Hooray for the girls!
TV has finally realized the attraction of good female characters
By Tom Lynch -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/26/2000 7:00:00 PM
As the creator of several "girl-approved" leading and supporting female characters, people often ask me, "How can a fortysomething Irish-Catholic man with four sons be so in touch with his feminine side?" Nowadays, my standard response is: "I don't even try anymore."
You see, I like to tell stories about the magic of the human experience, with all its highs and lows, and challenges and triumphs. Stories, that regardless of gender, we can all relate to because we've all been in similar situations at some time in our lives.
For example, most of us have felt "less-than" or unlovable. On the other side of the coin, we've all felt on top of the world. There's no gender bias in any of those experiences.
Next, I try to develop characters with distinct traits, attributes and motivations. Bold, funny, sensitive, silly, carefree, irresponsible-I've known both men and women who fit that description. I don't think either sex has ownership over a particular emotion or feature.
Finally, after I've got a pretty good mental picture of the character, I then audition actors and actresses to see who best interprets my vision for the part. And that's the moment of truth.
I didn't always do it that way, of course. My friends Geraldine Laybourne, who is the founder of Oxygen, and Herb Scannell, the current president of Nickelodeon, both deserve a lot of the credit for my enlightenment.
Back in 1993, Gerry was running Nickelodeon, and Herb was the network's head of development. I presented Herb with a pilot script about a tween-age boy who is accidentally doused with a mysterious chemical that gives him superpowers-like being able to morph into an oozing blob of goo. (By the way, most of my material is autobiographical to some degree. My father was a chemist. He was always conducting these weird experiments with all these exotic-looking chemicals, and as a kid, I wondered what would happen if I messed with his materials in some way.)
Herb loved the concept, but, at the time, Gerry was on a mission to find shows with high appeal to tween-age girls -an audience that was highly underserved in the early 1990s. It's hard to believe, I know, but 10 years ago, there wasn't one children's program airing that starred a female lead on any of the networks.
Knowing Gerry's plans, Herb gave me the best advice possible: Change the lead character from a boy to a girl.
At first, I was concerned. I wasn't sure I could write a convincing female lead, especially since the series was based on my own rough-and-tumble boyhood adventures. However, this was my first big break at Nickelodeon, so after about a minute or so of hesitation, I, of course, agreed to the change.
But when I initially began to rewrite the pilot, I found myself overdoing the girlfriend thing a bit-overcompensating, I guess, for my lack of estrogen. I tried all kinds of research, like reading Seventeen magazine and hanging out at The Limited in the mall. (Just kidding!)
Actually, I realized early on that nothing was going to make me write more feminine. It just wasn't possible with my particular DNA. So instead, I focused on writing a really good, strong leading part. I made Alex smart, independent, energetic, brave and loyal to her friends and family, among other traits. I also made her feel like an outsider because she had this strange power within her.
Next, I cast a really great, young actress, Larisa Oleynik, who made the part come alive; she even put a little of young Tommy into it without even realizing it. And the rest, as they say, is history. The Secret World of Alex Mack had four enormously successful seasons on Nickelodeon and continues to do well in reruns.
Now, I'm proud to say that I've got a whole bunch of great female characters, and actresses to portray them, on the air this year, in NBC's Just Deal, Disney Channel's The Jersey, Nick's 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd and Nick's Caitlin's Way. Each one is unique-not necessarily because she's a girl-but because she's an individual. And that goes double for racial stereotypes. But that's another column..
Tom Lynch, the creative force behind the Tom Lynch Co., was honored last week by Girls Inc. for all the positive and inspiring role models that he has created for young girls.
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