Angry women, this is your time. At least on TV.
From such classic sitcoms as “The Honeymooners” to more modern multicams including “Everybody Loves Raymond,” lead female characters were more often than not portrayed as foils or just general counterpoints to their husbands. Sometimes this was portrayed through hysterical antics; more commonly it was through a straight-woman role — one tinged with disapproval. Television comedies centered on romance or female friendships have tended to offer a reprieve from such small boxes, but with the concern of likeability still at the forefront of traditional studios’ and networks’ minds, there were still limits on what a female character in a comedy was allowed to say, do or simply be.
But times are finally changing. With so many new platforms on which to tell stories — and so many women telling their own stories on these platforms — comes the ability to dive deeper into more nuanced and specific characters, allowing female characters to let go of likeability constraints and embrace their anger.
“If you go to streaming services and you pitch an idea that sounds like it could be on network TV, they don’t want it,” says veteran showrunner Marc Cherry. “The streaming services say, ‘Bring me something that is new and exciting and something we haven’t seen before — bring me characters we haven’t seen before. And I think this speaks to, in the 500 television series universe we live in, how you’ve got to go to new, exciting, scary places if you’re going to get any kind of attention whatsoever.”
Cherry’s “Why Women Kill” for CBS All Access and Tracy Oliver’s “First Wives Club” for BET Plus both explore women who are downright vengeful, with the former exploring a racially diverse group of women across three distinct decades (the 1960s, 1980s and present day) whose unhappiness over their partners’ infidelity lead them to take violent action. The latter follows three African-American friends on a mission to get back at one’s no-good ex.
Netflix’s “Dead to Me” also draws a line of causality between an event and a woman’s response of anger: The show centers on a recent widow named Jen (Christina Applegate) whose intense grief and really unfortunate circumstances fuel her justifiable anger, notes creator and showrunner Liz Feldman.
This emotion comes out as everything from scream-crying to telling off her neighbor and real estate clients, and even in moments of mistreatment of her new friend Judy (Linda Cardellini).
From a storytelling perspective, Feldman acknowledges that there has been “a lot of fear around an angry female character” for a long time. “Women of my generation, we’ve been taught that you don’t show anger — that you make nice. I think there’s a reason why you’ve, up until really recently, seen very two-dimensional, ‘nice-washed’ characters,” she says. So, there is a sense of freedom that comes with being able to more fully express emotions now. “Jen being as angry as she is definitely opened up the palate of emotions that all of the other characters could feel.”
In Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” which was originally developed and produced for YouTube before landing at the premium cabler, actress and producer Kirsten Dunst’s character Krystal Stubbs is also a recent widow — one who gets involved in a pyramid scheme to push past the poverty line.
“Krystal’s rage was something she had come by honestly: She grew up in this system that was rigged against the poor and against women, so it is class rage; it is gender rage; it is all of that,” says showrunner Esta Spalding.
But while such an emotion can be a character’s strength, there is also a cautionary tale aspect. “It’s her absolute rage that has allowed her to survive and power through and think she deserves better, but also undoes her in some ways,” Spalding says. The character may find a way to make use of a gator she kills in a moment of extreme emotion after hearing her husband was killed by one, but it still gets her in trouble with the law for poaching, for example. But it is just this duality that makes such storytelling richer, and more real.
“It’s tapping into something that people feel right now, which is class helplessness and the feeling that they are trapped and can’t move up in any way in that American dream,” Spalding says. “It feels different to me than even two or three years ago when you go out into the world to pitch stories, the kinds of stories people will accept.”
Streaming shows such as Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Fleabag” center on women who often exhibit irritation, if not quite outright anger with more general situations in life, from the respective titular characters Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) upset over how her ex-husband and the comedy club audiences underestimate her to Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) having a row with her sister, her sister’s husband or her godmother. Apple TV Plus’ “Dickinson” follows the titular author (played by Hailee Steinfeld) as she, too, grows frustrated with the way the men of the time treat her.
Oliver admits she was less concerned with where her show told its story than how. Although the 1996 film of the same name was a source of inspiration for “First Wives Club,” writing her trio as black women added another layer to the discussion of how angry the characters should be.
“The angry black woman is a stereotype and is something you see depicted too much,” she says. “Anger, in particular, is the trickiest emotion when you’re writing for women of color because in the back of your mind you’re wondering if you’re perpetuating something or hurting the global cause of what black womanhood is. But at the same time, I didn’t want to shy away from that because we do have all kinds of emotions, just like everybody else. I try to lead with no fear because I think when we get to a place where we’re all second-guessing how it’s going to be perceived, we’re limiting the possibilities of what we’re writing and creating.”
Oliver adds that she was not interested in telling a story of revenge without some heart and humor along the way. But it can still be a tricky tonal balancing act.
“More attention is being paid to the way we portray women,” Cherry adds. “The big thing is to make sure you can justify what you’ve done because when the eyeballs get on it, if you’re in dangerous waters, you just have to own your point of view. And I think the success to owning your point of view is to have picked it up and looked at it from all angles.”
And it is in hearing from the audience that they do, in fact, relate to such characters that proves television is moving in the right direction.
“It was honestly more than I ever could have imagined, and it is honestly what makes doing a show like this worth it — because beyond being entertaining, it did actually help people feel seen in a way they hadn’t before,” “Dead to Me’s” Feldman says.