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Raising The Bar: 5 Freshman Series Writing Women Well

BY The Screen Spy Team

Published 7 years ago

By Abbey White and Chelsea Hensley

Every television season has a tagline. Year of the monster. Time of the duo. The genre takeover. The running theme of this past season was slightly different and entirely refreshing. What was that theme? Diversity.

TV offered stories with and about characters rarely seen as the focus of its narratives. Leading roles and supporting casts had noticeably different faces, and not only did those faces increase in number, they were developed in non-stereotypical ways.

Representation exploded on the small screen this year, but for something that has been discussed almost as long as the TV set has been around, progress has been slow and not entirely steady.

That’s now changing as the industry begins to take visibility more seriously. While some networks are going as far as to make it a part of their programming model, new studies are finding that diversity doesn’t just look better, it makes for better business. Viewers were ultimately the ones who reaped the biggest benefit as stories felt more innovative and energized than they have in some time.

Of course there is a ways to go before we have a spectrum that realistically mirrors the world we live in. However, inclusiveness was more prevalent and better executed than is has been, especially when it came to women. Female characters took on new and bigger roles as they stepped outside of the constraining stereotypes of old ones.

In a year full of change, women were given their time and now we’re giving their shows some shine. ScreenSpy is sharing our top five shows from the 2013-2014 season that dared to tell a different story and raised the bar for how to write women well.

Sleepy Hollow (FOX)

Washington Irving’s story and biblical apocalypse collide in Fox’s hit show Sleepy Hollow, following the reawakened centuries-old Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and small-town cop Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) as they embrace their roles as witnesses to save the small town, and the world. Alongside machine gun-toting horsemen of the apocalypse and monsters-of-the-week is Abbie’s growing journey of faith. Despite some wobbly characterization for Ichabod (and his wife, Katrina, who unfortunately isn’t written with the same regard as other female characters), Sleepy Hollow‘s first season had a better handle on Abbie who went from reluctant witness to willing hero and whose level head served everyone better than the impulsive and obsessive behavior of her partner.

With the inclusion of Abbie’s estranged sister and apocalyptic militant Jenny (Lyndie Greenwood), the show explored their complicated relationship made difficult by Abbie’s resistance to their supernaturally-affected past. By the end of the season, it was the Mills sisters with the right ideas, and their relationship had the most solid narrative foundation inciting warm fuzzies all around with the growth of their relationship from antagonistic to sisterly. Other well-done recurring female roles include Macey Irving (Amandla Stenberg) and her mother Cynthia (Jill Marie Jones). Macey’s relatively carefree following an accident that left her without the use of her legs, both funny and sarcastic as she experiences life in Sleepy Hollow. And Cynthia is never treated as a shrewish ex-wife. Instead her issues with Frank (Orlando Jones) are valid and sympathetic. Sleepy Hollow was easily one of the most diverse offerings of the 2013-2014 season with several cast members of color including a black female co-lead which is a rare sight in all television but particularly genre. It’s refreshing to see a show, though not without its mistakes in other areas, hitting the mark on the characters who are usually shuffled to the margins.

Mistresses (ABC)

An American spin on a popular BBC series, this summer soap centers on four female friends as they navigate love, loss and whatever else life throws at them. It can be quite a lot, including stalker families, neglectful mothers, un-dead husbands, and unexpected babies… to start. And of course it wouldn’t be a summer soap without a few complicated relationships and a healthy dose of bare skin. When all is said and done though, Savannah (Alyssa Milano), Joss (Jes Macallan), April (Rochelle Aytes), and Karen (Yunjin Kim) are just women trying to figure out who they are and what they want.

Photo: ABC Network/Bob D'Amico

Photo: ABC Network/Bob D’Amico

The show is now in its second season, but leading up to its premiere last year Mistresses was met with some opposition as the steamy marketing and provocative title lead many to believe the show was promoting adulterous behavior. Cheating was a part of several characters storylines, but the series never glamorized the act. Instead it took a concept that’s usually (and unequally) used to shame women and delivered well-written and acted character arcs that reminded us of the most basic parts of the human experience. The main cast is not only comprised of female characters, but is diverse in race, sexuality and even familial background.

The show transcends rather effortlessly typical stereotypes allowing us to see women on screen in new and refreshing ways. While love is a large part of each character’s storyline, attention is paid well to exploring both their home and professional lives. This happens even as, among themselves, the women share equal amounts of screen time. Mistresses leading ladies are fleshed and complex characters whose personalities are as strong as they are flawed. This series has successfully created a group of empathetic women who serve as universal protagonists. Add to this an offering of positive and healthy representations of female relationships and you’ve got yourself a smart and sexy melodrama that knows how to write (for) women well.

