The rise of peak TV and new outlets has been one reason there have, thankfully, been more diverse female characters across the episodic landscape, but let’s not get it twisted. There is a long history of women on television who went against the grain, from Bea Arthur’s Maude to Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown, Roseanne Barr’s signature role and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully, among others.
Over the past few years, however, there has been a refreshing breakthrough of contemporary women starring in what some may consider “antihero” roles, and that has led to some of the most captivating performances in modern media.
Over two seasons of NBC’s “The Good Place” Kristen Bell’s character Eleanor has grown from a shallow, self-centered person into someone who is at least trying to do the right thing at the right time. Bell, who also portrayed the title role in the wonderfully complex “Veronica Mars,” thinks the increase in new distribution outlets is a main reason that, in some ways, the unexpected is now expected when it comes to female roles.
Landing Eleanor might have been good luck in her case, but it wasn’t due to a cyclical trend. It might just be simple mathematics.
“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s there were three networks. The market wasn’t flooded with content, so people tended to write projects for stereotypical characters,” Bell says. “When that becomes a bit tired and there are more projects and more platforms and you need content, content, content? People think outside the box. There are streaming services that want non-stereotypical shows, non-archetypal characters.”
In Bell’s view that allows writers to think more clearly about real people and “you don’t see as many love stories between Barbie and Ken” because, frankly, audiences are a bit fatigued of that.
“It allows writers and then subsequently directors and actors to take these projects on that echo the complexities of real human beings,” she says. “There’s nothing funny about perfection, so playing any character that needs to be funny, they need to have imperfections.”
And, as always with Hollywood, it’s often just about business. “I think that no matter what you may believe, no matter how many old white men are sitting in a room making these decisions, they are making them so that those decisions, those projects, will be consumed by someone,” Bell says. “And if the consumers are having conversations about wanting to see more females, wanting to see less of the quote-unquote girlfriends stereotype, then they will take that into consideration and greenlight more of those projects.”
Frankie Shaw is one woman who took her creative future into her own hands. After a decade bouncing around auditioning for small parts, she wrote the pilot for “SMILF” and after a short based on the same material screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, her passion project finally came to life, thanks to Showtime.
As Bridgette, Shaw plays a single mother living in Boston trying to make it as an actress, but also trying to pay the bills and figure out how to have any sort of social life while raising a toddler. The title of the show caught a lot of attention, and Shaw says she stuck with it because she wanted to reclaim what had become a derogatory term.
“A whole part of my M.O. is creating a space and a world and a language for women to live inside and live with because the language in which we’re given isn’t friendly towards us,” Shaw says.
“Whether I succeeded or not, that’s up for debate. People major in feminist psychoanalytic theory in alt lit departments because of this very issue going back [to the] Bible. God is the word and the word is God and God created man, and out of man came women. So, it’s a very old and heavy debate. And I think it’s really fitting that this debate exists within my show.”
“People are inspired by a woman finding her voice…”
As with Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” or Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” two other shows in which the female creators are also in the spotlight in front of the camera, “SMILF” is inspired by Shaw’s own life. It is not, however, driven by it.
“The fact that I had a kid young and I was a single mom, obviously there are connections, but I feel like it was almost an excuse to talk about bigger things that might not necessarily be my life,” Shaw says. “I didn’t name the show Frankie. I didn’t name the character Frankie. There are parts that are an extension of me and parts that are so completely opposite of me.”
Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge Maisel, the centerpiece of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is perhaps the most upbeat progressive fighter on television. Even if the aspirational stand-up comic is battling to make it in the intensely conservative Eisenhower era.
“A woman breaking into comedy in the 1950s was about the biggest way to give the middle finger to any kind of gender norm or expectation, I think,” Brosnahan says. “Maybe not the biggest, but certainly one of them. She’s starting to notice a lot of gender disparity. She’s starting to become aware of some of the unrealistic expectations that are placed on women, or and were placed on women, and some of the hypocrisy in the expectations surrounding men and women and their roles in society.”
A Golden Globe winner in January, Brosnahan has discovered that, for many, in this #MeToo era, Midge’s journey been something of an inspiration.
“I think one of the things that I’m hearing a lot is that people are inspired by a woman finding her voice anew, finding a voice that she didn’t know she had, at a point in her life where she felt like she had already established who she was and what she wanted and set a goal for herself and reached it,” Brosnahan says. “Everything fell apart and she rose from the ashes and found a new passion, and a new path. Something that is largely right now a part of the national conversation as well. It’s taken on new meaning since after we created the show.”