I haven’t been particularly good at predicting what shows will win at the Emmys, but there’s one thing I don’t need a crystal ball or a Cinema Studies major to see: many of the most popular and critically-acclaimed television shows today are centered around women.
One of the most overtly feminine, bingeable series to come out recently is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel follows Midge, a 50’s housewife whose husband has left her as she pursues a career in comedy, all while navigating life as a single mother in New York City. What’s most striking about this show is that Midge is your stereotypical, “traditional” woman on the outside: she loves pink, her dream was getting married, and a common problem for her is how she’s going to pack all of her matching hats.
The series may seem like your basic fashion-centric show where an underqualified girl tries to make her way despite having absolutely no experience. But within one episode, you’ll realize this isn’t Sex and the City, where women make outlandish decisions on the basis of “fashion.” Midge is witty, college-educated, and incredibly driven. She recognizes her faults, but seeks to overcome them in tangible and believable ways. Best of all, she seeks guidance from her unlikely counterpart Suzie, the grizzled, overall-clad manager of the dive bar where Midge performs.
Although the show focuses on Midge, it’s really about women helping each other achieve their respective goals while understanding themselves. Creator Amy Sherman Palladino’s bitingly witty and notoriously fast dialogue really shines in this series, where a woman in a corset and red lipstick can walk in heels just as easily as she can spit out expletives.
Another extremely feminine character at the forefront of television culture is Villanelle from Killing Eve. This may sound unlikely considering the hit BBC series is about the cat-and-mouse relationship between protagonist Eve Polastri, who works for the British intelligence service, and Villanelle, a notorious assassin who always manages to skirt the police. However, Villanelle is fascinating, though the fact that she’s a killer means you don’t want to like her. Her kills are, unfortunately, interesting and creative, which draws both Eve and audiences to her.
Though Villanelle is elusive, she’s far from subtle. She wears outlandish, couture outfits, whether she’s killing or walking the streets of Paris. In older shows, her role as a killer would have directly undermined her femininity, but Killing Eve shows that the two can go together – and to terrifying ends. The woman who doesn’t hide her ugliness – but flaunts it in layers of tulle – is far more intimidating. Moreover, the relationship between Eve and Villanelle is layered and, at times, even confusing. This is not a simple friendship or enemies dynamic. It is dangerous and thrilling to watch, especially due to Sandra Oh’s award-winning portrayal of Eve.
Today’s female-centric shows feature women that are far from perfect. Along the same vein, another series I recommend binging is Dead to Me on Netflix. Protagonists Judy and Jen are, honestly, both incredibly flawed. Jen is mourning the death of her husband, who was killed in a hit-and-run; this causes her to hunt obsessively for his killer. She meets Judy at a support group, and, without giving too much away, it’s eventually revealed that Judy is a liar. Both women are lost and grieving, and both definitely have their sources of guilt. Their unlikely friendship becomes the life force of this dark comedy.
Traditionally, female characters would not be the subject of a dark comedy as they’re meant to be sweet and “feminine.” Well, Dead to Me throws that stereotype away. If The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel sets out to prove that women can be funny, Dead to Me takes it a step further, asserting that women can make even death and guilt humorous.
The hit series of today show that audiences want to see women who aren’t all one-note. In addition to these three shows, there are numerous complete and limited-run series that show the same future for female representation: How to Get Away with Murder, Little Fires Everywhere, and Mrs. America. These shows feature female characters that are complex and sometimes ugly, but also unique and fascinating.
What I find particularly inspirational about the influx of these female-centric shows is that they aren’t meant just for female viewers. No shade to Emily in Paris (it gave me a good laugh), but what I love about these shows and what makes them superior is that they don’t play into the same feminine tropes. When they do, these tropes are changed, subverted, or complicated. I would bet that just as many men watch these shows as women, and that they find the same level of entertainment and relatability as female viewers do. That’s something that “chick flick” shows from the last decade weren’t seeking to and couldn’t claim to do. A TV series can finally tell meaningful stories about women without being relegated to “a girls’ show.”