How ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,’ ‘Veep,’ ‘When They See Us’ Redefine ‘Strong Female Characters’

When they See Us Marvelous Ms
Courtesy of Netflix/Amazon Studios/HBO

Emmy-nominated roles among the leading actress categories have never been so diverse or realized, nor have they ever been so intimate. From assassins and ambitious presidential hopefuls to standup comedians, business owners and grieving mothers, the women gracing the ballot box represent an array of formidable characters that embody vulnerability, flaws and a movement away from the stigmatizing “strong female character” moniker to embody a fuller female experience.

“Whenever I see any sort of breakdown that says ‘strong,’ my eyes just roll. I can’t even help it,” says Aunjanue Ellis, who is nominated in the lead limited series/TV movie actress category for her role as justice-seeking mother Sharonne Salaam in Netflix’s “When They See Us.”

“The reference of a woman being strong is the suggestion that women have been weak — that there have been weak characters written for them, and that they have been portrayed in a weak way and as having zero agency. And unfortunately that still happens.”

Adds last year’s lead comedy actress winner Rachel Brosnahan, who is once again nominated for her role on Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”: “The problem with that term is that it’s always been defined by the male gaze: We look at strong female characters as projecting the same qualities we think make men strong, [such as] being physically strong or powerful or ambitious or driven. There’s an absence of vulnerability that usually comes with the more stereotypical definition of what it means to be strong, but there’s a trend happening in television right now and that definition is broadening.”

Having women showrunners including Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Mrs. Maisel”) or Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us”) has certainly helped in terms of crafting more complex roles in which female protagonists are encouraged to explore a full emotional gamut while having goals or being ambitious. That, in turn, leads to a more nuanced definition of strength. One of the most-attractive things for Brosnahan about playing the titular Midge Maisel was her inherent curiosity about the world and resiliency in the face of failure, whether in her home life or stage act.

“There’s a lot of need and an opportunity for growth in both personal and professional life and those things are intertwined.”
Rachel Brosnahan

“The fact that she’s allowed to fail, both personally and professionally, contributes to her strengths,” she says. “It helps her grow and it humbles her, which as someone who comes from a place of privilege hasn’t happened very often. There’s a lot of need for an opportunity for growth in both her personal and professional life and those things are intertwined: When she grows personally, she grows professionally — and then when she grows professionally she grows personally. It’s absolutely one of the things I’m the most interested in about her.”

Ellis, who spoke in-depth to the real Salaam in preparation for her role, recalls the feeling of “emotional terrorism” she found in terms of a mother being asked to forgive an act that took away years of her son’s life and his innocence, and how the inability to do so was part of what made the role so visceral.

“Black Americans are supposed to forgive these heinous acts that happen to us and that have happened to us in the history of this country, and it seems to be our responsibility to forgive,” she says. “Ms. Salaam said that would be impossible for her to do because in order to do that her memory would have to be taken from her. And she lives with that memory every day of her life — she still lives in that same building. So that’s what I tapped into.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has dominated the lead comedy actress category with six wins in her first six nominations for her role as Selina Meyer on HBO’s “Veep” (she is nominated again, this year), and who is tied with Cloris Leachman as the performer with the most individual Emmy wins, is eyeing a historic victory if her name is called on Sept. 22. Yet, despite her penchant for playing characters that do unlikable things, she says she’s never had a role to explore quite like Selina in terms of contradictions and boundary-pushing traits.

“This is definitely new for me to play — this person is out of her f—ing mind. And, by the way, ironically is a misogynistic woman,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “She is not a fan of her sex. And I think that’s ultimately because she has been led to believe that it’s a handicap of sorts to be a woman; she was not given a lot of support, love, and confidence as a young girl, to say the least. So she is ambitious and she’s very strong, but she has tremendous weaknesses, her narcissism being first and foremost. She’s conniving and she’s politically astute in many ways, and in other ways … not so much.”

Louis-Dreyfus goes on to describe Selina as a “middle-aged woman behaving like a toddler.” Showcasing her physical flaws, whether through a bad haircut or the actress’ own height, were always important pillars in creating assets for the actual character.

“Even in the pilot she had the box that she stood on to make speeches, and there was a moment where she gets into Jonah Ryan’s — played by Timothy Simons — face. And in that particular shot, I made sure I wasn’t wearing any shoes so that the height differential was as extreme as possible,” she says. “Everything has to be grounded in a certain reality and be earned and feel well-motivated. This is a woman who is not only fueled by narcissism, but also by frustration. She has always felt as though she doesn’t get her due; throwing tantrums are in her bag of tricks.”

It’s important to note that no matter what methods these characters employ to land at the top, they rarely stay there for long. And those nuanced journeys full of emotional turns and laughs are exactly what makes them so relatable — but rare — in the first place.

“Hollywood has begun to introduce more ‘strong female characters’ in response to one of many different demands for inclusivity, but they’re just as limiting as their male counterparts and lack a more nuanced and necessary understanding of what it means to be strong,” Brosnahan says. “But television is way ahead of film in terms of introducing that nuance that has previously been lacking. I look forward to seeing more complicated female characters not only on television, but also hopefully in film.”