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The rise of the (morally conflicted) leading lady

This summer, a cast of strong female leads takes to the screen. But the landscape is changing, say some actors.

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In "Damages," the new FX cable drama that debuted this week, actress Glenn Close portrays a slick, high-powered lawyer intent on felling a white collar criminal. Her character, Patty Hewes, meets with former employees who believe they have been bilked by fat-cat billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). Hewes promises to make Frobisher pay.

But as the show progresses, it's clear that Close's powerful attorney is far from a moral paragon. In fact, she may be as much a predatory vulture as her current prey is said to be. As such, Hewes joins a cast of leading lady "heavies" appearing on cable and broadcast networks this summer and the upcoming fall and winter seasons. The list of gutsy women with more than a few flaws is long – "Saving Grace" (TNT), "Bionic Woman" (NBC), "Painkiller Jane" (Sci-Fi), "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" (Fox), and "In Plain Sight" (USA), to name a few.

While TV has always loved its bad girls, the emergence of so many multidimensional female protagonists tells as much about the industry as it does women's role in modern life, say media watchers.

"The bottom line is the economics of advertising," says Tina Pieraccini, communications professor at the State University of New York in Oswego. Women make up 60 percent of the viewing audience, she points out. As the baby boom generation matures, she says, "advertisers are discovering that women over 50 are good consumers." Just like their audience, these characters are tackling adult problems with an adult sensibility.

"In the early stages of feminism there was this idea that you could only have positive role models," says Elayne Rapping, author of "Media-tions: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars."

Even some of the later pioneers, such as the first female detective "buddies" on "Cagney & Lacey," were always the moral center of their universe. "These women today are not necessarily perfect, they can be as messed up as anyone else," Rapping adds with a laugh. But, she adds, "that's more like real life and these are characters that more women can relate to."

The actresses in these roles welcome the broader range of these parts. "They're more willing to portray complex female characters," says Close of today's writers and networks. It's no secret that women over a certain age find it harder to work in films, she adds.


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