us," sentiment). If TV continues to furnish its female characters with depth and flaws—not to mention real jobs—the mentoring (or attempts at mentoring) will come, just as it does in real life. And as anyone still wearing Knope 2012 buttons would proudly attest, so too will the iconic roles.