The Concerning Trend in the Best Female-Driven Shows

One of the most exciting events occurring in the golden age of TV is an increase in complex and dynamic female characters. Despite the depressing realities of #MeToo and Hollywood’s slow (too slow, in my opinion) attempt to close the gender gap in key roles and in salary, I still hold out hope due to the well-written and female-centered stories appearing in the past few years. Fleabag, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jessica Jones, UnREAL and You’re The Worst rank among my favorite shows that I’ve had the pleasure of watching these past few years and I recommend all of them.

These shows present heroines that are flawed and fully-formed human characters. Each character and show is also very different from each other, idiosyncratic in interests, background, strengths and weaknesses. So what do these shows have in common besides female protagonists that critics and audiences alike have come to adore? Well, all the characters are white women. But that’s a topic for another article. What I want to focus on today is that all these female heroines manage mental illness. In fact, the mental illnesses displayed are not a supplementary element of the show but rather, a real driving force to the shows’ overall arcs at times. Mental illness has become a recurring trend in today’s media, undoubtedly opening up a new and necessary conversation.

Storytelling relies on conflict, which can easily manifest from the complications of mental illness. When does mental illness become a cheap and easy way to derive conflict? Do writers, critics and viewers see mental illness as complexity that is more than plot device? How does one respect the struggles of mental illness without mining it for drama? I’m concerned at the idea that in fiction, mental illness equates to complexity or the other way around.

The characteristic of mental illness in female characters across the board was something I began to notice as a viewer and a writer. What makes these characters interesting and dimensional? Mental illness definitely humanized these characters but as a viewer, I never felt that mental illness was their identity, just a part of their story. Humanizing female characters can be a challenge when it shouldn’t be yet so many people easily come to hate or dismiss female characters that are strong and lack distinct flaws as “Mary Sues” and ones that are more passive as terrible representations and insults to feminism. As problematic as it sounds, perhaps, mental illness allows female characters to present both strong and vulnerable sides to the nature of illness, which often forces both out of us.

Many people struggle with mental illness and being able to feel seen in these characters is important for visibility. These shows validate the experiences of the female characters, showing that the life of mentally ill individuals does not diminish what they are capable of achieving, experiencing or healing from. In You’re The Worst, Gretchen manages clinical depression while doing PR for her celebrity clients. Crazy has Rebecca Bunch bailing everyone out of legal troubles as a kick-ass complicated lawyer. Both shows upend expectations for women and contain segments with counseling and medication, bringing two difficult subjects out into the pop culture sphere at the very least.

So this isn’t to say that portrayals of mentally ill women are automatically problematic and promote bad ideas. Depictions that clarify misconceptions and destigmatize appear in episodes that are so well-written that they successfully avoid relying entirely on mental illness to drive the story. I simply worry about complexity in female characters being relegated to mental illness or mental illness becoming a trope in female characters, reversing the work that is done in humanizing it. The conundrum with television is that it has the power to educate and clarify our ideas on a subject but it also has the ability to further reinforce incorrect and dangerous ideas. Do writers have the responsibility to show these female characters healing and improving? How many times can we show a female character spiraling before it becomes an issue? But isn’t allowing female characters in all their gross humanity part of the feminist work that needs to be done? It’s hard to know and female actresses, showrunners and writers shouldn’t have to know, in my opinion.

The questions that I’m asking do not necessarily have one clean answer. The mentally ill female characters have the potential to make people more empathetic and aware of how the women in their own lives may struggle and I think they certainly do. For example, Jessica Jones and UnReal do their best to capture the trauma and anxieties of rape survivors. The second season of Fleabag has been rightfully earning rave reviews as viewers have a strong affinity for the titular character experiencing grief and shame.

I’m very glad to be seeing interesting, fully-realized female characters on television that have the potential to destigmatize mental illness without glorifying or shaming through heartfelt, sincere performances and writing. Female characters in all flavors and colors are needed. The female protagonists that I mentioned provoke compassion and feeling of being seen for many, which is perhaps the best thing television and film can do.