A few years after the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, inclusion riders, gender parity, pay equity and a slew of other issues remain as relevant as ever both on-screen and off. As women demand their seats at the table behind-the-scenes, there is an onslaught of female characters fighting for their own voices among a sea of men within stories, too.
From revisionist period pieces including Netflix’s “The Crown” and “Bridgerton” and Apple TV Plus’ “Dickinson,” to the media critiquing on Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso,” to the bleaker misogynistic experience on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” series are carving out female characters whose onscreen battles often imitate ongoing, real-world experiences.
These stories are also what happens when women creatives, directors and showrunners work together.
“Women now, more than ever, are speaking up and speaking out, banding together and lifting each other up, and not taking no for an answer or saying no as their answer,” says Hailee Steinfeld of “Dickinson.” “They’re taking ownership of themselves and their voices and where they stand in who they are. I really do feel a part of that cultural shift and I feel inspired by it. It feels like a really special thing to be a part of.”
Steinfeld feels her role as American poet Emily Dickinson reflects how far women have come, but it is also indicative of the challenges they still face.
“Emily goes through this wild journey,” she says. “The reality was that if a woman wanted to be published, there was a man that would choose to publish her or not.”
Media scrutiny plays out differently on Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” in which the anonymous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown has the ability to forever alter characters’ lives. The fact that a woman had that much power in a patriarchal society is rare, but it also speaks to the importance of female unity.
“It’s kind of like the 19th century version of the media that we see now and putting women on a pedestal and then sort of tearing them down,” says Phoebe Dynevor, who plays Daphne Bridgerton. “I think we still have a long way to go in that sense, honestly. I’ve felt it more now than ever, the pressure of being a woman in this industry. But luckily that’s changing, and I feel like I have more and more of a voice.”
Navigating ways to be heard in a male-dominated world was part of the challenge for Dynevor in taking on the role of a society woman under pressure to find a suitable husband.
“I wanted her to be empowered and in control, and yet it was difficult for women in that age, because they knew so little and their options were so limited,” she says. “They were very much trapped within the patriarchy. It was finding that strength within her and the ability for her to turn down things that people were pushing on to her, and to give her the voice to say no, and to be in control.”
That dichotomy is also something Yvonne Strahovski explores on Hulu’s “ The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which women aren’t just silenced, but separated and pitted against one another in a caste system. In Season 4 she continues to delve into that as her character, Serena Joy, learns she is pregnant while being held on criminal charges.
“It’s kind of crazy how aligned the show has been with these real life, current issues,” she says. “There’s an element in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ of being fed up. Yes, it’s a TV show, but it’s also real life and a lot of this stuff is happening across the world. In real life women are fed up [with] not being heard, not being seen, having to sweep it under the rug. Enough is enough, and I think it’s a collective feeling.”
Exploring these women as they claim their voices has also translated into more realistic and well-rounded portrayals. Historically female characters in high-powered career roles have rarely let down their steel façade, for example, because successful females showing vulnerability is perceived as a weakness.
“Part of their job in casting me was that they would use my build and the fact that I don’t have an apologetic face to put these men in their place,” says Hannah Waddingham, whose Rebecca Welton character on “Ted Lasso” is constantly challenged as the rare female owner of a football team. “Those press scenes gave me the chance to show the boss bitch. And then of course when Ted comes into the room after she’s been taken down, then you see the soft side of how she’s used to being vilified by the press. I love how you see the on-stage, off-stage.”
Similarly on HBO’s “Industry,” Myha’la Herrold was excited to finally showcase a Black woman who exists in the world at all, let alone the world of finance.
“It wasn’t just about women and redefining their roles through the male gaze. I was really excited about how this woman character specifically was breaking a bunch of stereotypes,” she says. “I was really excited to be playing a young Black woman with a life and a character arc and an experience that I had not seen other Black women characters on TV or film have at all. I had never seen a young, Black American woman in finance, ever.”
She adds that playing Harper and allowing the character to make decisions — both good and bad — from her own experiences and humanity was groundbreaking in itself.
“There’s an expectation that Black women, especially in a male-dominated environment, behave in a certain way or a handful of ways,” she says. “That’s just not the case. Everybody’s experience is different. So, I was very much excited by and excited to be a part of [telling an] experience I hadn’t yet seen validated on film.”
“Women are more than one thing. We’re hundreds of things, and [it’s important to] get more women on the other side of the industry, whether it’s in writing roles, or producing roles, or directing roles,” adds Dynevor. “I’ve worked with more female directors in the last two years than I ever have in my whole career. That’s so exciting. All of those things are going to really change the industry in a way that’ll hopefully last.”
Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.