Reign (The CW)

CW’s historical soap follows Mary Stuart (Adelaide Kane) at French court as she Mary ascends from somewhat-naive princess to experienced queen starting with her betrothal to French prince Francis (Toby Regbo). Her love for him is often in conflict with her title as the interests of their respective countries diverge, putting Mary in the uncomfortable position of choosing between supporting her country or Francis’. Reign’s most refreshing aspect lies in it shaking off the CW’s tried-and-tired love triangle method (though it has its moments) and keeping Mary’s heart torn between her country and the love of her life rather than between two men.

Reign may be one of the most female-centered shows just because of the sheer number of female characters rounding out its cast, especially in comparison to the three regular male stars. Though the show is centered on Mary, she’s joined by her ladies in waiting (Caitlin Stasey, Anna Popplewell, Celina Sinden) who have their own motivations and storylines to contend with. Then there’s Catherine de Medici (Megan Follows), Queen of France, who makes for an experienced foil to Mary. The scenes between the two are some of the best Reign has to offer as Catherine is an obvious example of the queen Mary must groom herself to be if she wants to stay in power. As the season progresses, Mary and Catherine are pulled further away from their mutual antagonism and into a begrudging partnership.

But perhaps the most engaging aspect of Reign is its fearless tackling of the roles of women in the age, their value whittled down to perceived purity and the ability to entice a man into a respectable marriage. Even royal women like Mary and Catherine aren’t immune to the limitations applied to their gender, in an age where an accusation of infidelity could cost a royal woman her life. Mary, Catherine and the ladies are all aware of the hand they’ve been dealt and are forced to work within its confines anyway, making their successes and triumphs (more numerous and impressive than those of their male counterparts) fun to watch.

Being Mary Jane (BET)

This BET drama’s eight-episode season, which served as a continuation of a successful TV movie, follows news anchor Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) as she navigates her complicated personal and professional lives. While the bulk of the show circles her romantic entanglements with a married man and an ex-boyfriend, Mary Jane’s family (including her lupus-afflicted mother and pregnant niece) and her career (along with producer/close friend, Kara) take up plenty of time.

Photo: © 2013 BET Network

Photo: © 2013 BET Network

Her relationships with all three, while not always allotted the screentime they deserve, are complex. After Mary Jane’s mother and niece were initially introduced in a stereotypical fashion (the sickly but difficult mother and the young, unwed mother), they eventually grow to be three-dimensional. With a tagline of “beautifully flawed”, Being Mary Jane is unafraid to explore its lead’s faults and vulnerabilities. While this strategy could threaten to turn the show into a frustrating saga of Mary Jane’s mistakes, its centeredness on her slow journey of self-discovery helps the series retain its charm.

Mary Jane is almost painfully real, and her lapses in judgment and poor decisions are what make her both frustrating and endearing. This results in Mary Jane being one of the most relatable main characters to emerge this season. Though it’s at times painful to watch her, as successful and beautiful as she is, fall prey to her insecurities, her feelings aren’t alien to viewers who will see themselves in Mary Jane’s desperation to find, and hold onto, love. She’s not perfect, however, Mary Jane is ultimately likable inspite of the many moments where she’s not, alternately goofy, insecure, and assertive. There’s little in the way of distance with Mary Jane in a show that zooms in so carefully to even minute details of her life, transforming Mary Jane into a woman who could exist in anyone’s life which makes the lessons she learns all the more powerful because they feel especially deserved.

The Bridge (FX)

In spite of The Bridge‘s procedural set up and initially trope-ish characters, the series is quite a deviation from standard television. Premiering last summer for a thirteen episode season, this remake of a Scandinavian drama centers on a duo of detectives. They are brought together by the murder of a young woman, after her bisected corpse is found on a bridge between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. As the evidence slowly comes to, American detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and Mexican detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) realize that this was no isolated crime. The homicide is linked to a string of murders committed by a zodiac-style serial killer operating on both sides of the border. Yes, it sounds like The Killing. No, it’s not the same show.

While conspicuous, the series early gritty promos were not lacking in style. The clue-like clips were our first hint that this show was out of the ordinary. What it eventually offered viewers was a strikingly diverse cast, and a storyline that used the relationship between race, nationality, culture and language to explore the sociology and history of a highly politicized issue. Unlike other series which have tackled border tales, The Bridge operates with a greater depth, awareness and realism. Most obvious is this in the series setting and bilingual dialogue, but also in co-lead Detective Sonya Cross.

Cross is perceptive, intelligent, by-the-book, fervent, and beautiful. She also has Asperger’s Syndrome. Unlike other shows, which use the spectrum disorder rather inconsistently, incorrectly and sometimes offensively, this series avoids exploiting her ability (or gender) for laughs or tears. In fact none of the other characters even state she has it and she never shares. Something that could easily cage her characterization and development actually helps fill it out. Even her sexuality, which we see very subtly affected by the disorder, is neither erased nor softened as a result of her rarely seen but often troped intersection. Sonya Cross is a capable female detective dedicated to catching a dangerous killer; a nuanced character with a rare level of authenticity, much like the world in which she lives and works.

Was there a new show in the 2013-2014 season that you think wrote women well, but didn’t make our list? Sound off in the comments and let us know.

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