The Rise of the Female Small Screen Hero

For the past week, I’ve been binge-watching UnREAL, a show co-created by a woman, and which stars a plethora of strong female protagonists. The lead is the producer of the fictional reality show “Everlasting”, Rachel Goldberg, who struggles with both her own mental health and the health of others as she works to construct loose footage into watchable episodes. It occurs to me that I’m not thinking twice about identifying with a female protagonist. Rachel and I don’t share any obvious traits, but there’s no gap I have to bridge to empathize with her. When I think back, I realize this is the case throughout most of my life. Many of my favourite shows star women: 30 Rock, Inside Amy Schumer, Veep, Transparent, Gilmore GirlsGirls, and more recently Lady Dynamite.

Never before have there been so many female protagonists on television. Off the top of my head, these are the shows currently on the air that star women: UnREAL, Orange Is the New Black, Jane the Virgin, Scream, Inside Amy Schumer, Girls, The Mindy Project, VeepTransparentOrphan Black, Chelsea, (I’d argue) Game of ThronesBroad CityOnce Upon A TimeHow To Get Away With Murder, Gilmore Girls is returning, The 100, and Catastrophe. These shows span genre, allow their protagonists unique strengths and flows, and therefore affords them range. It’s never been as clear as it is now that audiences and studios have been losing out on great art. The real watershed moment came around the turn of the millennium. I say this thinking of two now-classic additions to the SNL cast: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who not only became two of the most beloved hosts of “Weekend Update” but went on to helm some of the most critically acclaimed comedy series of the last decade.

For the first time I can remember, I’m drawn to articles about women rather than men. They’re involving themselves with more interesting projects. They’re challenging themselves. A silver lining to their late entry into major roles on television is there’s a lot of ground to cover in originality. Men have been given so many opportunities over the last sixty years in television that it’s hard to see a truly original character, but far and few between were female-driven TV series until the last 15 years, which means there’s a better chance we’ll see a plot or a career we’ve never seen before.

I think millennials are predisposed to feel comfortable with what past generations weren’t. It’s an evolution in empathy. To be more specific, we now are getting mouthfuls of what people decades ago only tasted with shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show or I Love Lucy.

This previously untapped market of creativity marks a new era in television, one that’s more diverse and therefore more interesting. Millennials have not only embraced different ways to experience television, like streaming, but they’ve embraced the new artists that have come with it. There is no downside to this era. It will grow, and we will benefit as it grows. Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent and writer-director behind Afternoon Delight, another Kathryn Hahn collaboration, is an example of this. Despite the fact that she’s behind the scenes, she’s forging an avenue for other women to walk and bring with them their own personal stories. Another example would be Sharon Horgan, co-creator and star of Catastrophe. She’s also responsible for three other well-received British comedies, including Pulling.

Proof of diversity in show business came by way of The Hollywood Reporter two days ago, when they released a list of pilots both rejected and picked up by different studios. In it is a significant amount of distinct material. Of course, shows starring white men and their busty white wives will never cease to exist, because King of Queens made just a little too much money during its run, but the percentage of complex female leads is creeping up, and the more Rachel Goldbergs there are in favour of Doug Heffernans, the better.

This article was written by Alex Southey, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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About Alex Southey (2 Articles)
Born and currently living in Vancouver, British Columbia. I graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2015 and from the Vancouver Film School Screenwriting For Film and Television program in 2016.

3 Comments on The Rise of the Female Small Screen Hero

  1. arekexcelsior // August 5, 2016 at 5:54 pm // Reply

    Agents of SHIELD in particular has emphasized a diverse cast of strong female characters: Daisy/Skye and Melinda May are great, rich characters. Whatever else one thinks of the show (and I think they’ve earned their right to exist after a rocky Season One that transitioned into just a heartbreakingly effective Season Two and Three), its commitment to diversity puts the lie to the idea that it’s particularly hard to put together good action while having a diverse cast.

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    • That sounds great! I haven’t actually given it much of a chance but it’s nice to know there’s just one more show championing diversity.

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      • It’s a rough show to get into. The first season has major tonal issues and goes from a kind of episode-of-the-week format to an arc-based show in a way that’s sort of lurching. In that aftermath, the next two seasons are really great, but it takes a bit to get into it.

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