Today, our laptops are graced with more complex, leading female TV characters than ever before. Here’s 10 shows you can’t miss. By Michel Ghanem.
Between Daenerys Targaryen commanding an army on Game of Thrones and Michonne graphically slicing through the undead with a katana on The Walking Dead, it might be hard for some to imagine a time when women were only represented as subservient housewives. But honestly, your parents probably remember a time (pre-women’s liberation movement, and even after) when women were completely defined by their role as one-dimensional wives or mothers. Early—and controversial—shows like I Love Lucy in the 1950s, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Rest in Power!) in the 1970s thankfully broke away from sad, unrealistic tropes that would make you spew with disgust and boredom if you watched them today. Television, in our current moment, a.k.a. the Golden Age, has more complex, leading female characters than ever before. It’s crucial to remember why that’s important.
In a recent interview, the prolific screenwriter and producer Shonda Rhimes talked about her shift from writing for film to television. While at home taking care of her first child, she realized that while she had written seminal films like Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement — the interesting, long-term, complex character development was happening on her TV. Queen Shonda is now awarded the entire primetime slot on Thursday nights, runs four shows with two in production, and is arguably the best thing to ever arrive at ABC. Most importantly, she saw the advantages in diverse casting and balanced screenwriting, and doing so has lead her to immense success and acclaim.
It’s not a coincidence that her shows are closely associated with soap operas and melodrama. According to television studies scholars, early soap operas were actually known for their abundance of dynamic female characters. The 1930s radio soap operas were, quite literally, advertising household cleaning products — but were scripted around impressive fictional narratives, especially since they were essentially commercials. Once carried over to television, these “household stories” became wildly popular among daytime listeners; in other words, housewives. These shows became associated with the feminine and the domestic, which is why soap operas (and often, television overall) is associated with low culture. Still, themes and tropes that evolved in this genre are all over television today — family dynamics, romance, infidelity, murder, divorce, etc. More serious, highbrow dramas began picking up on these themes, and that’s how shows like The Affair or Grey’s Anatomy began. Earlier forms of TV and film had frequently reduced women to “the level of passive sex objects,” media studies researcher Richard Kilborn has said. In soaps, female characters are resourceful, cunning, powerful, and are often finding ways to navigate a male-dominated culture.
This isn’t to say that every television series with female characters is inherently feminist. Female directors and savvy intersectional representations are still rare. I was shook to find out Ryan Murphy hadn’t hired a female director for American Horror Story until 2016. That’s half a decade without a single woman behind the camera. Wtf? What’s important here is a willingness for showrunners and TV executives to greenlight work that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling and casting – especially given 2017’s awful socio-political climate. On a more micro level, the cultural messages we absorb through television affect our day-to-day interactions and the way we treat each other. As Kerry Washington said while accepting her GLAAD Vanguard Award in 2015, “There is so much power in inclusive storytelling. To be represented is to be humanized.”
According to Issa Rae, Insecure is “so basic,” which is exactly why it’s so revolutionary. As she explained on NPR, “we don’t get to just have a show about regular black people being basic.” The web series-turned-HBO show boasts an impressive collaborative effort — Solange as the music consultant (I shrieked), and Melina Matsoukas (known for directing the music video for “Formation”) as executive producer and director. At the core of the show is Issa’s friendship with Molly Carter (Yvonne Orji), and the flux within their relationship. It’s stripped of high concept ideas and instead acts as a window into the intersections of their daily lives. Thankfully, the show is coming back for a second season in 2017 — hopefully with a sequel to Issa’s breakout hit, “Broken Pussy.”
2. The Handmaid’s Tale
In Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name, the United States is taken over by a totalitarian, militaristic dictatorship and overrun by Old Testament bible thumpers who take away women’s rights (so basically Trump’s America). Women can’t even access magazines, cosmetics, fashion, or anything considered feminine. The series continues to film through February and won’t air until April, and it’s too early to tell how Hulu plans to stay true to the original novel. Regardless, its feminist science fiction premise makes for a particularly promising series. It will also be a treat to see Elizabeth Moss back on television after her role on Mad Men, accompanied by Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black), and Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls).
3. Queen Sugar
Ava DuVernay is a force of nature. The Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated director/filmmaker most recently gained wide acclaim for Selma (2014) and 13TH (2016). In a more lowkey capacity, she also collaborated with Oprah (yes, Oprah) on Queen Sugar for the OWN network. The first season follows three siblings, united to rebuild their father’s farm in New Orleans following his death. It’s a remarkable season of television — her crew of female-only directors (take note, Ryan Murphy) create beautiful imagery, and the show is incredibly concerned with its emotional character development.
From a less micro lens, the show takes on an ambitious agenda. DuVernay tackles sexual assault allegations, wrongful imprisonment of black youth, addiction, life after prison, and queerness through characters played by Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Kofi Siriboe, and Tina Lifford. As Melissa Harris-Perry (who also guest stars on the show) wrote for ESPN’s online magazine The Undefeated, “In Ava’s world, black people are fully human, and exquisitely gorgeous. In Ava’s world, everyone — every single one — is woke to intersectional analysis.”
My life felt empty without scenes of Kerry Washington drinking wine and slaying monologues in the latter half of 2016. The show took a bit of a hiatus, and the upcoming sixth season has been minimized to 16 episodes due to Washington’s pregnancy (concealed with Prada bags and ponchos right now). Scandal holds an important place in popular culture, and is often conscientious about the way it reflects our socio-political landscape (see their earnest episode on police brutality, for example).
