Not since Bea Arthur’s Maude made abortion a topic of primetime and Mary Tyler Moore tossed her hat into the Minneapolis sky have women on the smallscreen possessed such a wealth of power and prominence. This year’s batch of Emmy contenders for drama series are rife with strong female protagonists, from the femme-dominated cast of “Orange Is the New Black” to Claire Danes’ flawed and fearless CIA agent in “Homeland” to the more subtle post-Edwardian era feminism of “Downton Abbey.”
Supporting actress nominees Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke — who slays as Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of all dragons — arguably eclipse their male co-stars in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and formidable female politicians abound in Netflix’s “House of Cards.” And while “Mad Men” might be the title, Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy and Christina Hendricks’ Joan command attention in the swansong season of Matthew Weiner’s historical ode to Madison Avenue.
Assertive, daring and unabashedly independent, these women, and others like them on prestige dramas ranging from “The Good Wife” to “The Americans” to “Masters of Sex,” are boldly giving rise to a more powerful demographic and collectively ushering in what could arguably be dubbed the golden era of female characters in television.
“It’s been decades since so many women have been able to play leading roles,” says Taryn Manning, who plays Pennsatucky, Litchfield Penitentiary’s resident meth head-turned-born again Christian on Netflix’s groundbreaking series “Orange Is the New Black.” Manning credits the “genius” and “brilliance” of series creator Jenji Kohan with “giving such a diverse group of women a chance to be a lead in their own way — whether they’re leading their certain ethnicity group, or they’re leading some type of movement within the prison system.”
“Women are very complex, we’re layered, and we have the ability to be compassionate and also tough, but we also get beaten down a lot by society,” says Manning, whose portrayal of the wounded Pennsatucky is flush with nuance and depth of character; she’s more than just the crime that landed her in the slammer. “We’re not just seen as hysterical anymore. Back in the early 1900s they used to put us in mental institutions before they knew what PMS was. Because they just thought we were just crazy. This show really sheds a lot of light on the beauty and strength of women in all different shapes and sizes and from all different walks of life. We have mothers, we have transgender (women), we’ve got lesbians and straight women, and (as a viewer) you come away maybe not so much liking every character, but caring about each one. In real life no one’s all good and no one’s all bad. One poor choice and it affects your entire life.”
For the female leads in period series “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey,” shows chronicling eras in which society placed myriad constraints on women — economic, cultural and political — their choices in life often present loaded repercussions.
In terms of character development, it also makes the women more interesting.
“It didn’t matter what class they were in or whether they were posh or whether they weren’t — there were a hell of a lot of things (women) couldn’t do,” says Julian Fellowes, creator of PBS’ soapy account of the British Crawley family and their cadre of servants in the decades straddling World Wars I and II. “If they were going to do (certain things) they had to work it out very carefully unless they were prepared to be thrown outside society. And so they had to compromise, they had to work out how they were going to get around these rules. And that’s, in a way, more interesting than the men.”
Whether it’s Mary (Michelle Dockery) who, per Fellowes, “feels the need to sleep with a man who wants to marry her in order to discover whether or not they’re compatible sexually, but doesn’t want to pay the price,” or American-born Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who “returns to the freer philosophies of her youth,” or the “incredibly conventional” yet “very strong” Violet (Maggie Smith), these characters each represent, in varying degrees, the changing face of women in global society.
“They weren’t revolutionaries,” says Fellowes of these women. “They weren’t rebels at the forefront of the cause. But they were changed by the things that came about because of the First World War. The fact is, women during the war did all sorts of interesting jobs and when the war (was over) they wanted to go right on doing them. They didn’t want to go back and have no career choices. For them, the world is opening up.”
Of course, by the time the 1960s and the fabled Don Draper roll around, a sizable swath of the American workforce remains, if not technically impenetrable, then very definitively roped off to members of the second sex. But “Mad Men’s” Peggy (Moss) refuses to conform to the social mores of the day, determinedly ascending the career ranks.
“To me (Peggy) is the female lead of the show,” says Erin Levy, Emmy-winning writer and supervising producer of the touted AMC series. “And she’s going through a period of time when there was a lot of turmoil for women, where it was really hard to do what she did. To go from a secretary, to becoming a copywriter, to being copy chief — it was almost unheard of. The fact that she had that rise is amazing, and it’s her story and Elisabeth Moss’ performance that suck you in and make you feel like she’s on par with Don.”
That Peggy succeeds in a man’s world — as does Joan, who “wanted a husband and ends up with a career” — without compromising her femininity or desire for romantic love, is one of the most inspiring feats of her transformation, notes Levy. She co-wrote this season’s “Time & Life” episode with creator Weiner, in which Peggy reveals to colleague and eventual love interest Stan that she once gave up a child for adoption, and she’s not the stone-hearted single-minded career gal he thinks she is.
“It’s just assumed that that part of her life she gave up, that it’s over,” says Levy. “And I just love that she is the kind of person who stands up for herself and points out to him that (they) are in the same exact position. She’s saying, I can have a career and I can still have a baby. And I think about having a child. And I had one once and I gave it away. I don’t think Peggy’s trying to be a man. Peggy’s just being Peggy. It’s the only thing she knows how to do.”
But where Peggy made a choice to give up her baby, “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison (Danes), a cutthroat CIA operative suffering from bipolar disorder and postpartum depression, is struggling with the emotional demands of mothering her infant daughter, whom she’s left Stateside to be raised by family members while she’s stationed abroad. When she returns, she’s not sure she can handle it.
“I think she’s asking herself whether or not she’s cut out to be a mother in the traditional sense,” says Meredith Stiehm, executive producer of the Emmy-winning Showtime series. “And I feel like she came home for that.”
Carrie is far from perfect and, in a way, despite the fact that she leads such a grandiose life working to secure the safety of America, reflects the most relatable and realistic type of woman, someone smart and complex and career-driven but whose biological make-up threatens to do her in at almost every turn.
“She is a lot of good things and a lot of bad things — like all of us,” says Stiehm. “She’s got great talent and she’s brilliant, but then she does very questionable things and she’s kind of rash. She’s got her demons, and this season we’ve really leveled out her struggle with bipolar disorder. She kind of became an adult about that. She’s not a pure heroine. She’s complicated. And I think people appreciate that. You don’t like everything that she does, but you love her.”