In a fictional world rife with female serial killers, women in mourning and ladies whose mindsets don’t always make them the most likeable or even cheerful leads, mental health and the role it plays in a woman’s world may finally be getting its due.
As a record number of television outlets compete for attention among myriad awards entries every year, deeper and darker explorations of female characters and their psyches are becoming more common in storytelling as viewers look toward cathartic venues of entertainment that aren’t as niche as they may have once seemed.
“I’ll watch an episode of ‘Friends’ on Netflix and if I’m at a low-point it will make me feel so alone to watch a problem get resolved in 22 minutes,” says “Sorry for Your Loss” creator Kit Steinkellner. “I love comedy, I love a grand, sweeping romance, and there have been moments in my life where I have been really grateful for them. But there are moments when nothing can make me feel more alone than pure escapism. As an artist you should know that if you feel something that strongly, that there are other people out there feeling the same thing. It’s been gratifying to know that our show has helped other people feel less alone.”
Before Steinkellner sold her series, about a young widow adjusting to life following her husband’s death, to Facebook Watch, she faced an uphill battle because of the show’s perceived depressing nature.
“I found people really responded to the art of it all, but then didn’t know what to do with the script commercially,” she says. “They didn’t know how a story about death and grief and loss as the centerpiece of the story was going to look or function. Then the landscape changed. Shows like ‘This Is Us’ were certainly helpful in terms of diving into grief and pain and loss.”
The fourth season of “This Is Us” dives more deeply into female mental health with Tess (Eris Baker) grappling with anxiety. But this is just one example of how complex stories of women exploring and understanding how mental health affects them and their respective communities is rapidly becoming the norm. The mental decline of characters including Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in “Game of Thrones” and Dr. Jo Wilson’s (Camilla Luddington) PTSD upon learning her birth story on “Grey’s Anatomy” have also become rich story areas, as has Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) coming to terms with her husband’s death on “Dead to Me.”
Meanwhile, after Michelle Dean published her BuzzFeed article revealing the real-life case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother, Dee Dee, who suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, she received almost immediate interest from those looking to develop the story for audiences. Selling “The Act” was another matter, as many buyers seemed unwilling to showcase female dysfunction at that level. Eventually, Hulu had a particular interest in showcasing stories about the female experience, having also just commissioned “The Handmaid’s Tale,” another series that has delved into the mental state of its female characters.
“Many places that we approached ultimately said the story is too depressing. And that included places that were airing shows where men were killing each other every week and torturing each other right on screen,” Dean says. “I began to believe over the course of trying to sell the show that people just found women depressing. It was remarkable because there’s a lot of humanity to be found in this story. I’m most proud of the show when we managed to visit that, as opposed to some of the horror of it.”
From a comedy perspective, women behaving against traditional rom-com tropes and expressing a full range of emotions has become more apparent lately, but integrating mental health into the conversation remains a delicate balancing act — if for no other reason than avoiding the old and dangerous “crazy woman” trope so often used to write off a female going against the grain.
According to “Russian Doll” showrunner Leslye Headland, one of the interpretations of the Netflix series at a granular level is the exploration of a woman wanting to break her obsessive compulsive need to repeat patterns in order to escape the “Groundhog Day” world in which she’s stuck. She, along with co-creators Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne, who also stars, were interested in showing a protagonist who wasn’t necessarily interested in romance, motherhood, or other traditional storytelling venues, which Headland says could be perceived as “crazy” in and of itself.
“There is this quick feeling that if a woman has a complicated feeling, then she must be mean, or crazy. And that’s just another way of dismissing her taking up space in the world,” she says. “One of my favorite scenes in ‘Russian Doll’ is when Nadia was screaming, ‘I’m not crazy; you know I hate it when people say I’m crazy.’ There is just this really harsh feeling that, at the end of the day, no matter how righteous you might feel about how angry you are, or how sad you are, or how depressed you are, there’s somebody from somewhere — and maybe even someone that’s close to you — who is going to dismiss you with that word.”
There is an equal balance to strike when it comes to showcasing real disorders in dramatic fashion, such as the Blanchard case or on BBC America’s breakout hit “Killing Eve.” As the awards accolades the latter show has already racked up in its first two seasons (including a lead drama actress Emmy win for Jodie Comer and a 2018 Golden Globe win for Sandra Oh) indicate, there’s something compelling about showcasing hyper versions of real women and amplifying the less-than-ideal traits that make them human.
“The crazy woman trope is still pervasive and we see it all the time, but it’s such a delicate balance because if you swing too far the other way you’re not able to write honestly,” says Season 2 executive producer Emerald Fennell. “Personally, the things that I’m interested in and the characters I’m interested in — most of them have been women — are kind of terrible. Part of what we need to be able to do as creators is to be honest as to what the character needs. I do feel strongly that female writers and creatives need to be able to do that. If they want to write women who are unusual, or frightening, or sad, or pervy, or whatever it is, then I think we’re just going to have to go ahead and not worry too much about what other people think.”