And sure — last season had some unfortunate moments, earning its first F on entertainment website A.V. Club. But there’s something to be said about watching Olivia Pope triumph episode after episode. The brilliant supporting cast even includes a gay Republican man, briefly in the running for President this season. My hope for Scandal in 2017 is that it takes advantage of its condensed storytelling opportunity to focus less on smashing heads in with a chair, and more on the elements of the show that captured our attention in the first place.
5. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
My master’s research specifically looks at the representation of mental health and its intersection with fashion on television — I’m considering Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as one of my case studies. As someone who can’t even sit through Glee, let alone a legitimate musical, I was shocked at how both entertaining and fulfilling it is to watch Rachel Bloom’s inner monologue embodied through music videos. The show follows Rebecca Bunch, an exhausted and unhappy lawyer who leaves her miserable life as a successful lawyer in New York for West Covina, California.
On the surface, the show is about Rebecca moving across the country for a boy she hasn’t seen since her childhood summer camp. As the intro of the first season suggests, “the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.” The show continuously proves working on finding love isn’t necessarily connected to working on yourself, happiness, and fulfilment. Recently renewed for a third season, watch for the award-winning performances, honest music videos, or deeper thematic insight.
6. The Good Fight
A few weeks ago I was forced to roast a stranger on Grindr for calling The Good Wife a “mom show.” I had to remind him that the iconic CBS legal drama of our time is one of the last prestige broadcast network dramas that can survive a 22-episode season. It has also spawned countless thinkpieces on the value of its feminist position, and inspired an entire issue of the peer-reviewed academic journal Television & New Media. So, bye. It’s a richly crafted, award-winning, left-leaning series that follows Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) as she returns to work following a political sex scandal involving her husband.
The awkwardly titled The Good Fight (on CBS All Access, whatever that is) picks up where the original series leaves off — but with a focus on Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski). While Alicia can easily be identified through a postfeminist lens, Diane mostly embodies second-wave feminist ideals. She’s a universally respected lawyer and overall total badass when it comes to winning her cases, but she’s the first to judge Alicia’s decision to abandon her law career in favour of raising her children at home. These identities are challenged and shift throughout the series — but the new spin-off focuses on Diane as a financial scandal evaporates her retirement fund. The show includes The Good Wife returner Cush Jumbo, and Game of Thrones veteran Rose Leslie (who plays a queer character).
It should be illegal to discuss womanhood and feminism without including trans identity. Sadly, trans representation is still super limited on accessible television (and film), and the list gets smaller when they’re played by real trans people. I was thrilled to see Jeffrey Tambor declare that he should be the last cisgender man to play a trans woman on Transparent. Trans people aren’t costumes, and there are stories to be told here. Remember when they had Laverne Cox’s character locked up in solitary for an entire season of Orange is the New Black? Smh. I was hoping she would get the screentime she deserves as the first transgender actor in a series regular on broadcast TV in CBS’s Doubt — but it was unceremoniously cancelled after two episodes.
Anyway, I digress. If you’re going to watch a series in 2017 that features a diverse cast of queer and trans people, Amazon’s Transparent has won enough awards to prove its worthiness.
Okay. Hear me out. I know Lifetime’s UnREAL has been far from perfect in its last season given its poorly executed focus on a black male suitor. The show’s co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro was once a producer on The Bachelor, which would lead her to create this gem. The show follows Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a producer on a Bachelor-esque reality show. She’s forced to confront the moral quandaries associated with manipulating female contestants for good television while holding on to her identity as a feminist.
Unfortunately, a poorly-crafted episode last season attempted to take on police brutality to serve Rachel’s mental health storyline. The episode inspired a few articles about how this may not have been UnREAL’s story to tell. Despite this, I have faith the Peabody-winning series will come back stronger in its third season. Its depiction of the behind-the-scenes view of a show like The Bachelor is a story worth telling.
9. Orphan Black
I was watching a recent Comic-Con panel discussion with the actors of Orphan Black, and I was momentarily confused when only three cast members showed up. It’s easy to forget that Tatiana Maslany plays at least 11 clones on the show, each with distinct personalities. Some are good, and some are particularly menacing, but ultimately, they’re all united through their connection as biological sisters. Orphan Black is hardly the most diverse show on television (one of the white clones wears dreads) but to watch Canadian Emmy-winner Maslany inhabit these characters is a testament to the complexity of feminine identity. Each clone holds different priorities, dreams, sexual identities, and abilities. Sometimes she even plays a clone pretending to be another clone, which blows my mind and reminds me why I could never pursue acting.
10. Broad City
As our very own Kristen Cochrane has previously explained on Slutever, “Broad City has returned as a beacon of sexual light, reminding women that we can be chill, sexual, and weird, and that these things don’t need to exist in a binary of whether they’re ‘empowering or not.’” I felt that I couldn’t exclude Abbi and Ilana’s adventures from this list, which returns for its fourth season in August.
Sadly, there’s often a tendency to associate comedy with static character development. On one hand, we get to drop in on those shows whenever we want, and the characters are relatively in the same place. This doesn’t work as well on non-sitcom shows like Broad City; character development is essential for these characters. The third season reached a boiling point in its brilliant eighth episode when Abbi confesses to secretly dating Trey throughout the season, and Ilana tearfully admits to her recent break-up. This point of no return reminds us how powerful the notions of evolution and growth can be for characters in a comedy genre.
Michel Ghanem is researching fashion and television at Ryerson University’s Fashion MA program.