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Image: Holly Hunter in Saving Grace
Holly Hunter, shown here as Grace Hanadarko in "Saving Grace," appreciates playing a nuanced daring role -- something that's a rare option for women past 35, she says.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/13/2008 4:07:44 PM ET 2008-07-13T20:07:44

As bulldog attorney Patty Hewes on the FX drama “Damages,” Glenn Close has heard her character called lots of nasty names: cutthroat, backstabber, liar and, of course, bitch, to name just a few.

It bothers Close that men who use the same tactics as Hewes can be described as calculating, sophisticated and laser-like in their focus, while women in the same position are referred to with negative language.

“That kind of language is prevalent for women in positions of power,” Close told msnbc.com. “They’re labeled bitches, spinsters, sexless. It’s still out there. There have been all kinds of studies that women are more attractive if they’re self-effacing and non-aggressive. Under those circumstances, I love playing this character.”

The discussion quickly moves to Hillary Clinton, and her ill-fated presidential campaign. There was lots of chatter along the campaign trail on how Clinton was treated by the press. Was her wardrobe scrutinized unfairly? Was she being catty — a term that would rarely, if ever, be leveled against Barack Obama — if responding to a political volley thrown at her?

The stakes of political elections heavily outweigh the ratings of a TV drama, but the point is taken. No matter if it’s national leaders or fictional characters, there seems to be a double standard when men and women act in power-seeking ways.

Though they may not be as diabolically calculating as Close’s Hewes, there are a slew of other women on television who have risen to positions of authority, ruling with an strong, closed fist.

IMAGE: Sedgwick
Kyra Sedgwick plays Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson on "The Closer," and she's just one of several women playing characters in tough, non-traditional roles.
Holly Hunter catches killers with the Oklahoma City police in TNT’s “Saving Grace,” which begins its second season on July 14. Also on the Turner network, Kyra Sedgwick helps the Los Angeles Police Dept. arrest murderers on “The Closer,” which also returns July 14. And the “Law & Order” franchise has featured many women — including Emmy winners Mariska Hargitay and S. Epatha Merkerson — all of whom know exactly what it takes to put criminals away.

In fact, TNT is capitalizing on the fact that its shows feature women in powerful positions that could be viewed negatively. The slogan for the new season of "Saving Grace" is "You say 'hellraiser' like that's a bad thing," a twist on a T-shirt and bumper-sticker slogan that uses "bitch" in place of "hellraiser."

Prior to “Grace,“ Hunter has been a genuine movie star, with four Oscar nominations, including a win for “The Piano.” Hunter said that her decision to turn to TV also relates to the actress’s feelings about Hollywood's gender double standard.

“Men can continue to have vibrant, stimulating careers up into their 60s, and that’s not true for women,” she explained. “Once an actress gets to be over 37 or 38, then you really begin to see you’re being offered roles and cast opposite a big movie star. You’re playing his wife, and he’s cheating on you with someone else. The story doesn’t depend upon on your thoughts and actions.”

And with nuanced and well-written film roles for women drying up, Hunter didn't fear that she was slumming by moving to TV.

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“I just couldn’t say no to ‘Grace,’” she said. “She was a fully experiential creature living this alternative, singularly kind of uncivilized existence.”

Still a man's world
Speaking of being in an uncivilized existence, CCH Pounder is surrounded by dirty cops all day long in her role as Detective Claudette Wyms on FX’s addictive drama “The Shield” (which begins its final season on Sept. 2). Wyms recently became the boss of the Farmington precinct, known not so affectionately as the Barn. Working under her are a bunch of detectives who are rather unconcerned about sticking to her rules.

Yet Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), one of the most rogue cops in TV history, has respect for Wyms as the top cop. The two have worked together in unsettling conditions and have a comfortable respect for each other — though Mackey may have ulterior motives.

“(Mackey) loves it (that Wyms is in charge),” said Pounder. “Vic likes to work with what he knows. It’s the mystery card he has got to watch out for. Mackey knows he can handle Claudette.”

In not only the Mackey-Wyms relationship but within the larger world, Pounder understands that many males don’t take kindly to change, especially to having women in powerful and authoritative roles.

“When women appear to be taking positions that previously represented a man’s domain, men have to do everything, and I mean everything, to keep those women in their place,” Pounder explained. “It’s a struggle to keep the long-held tradition that it’s a man’s world alive, so the word ‘bitch’ is just a minor part of the many putdowns and undermining of women that goes on.”

Stuart Levine is a managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at stuart.Levine@variety.com

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