You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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.”

More TV

  • beIN Orders First Turkish Original Drama

    beIN Orders First Turkish Original Drama 'The Choice'

    Miramax owner beIN Media is pushing into the competitive Turkish drama market. The beIN-owned Turkish pay-TV operator Digiturk has commissioned production company Ay Yapim to make drama series “The Choice” for its streaming platform, beIN Connect, in Turkey. “The Choice” marks the first original series for Digiturk since sports and entertainment group beIN Media acquired the [...]

  • Tekashi 6ix9ine Docuseries Coming From Showtime

    Tekashi 6ix9ine Docuseries Coming From Showtime and Rolling Stone

    Showtime Documentary Films today announced a new limited docuseries profiling controversial rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine. Titled “SuperVillain” and inspired by the Rolling Stone feature written by Stephen Witt, the three-part series will trace how a New York City deli clerk named Daniel Hernandez became superstar rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine — who racked up 2.6 billion streams and [...]

  • TV Ratings: 'The Masked Singer,' NBC's

    TV Ratings: 'The Masked Singer,' NBC's 'Chicago' Shows Tick Up

    One performer’s routine on “The Masked Singer” last night might have been a little too bare bones for the judges, however, the show’s ratings showed a lot more flesh. The Fox singing competition show ticked up from last week among adults 18-49 to a 2.1 rating, and gained around 100,000 total viewers to end up [...]

  • Megyn Kelly

    Megyn Kelly Makes Meandering Comeback Bid on Fox News (Column)

    Megyn Kelly made the first steps toward a TV comeback on Wednesday night, appearing on Fox News, the network that brought her to prominence, to decry NBC, the network from which she parted ways last year. It was a booking that had everything that has made Kelly a compelling figure for years — a sense [...]

  • Kane Brown CMT Artists of the

    Kane Brown Pays Tribute to Late Drummer Kenny Dixon in Tearful 'CMT Artists' Speech

    Country star Kane Brown, unabashedly distraught over the death of his touring drummer Kenny Dixon just four days earlier in a car accident, dedicated his “CMT Artists of the Year” award to Dixon in a heart-rending appearance on the telecast Wednesday night. Brown ceded the performance slot he would have been allowed to friend Chris [...]


    CBS-Viacom Merger Details Revealed, Shares to Trade on Nasdaq

    Negotiations between CBS and Viacom went down to the wire on the day the long-gestating transaction was finally sealed on Aug. 13. CBS Corp. and Viacom revealed the timeline of the merger talks in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Thursday that runs more than 650 pages. Also Thursday, CBS and Viacom said the shares [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content