Why Debra Messing’s New Character Is The Best Depiction Of Women On The Small Screen

Debra Messing

In “The Mysteries Of Laura,” Messing plays a busy, unkempt, soon-to-be-divorced mom who kicks ass at her job and shoulders the majority of childcare duties. 

Last year I lamented the sea of “hot mess” adorkable women I saw on television, and longed for the day that strong female characters like the ones I lived and worked with were the protagonist of a hit TV show.

Since then we’ve seen the rise of polished powerhouse Olivia Pope and this season, the addition of Shonda Rhimes’ latest fierce femme played by Viola Davis, Law Professor Annalise Keating.

While there has been a rich discussion on these bigger-and-badder-than-life characters, I find both shows they occupy to be more fantasy escapism (incredibly written and produced, no doubt) than relatable reflections of the modern lives of women.

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the rise of an incredibly honest, true-to-form character that emerged this season in The Mysteries Of Laura.

I can’t say enough how refreshing it is to see the talented Debra Messing bring this bold, muti-dimensional, and wonderfully real character to life. Here are my top five reasons why I love her character, Laura, on the show.

1. She’s great at her job, and we love her for it.

This is the central female character we (the audience) are supposed to love. And instead of loving her for her I love Lucy-esque inability to figure it out, or her New Girl just-can’t-figure-it-out adorkableness, we often see Laura stepping up and winning the day at work. This is the polar opposite of the “hot mess chic” phenomenon I wrote about last year.

Here, we’re drawn to like Laura because of her accomplishments, not in spite of her cute failings. As a detective, she works with a male partner who truly treats her as an equal and who we see (in episode 3) go down, injured, in pursuit of a suspect, only to hop on his phone to say, “Go get the bastard, Laura!”

Time and again, Laura has the insightful breakthroughs that nab the perp, even though she’s constantly chided by her boss (who—*spoiler alert*—is actually her husband with whom she’s in the midst of divorce by episode 2) about her “female intuition” not being permissible evidence in court. She jabs right back and always has concrete evidence at the ready to support her allegations.

2. All the childcare duties fall on her shoulders. (And it’s a constant burden).

Laura’s dual roles of detective and mother are at constant interplay in the show—echoing the very true role overloaded women experience in life.

It’s even made obvious at the start of the pilot; as we see Laura leave her car in pursuit of a suspect, crayons, crushed goldfish, food wrappers, and an overstuffed purse are spilled all over the cabin. After catching the perp by discharging her firearm, she busts out a wet-nap to wipe blood off the quivering face of a male bystander.

But her mom role isn’t just used as a punchline. Every episode involves a secondary conflict always at play beneath the main plotline: What is Laura going to do about her troublesome twin 6-year-olds? With dad absent (she’s trying to get him to agree to a divorce after she finally tired of his philandering ways), Laura is the primary problem-solver when the boys get expelled from their private school and when she has to find a babysitter she can actually trust. We see her constantly thinking about and dealing with “home” issues at work and vice-versa.

3. She is NOT into fashion.

First, let me admit my bias here: I am not that into fashion. So when I hear feminists like Mindy Kaling say how her character on The Mindy Project should be able to dress in couture and be taken seriously as a smart, independent, doctor, I get it, but I groan. It’s such a tired trend. The “just because I’m one-of-the-boys doesn’t mean I have to dress like them” rallying cry is so consistent across the feminist space that even in the most progressive start-up workspaces where the dudes are hanging out in sweatpants and sneaks, I see all the women “electing” to play dress-up. Not me.

So when I see Laura in an unkempt trench coat, mom jeans, and whatever un-tucked shirt she’s wearing that day to work, I feel like this is a woman who actually represents that minority to which I belong. She is constantly eating on the run (what mom can’t relate to that?) and usually spills on herself along the way—so why ruin couture in that predictable process? And when function comes before form in her profession, she’s dressed to be ready for anything on the job.

Even when the script takes her to a situation where she does play dress-up (in episode 2 she plays to-catch-a-predator with an online dating profile she creates for herself) she makes fun of a fancy boutique’s prices, while praising her favorite alternative: Target.

4. Some of her colleagues at work DON’T like her.

One double-bind that strong, assertive women still have to contend with is the leadership-likeability trade-off: the more women portray the skills deemed necessary for leadership, the less likeable they are (subconsciously) considered by men and women alike.

Even this nuanced reality plays out on the screen—with a female colleague of Laura’s constantly dissing her, especially based on what she’s wearing. This younger colleague seems to operate under the Olivia Pope school of workwear fashion and says to Laura in the pilot, “Nice sweats, by the way. Didn’t know it was casual Tuesday.”

The fact that not everyone’s on board with her balancing act between doting mom and ass-kicking detective is wonderfully relatable, and keeps the show out of fantasyland.

5. Her house is a mess. And sometimes, so is she.

Women still are shouldering the overwhelming majority of housework duties. And yet even in shows like Scandal, The Mindy Project, and others where women are holding down high-power positions, we almost exclusively see their bachelorette pads in perfect condition. Not Laura’s. Her car is a disaster. Her desk has newspapers, food wrappers, and notes piled precariously high. Even her home is in a constant state of destruction as her twin boys appear to make it their mission to complicate Laura’s life.

This might seem trivial, but when I see powerhouse women on TV with a messy house, it reminds me that I’m doing OK. Something’s gotta give, and if that means it’s your laundry that week, so be it.

*****

It’s great to see Messing back in the center stage with such a rich character to explore. I feel in so many ways that she’s representing a real-life story that must be told.

I’m especially curious to see how things develop with her relationship with the loveable but less-than-supportive (and soon-to-be-ex?) husband. Like so many men, he means well but doesn’t pick up his share of the duties that come with raising a family, knowing that traditional gender roles still leave those responsibilities to Laura.

Regardless, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see a strong, unapologetic female protagonist navigating the challenges of role overload that everyday women like me can relate to.

Emilie Aries is the founder of Bossed Up, a women’s holistic professional development organization that empowers women to craft happy, healthy sustainable careers. She’s unapologetically obsessed with the psychology behind love and happiness, women and workplace culture, the changing nature of employer-employee relations, and her dog, Teddy.

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