In a year marked by tragedy, shadowed by oppression, helmed by powerful men supporting racist, sexist agendas, somehow women were able to bulldoze through all of the bullshit in order to affect change – and many of them did it through powerful, inventive TV shows.
In the last few years, the push for equality has slowly morphed into unrealistic stereotypes of women on TV and in film. I can’t count how many reviews, recaps, and thinkpieces I read this year that watered down the so-called “strong female character.” Each show or movie had one and many of them fit the same mold – badass warrior types that could kill a man with just one finger; hard, closed-off chicks shaped by tragedy fueled only by revenge. Sure, they were strong in the sense that they could issue a definitive beatdown to any man who challenged them, but they were one-dimensional, a kind of lip-service to feminism. Often written and directed by men who were out of touch with women’s experiences, these characters didn’t feel real, genuine, or revolutionary – they just felt like props meant to pacify a specific audience.
And then something kind of magical happened. Women didn’t just begin to star in their own stories, earning the confidence from networks to actually lead their TV series, they started creating them as well. Of course, that’s not to say women haven’t been working behind the scenes, slowly inching their way into the good ol’ boys club to get their narratives time in the spotlight, but in 2017 we saw real payoff for years of hard work and dogged determination.
It was there when Reed Morano, Elisabeth Moss, and Margaret Atwood joined forces to bring The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian drama imagining a world run by a tyrannical patriarchy, to Hulu. It felt like a triumph when Reese Witherspoon was able to join together a group of A-list actresses to serve a story worthy of their talents in Big Little Lies. And when Lena Waithe’s episode on Master of None aired, you could almost hear the barriers slowly crumbling under the weight of her genius and brave storytelling.
Giving more women power in front of and behind the camera has always guaranteed a more diverse TV landscape 2017 proved that shows for, by, and about women could be commercially successful, artistically accomplished — all while upsetting the status quo.
When The Handmaid’s Tale premiered this year it was early in Donald Trump’s presidency – past his p*ssy-grabbing comments but before his administration really put its weight behind defunding Planned Parenthood and stripping women of affordable healthcare. The Women’s March had ignited a simmering rage, one Trump’s foot-in-mouth disease seemed to constantly fuel. When Morano’s show, which followed a young woman forced into sexual slavery to bear offspring for powerful men, premiered in the spring it didn’t just strike a chord – it tolled a death knell of its own. By envisioning a future that was both radical and believably plausible, The Handmaid’s Tale was able to shock viewers into questioning their definition of normal. After all, the show asserted early on that though Gilead didn’t seem usual at first, anyone can get used to anything if they’re exposed to it long enough. By detailing how this fictional government and oppression of women became commonplace, the show gave us a prophetic blueprint of what could happen should we become complacent and willfully ignorant of the agendas of powerful men.
That tremor shook a state capitol building in Texas when a group of women donning red-stained robes and white bonnets – the same uniforms issued to handmaids on the show – marched into a courthouse to protest a bill restricting women’s access to abortion services. A few weeks later, women in Missouri would model their own protest of a bill that aimed to bar uninsured women from getting services from a doctor or facility that refers them to abortion providers, after Atwood’s dystopian drama. Organizers even created a website called The Handmaid’s Coalition which served as a guide to other prospective groups looking to fight back against lawmakers using red robes and white bonnets. Their motto was simple: “Fighting to keep fiction from becoming reality.”
What Morano and Moss were able to do was groundbreaking – not simply because they were women helming and starring in what would become an Emmy-winning drama, but because they were doing service to women’s stories in a way that hadn’t been done before, and it was actually resonating with its intended audience.
And if The Handmaid’s Tale was able to galvanize us against a fictional future becoming reality, Witherspoon’s Big Little Lies, based off the book by Liane Moriarty, painted a pretty accurate portrait of the specific kind of hell plenty of women are enduring in the present. Too often, domestic violence on TV does a disservice to its victims. Women are helpless, often isolated with no support system and lacking the means to escape their abusers. They’re married to men who are alcoholics or drug dealers, maybe they’re living in seedy neighborhoods or working in less than savory industries. Those stories exist, but Big Little Lies proved that the stereotype of a “battered woman” doesn’t. A victim and ultimate survivor of domestic abuse can look like Nicole Kidman’s character, a successful, smart woman living in relative wealth, raising two children, with a seemingly adoring husband. On the surface, their marriage appears enviable, idyllic even. It’s only when we begin to peel back the layers that we see the lengths Kidman’s character must go to in order to cover up the war zone she lives in and to rationalize the violent behavior of the man she’s committed her life to.
Not only did the show do justice to a sensitive subject that’s often tricky to manage on screen, Kidman gave her character a quiet strength by showing her vulnerability. “Vulnerable” isn’t usually a word that comes to mind when thinking of a “strong female character” and yet the show was able to rediscover the power that comes when walls are torn down and people’s dirtiest, darkest moments are put on display.
But 2017 didn’t just usher in female-led dramas that dealt exclusively in the heavy and more morose aspects of humanity. It also gave a platform to women who are experts at using humor to shatter glass ceilings. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer returned for another season of their millennial comedy Broad City. Sure, their problems seemed less life-and-death than those of handmaids and California housewives, but the comedians were able to transform the mundaneness of life – bed bugs, job hunting, visiting a gun-toting retirement community in Florida – into a sharp commentary on our political and social climate.
Jacobson and Glazer made it clear that a certain president’s name would not be uttered on the show – a small resistance in and of itself – but that didn’t stop them from shining a harsh light on how the aftermath of the election was affecting them and those around them. An entire episode was dedicated to Glazer trying to rediscover her ability to have an orgasm using a sex therapist – the reason for her dry season was ultimately revealed to be because of he-who-must-not-be-named. Witches and bonfire gatherings and “Yass Queens!” were blended with storylines that focused on the bonds of female friendship and the fulfillment women can find in those bonds.
And just as comedy has the ability to mock and poke fun at the most absurd, ridiculous elements of our current reality, it can also offer a poignant view of a specific experience. Lena Waithe made history when she won an Emmy for writing an episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None but it’s not the hardware that stands-out about that show’s stellar second season, it’s Waithe’s portrayal of Denise, a woman of color and a lesbian who chronicles her own coming-out story to her mother over a Thanksgiving dinner. Waithe’s writing felt autobiographical and deeply personal, but it’s that specificity that made it universal and gave a voice to viewers struggling with issues of identity and acceptance and reconciling who you are with who the world thinks you are.
Plenty of shows carried the feminist gauntlet in 2017. Issa Rae’s Insecure chronicled the very real racial bias in the workplace when successful, brilliant Molly found herself stuck at the bottom of the corporate ladder thanks to the white men at the top. Alias Grace, another Atwood adaptation, painted an unforgiving portrait of our history via the story of an Irish immigrant and housemaid accused of killing her master and his housekeeper. The show explored how a woman’s reputation is often entirely shaped by men who repeatedly abuse their positions of power to achieve their own dark desires.
If life imitates art, then television in 2017 hoped to ultimately push us towards a more inclusive reality where the stories of women hold just as much weight and consequence as their male counterparts. And it fought that good fight by exposing the ugliest events of our past, evaluating the deeply troubling norms of our present, and warning us of a terrifying future to come if we fail to recognize the autonomy and deserved-respect of everyone – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or creed. Women are uniquely fitted to telling these kinds of stories because they’ve often lived through them or been products of them – enduring the consequences of generations of cruelty and tyranny. They bring with them an investment in doing justice to these narratives that clearly comes across on screen and that elicits a palpable reaction from the people who watch them. In other words, when you let women tell their own stories, everyone benefits.