It’s a Good Time for TV Ladies

Slate's Culture Blog
July 19 2013 9:00 AM

A Good Time for TV Ladies

Taylor Schilling in 'Orange Is the New Black', Kerry Washington in 'Scandal', Elisabeth Moss in 'Top of the Lake.'
Taylor Schilling in Orange Is the New Black, Kerry Washington in Scandal, and Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake

Photos courtesy Netflix, ABC, Sundance

It’s common wisdom in the entertainment business that women will happily consume and enjoy fictions about both men and women, but that most men only enjoy fictions about other men. Having recently finished watching and loving Netflix’s new series Orange Is The New Black, about life inside a minimum security women’s prison, it occurred to me that this may be the first time in my memory that TV has offered me, a woman, so many high-quality shows about other women that I could, if I wanted, be as totally blinkered in my taste as men have long had enough good choices to be.

Orange, which follows a Smith graduate as she serves time for transporting drug money a decade ago, may showcase the greatest number of substantial parts for women of all ages and races ever assembled. By rough count there are 20-some women with distinct characterizations, motivations, and personalities, almost all of whom are as—if not more—interesting than the lead character, the blond Piper Chapman. That’s not a knock on Chapman or Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays her: There’s just no shortage of affluent, self-aware, educated narcissists who enjoy the creature comforts of a Brooklyn lifestyle on TV. There has been a shortage, though, of sweet but racist Italians who sound like lost members of the Pink Ladies; transgendered hairdressers who used to be firemen; street kids who keep lists of everything they steal; good-girl sprinters consumed by bitterness and anger after one mistake; child-killers trying to work it through with yoga and self-administered electroshock; and Latinas who loves the Smiths. (We don’t know very much about that last character yet, but that’s why there’s a second season.)

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Even before Orange set the high-water mark for sheer quantity of meaty female roles, it had already been a tremendous year for female characters, many of them appearing in shows created by women. (Orange was created by Weeds’ Jenji Kohan.) Jane Campion’s outstanding mini-series Top of the Lake gave Elisabeth Moss—aka Mad Men’s Peggy—the chance to play a traumatized detective and fearsome broken-bottle-wielder trying to stop more trauma in a perverse New Zealand town. Shonda Rhimes’ buzzy, audacious Scandal has given us Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the president-schtupping, crisis-managing superwoman. Jess Day grows further out of just being adorkable with every episode of Liz Meriwether’s New Girl. And Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath continues to be a convenient symbol of any and everything having to do with twentysomething womanhood—but that’s because Girls continues to be a rich, rewarding series.

Perhaps owing to how exhausted and clichéd male antiheroes have become, knotty, complex female characters are also leading shows created by men. BBC America’s unexpectedly awesome Orphan Black would be better titled Tatiana Maslany Puts on an Acting Clinic. As The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings, Keri Russell has thrown over warm, sweet, sweater-wearing Felicity to embody a woman much icier, more traumatized, and more badass. Game of Thrones has consistently improved on its source material by fleshing out female characters given short shrift in the books. The two American dramas based on Scandinavian series—The Killing and The Bridge—star strange and damaged female detectives, while the as yet un-imported, stellar Borgennow airing on the website of a California public television station—is about an infinitely appealing female prime minster. The two moms raising five kids together on ABC Family’s The Fosters star in a PG show that’s calmly and sweetly more matter-of-fact about gender, race, and sexuality than most of premium cable. And it’s only July! Carrie Mathison won’t be back for two more months.

Obviously, awesome female characters have not entirely overtaken television. On The Newsroom the charming Alison Pill has been saddled with a terrible wig and every annoying character trait it’s possible to lay on a woman, especially one the audience is supposed to like. When Breaking Bad returns there will be those crazy-making maniacs who complain about what a “downer” Skyler is. The networks’ new fall shows, a wholly lackluster bunch, are inexplicably nostalgic for the heyday of the manly, unemotional dad. But I can’t think of a time when this many women have had this many rich roles in this many top-notch shows. I’m going to appreciate it while I can. 

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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