The current golden age of television has significantly expanded the representation of women as complex and realistic characters that can be strong and confident one minute and weak and sensitive a minute later. In spite of the growing diversity of female characters on screen, behind the scenes women still earn less than men and enjoy only some enhancement in the opportunities they have to play major roles in the industry, mainly as film directors, artistic directors or creative artists.
The women who do succeed in breaking through breathe life into conflicted television heroines. Some manage to break through societal boundaries that are often invisible, in their approaches to femininity, sexuality and motherhood. Although International Women’s Day is not the only opportunity to devote attention to the women behind the cameras or to the ones who star in the series they create, it does provide an occasion for honoring them and celebrating the borders they have dismantled. Here are some inspirational TV heroines, starring in contemporary and recommended American series, created by women:
Diane Lockhart in “The Good Fight”: In an episode in the fourth season of “The Good Wife,” when Alicia Florrick gets an offer to become a partner in the Lockhart-Gardner law firm, she is disappointed to discover that she got the offer only because the office needs the money that would come with a new partner. She considers turning it down. In a much-quoted sentence, Diane Lockhart tells her: “When the door you have been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.” The senior female attorney, who for seven seasons had to defend her status in the company she founded and in an arena ruled by men, has proved throughout the series to be an elegant woman, smart and impressive. The fact that she chose a career over becoming a mother is presented as totally incidental. It seems that Christine Baranski, who plays Lockhart, agrees with Diane’s advice. When finally presented with the opportunity to stand in the limelight and star in the sequel to that series, “The Good Fight,” also produced by Robert and Michelle King, she runs through the open door, quickly proving that she can successfully carry on her shoulders the new legal drama series (on CBS streaming and on Yes).
Rebecca Bunch in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”: Comedian and YouTube personality Rachel Bloom created this captivating comedy, playing its main character. Bloom won a Golden Globe and critics’ acclaim for the clever, funny, feminist series she created, but hardly anyone watches it. Despite its low ratings, with barely half a million viewers, people who give the series a chance get to look at the obsessive, feminist and, yes, slightly crazy personality of Rebecca. Early in the series she sets out to win back the past object of her love, Josh Chan. Her journey is accompanied by teasing musical numbers and entertaining insights that are shown from a feminine perspective. (CW and Yes).
Olivia Pope in “Scandal”: Shonda Rhimes has become one of the most influential women on American TV, with entire prime times devoted to series she’s created, such as “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” All her series feature strong women, realistic presentations of sexuality and an addictive, rhythmic plot. Olivia Pope features at the center of “Scandal,” which has already run five seasons. She is a charismatic political adviser who has an affair with the president of the United States. With determination, a strong personality, a sharp wit and an ability to follow her own instincts, she drives political moves in the White House. Her character inspired a plot line that was considered “subversive” for American television, in which Pope decides to have an abortion. The scene lasts barely a minute, after which Pope goes on with her life. On election night, when it became clear that Trump was the winner, her name headed the trending list on Twitter, with tweets asking “where is Olivia Pope when we need her?” (on ABC and Hot).
Hannah Horvath in “Girls”: The creator and star of “Girls,” Lena Dunham, often objects to viewers’ inability to differentiate between her and the character of Hanna Horvath. What is common to both of them is the amount of hatred sent their way on Twitter, for misogynist, low reasons. For years, Dunham’s Twitter account was inundated with scathing reactions attacking her willingness to undress and have sex on TV, as Hannah, while displaying a body that doesn’t meet Hollywood’s tough standards. Dunham, who at some point quit Twitter, gathered new strengths in becoming a role model whose importance is not to be doubted. In addition to the incidental and realistic nudity, which in the new season was joined by a defense of pubic hair, Hannah’s character throughout the season has shattered fantasies about female friendship and adolescence, lately also revealing hidden layers regarding sexual harassment, in the much talked-about third episode (on HBO, Yes and Hot).
Sophia Burset in “Orange is the New Black”: This series, full of touching stories of the circumstances that led the series’ protagonists to jail, dealing with what goes on behind bars, was created by Jenji Kohan (who also created “Weeds”). One of the women in this series is Sophia, a transgender woman who committed credit fraud to finance her sex-change surgery. Her character led to some moving and heart-wrenching plot lines, including her savage assault and her lengthy and difficult spells in solitary confinement. The character marked the increase in the presentation of transgender characters on TV (mainly on streaming, in series such as “Transparent” and “Sense8”). She was influential in representing the gay community off screen as well. Actress Laverne Cox became an influential symbol of this community, for example featuring on the cover of Time magazine in 2014, under the caption: “The transgender tipping point: America’s next civil rights frontier.”
Quinn King in “UnREAL”: Director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who had earlier produced “The Bachelor,” teamed up with Marti Noxon to create a series that openly demonstrates the manipulations to which women are subjected on reality shows to make them fight each other, thereby improving ratings. The series “Unreal” also exploits the built-in sexism of reality shows to draw viewers into the plot, but it also exposes the misogynist mechanisms that confine women to their roles as wives, whores or “bitches.” With that, the series has constructed several fascinating female characters in powerful positions, such as Quinn (Constance Zimmer). Even as she enjoys humiliating contestants for the sake of ratings, she in turn is humiliated by men who mock her voice. She tries to claim the rights for the original idea behind the show while navigating a path to an influential position. One of the series’ strong points is the power relationship between her and her protégé Rachel (Shiri Appleby), which conceals an underlying compassion while revealing two broken women, ridden with complexes, a role often assumed by male characters on TV.
Ilana and Abbi in “Broad City”: Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson created the web series that led to “Broad City.” One of their fans was Amy Poehler, who helped them get on Comedy Central and who is currently the chief producer of the series. Female fraternity taking place behind the scenes is well reflected in this wonderful comedy. In contrast to the flawed friendship in “Girls,” Ilana and Abbi admire and support each other (bordering on Ilana’s sexual attraction to Abbi). Series creators Glazer and Jacobson have created a series in which the two protagonists smoke grass on a daily basis and get into absurd situations, ones that are humiliating yet entertaining (on Comedy Central and Hot).
Tig in “One Mississippi”: Comedian Tig Notaro created this series with Diablo Cody (who also wrote “Juno”). She is also the main character. In the series, which is based on Notaro’s life, she plays a lesbian radio host called Tig (with a small change in her family name, to Bavaro), who returns to Mississippi after learning that her mother is dying. The mother is in hospital attached to a respirator. Tig, recovering from a double mastectomy caused by breast cancer, finds herself living with her stepfather, who finds it difficult to express any emotion, and with her brother, as well as with her female partner who arrives to lend moral support. Comedian Louis C.K., who was amazed by the open manner in which Notaro does stand-up revolving around cancer, contributed to her exposure as a comedian. “For years I laughed at being completely flat-chested,” she says in one of her early shows, “so I thought that perhaps my breasts felt insulted. They probably said – ‘We’re fed up,’ and decided to kill me” (on Amazon and Yes).