Cersei Lannister, Olivia Pope, Mindy Lahiri: Strong women characters are making TV better
The year was 1987.
Smack in the middle of the ongoing success of The Cosby Show, Lisa Bonet (who played the super stylish Denise Huxtable on the show), got her own spinoff: A Different World. One season into the spinoff, Bonet got pregnant with her husband Lenny Kravitz. Bill Cosby (in his pre-sexual assault allegation scandal days), who was the “D” for the shows, wrote Bonet off both shows. He said that Lisa Bonet may be pregnant but not Denise Huxtable, that viewers of the shows (who’d grown accustomed to her “good girl” character), wouldn’t accept Denise as an unwed mother.
After four seasons of The Cosby Show and a successful spin-off, Bonet’s character’s arc saw her dropping out of college, returning home to her family, and travelling to Africa throughout the fifth season. All of this just to ensure viewers wouldn’t see a pregnant Denise Huxtable! We’ll give you a moment to pick your dropped jaws…
Fast forward to 2016, where the biggest show on television (it’s Game of Thrones, we checked) includes protagonists like the mother of dragons (Daenerys Targaryen); a teenage girl who’s on the blood trail to avenge her parents’ death (Arya Stark, she literally has a kill list!) and her older sister, who outgrows her happily-ever-after fantasies to plot her psycho-rapist husband’s death (Sansa Stark); and a queen who, notwithstanding incest, gave birth to her brother’s children and eventual heirs, all while being married to the fat king. Oh, we’ve come a long way, we have.
And what a great time for television!
Imagine a divorced 40-year-old woman from New Jersey, who spent the last two decades being the quintessential good mother and wife. Now single, with her daughter off to college, she has to figure out a way to make a living (since her ex-husband lost all their savings and their house to his gambling addiction, leaving said 40-year-old homeless and in a deep financial pit). She decides to pursue publishing (her interest from her college days) but of course, who’s going to let a 40-year-old with no recent work experience start at anything but the bottom?
At a bar one evening, our lady gets mistaken by a hot young tattoo artist as a fellow millennial. Armed with a newfound joie de vivre, she enlists her lesbian-artist best friend’s help to give her a makeover to reinvent herself as a 26-year-old (yes, you heard that right!) publishing assistant.
Now armed with not only the aforementioned joie de vivre but also a double-edged secret for a sword, said 40-going-on-26 year old embarks on her new journey, in the process rebooting her career and her love life! Interesting, no? That’s the plot for Younger — the fun, light, and sexy comedy that just returned for its third season.
Written for television by the legendary Darren Star (he of the Sex and the City and Beverly Hills, 90210 fame) and based on Pamela Redmond Satran’s novel of the same name, Younger has been steadily redefining ageism on television, especially when it comes to women. In an interview, Star talked about how changes in television and audience sophistication have improved things from 90210 to Younger; as the writer/creator, it’s now easier to pitch a show about three key characters, all women, being in their 40s, just as it is easier to write an unsympathetic/unlikeable outright badass female character now than compared to the early ’90s. Two words: Cersei Lannister!
Of course, it’s not as if there haven’t been strong, independent, intelligent, and funny women breaking cultural norms before.
From 1951 to 1957, Lucille Ball did pretty much the impossible: she broke away from the role of housewives assigned to women in the ’50s and ’60s (that of wives and mothers, happy and content to cook, clean, tidy up, and host parties) and instead played the discontent-to-simply-be-a-housewife role in I Love Lucy, while also single-handedly taking over the male domain of physical comedy. Ball has often (and rightly so!) been called the first feminist on TV.
The ’90s had Buffy (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), agent Dana Scully (The X-Files), and Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess); the ’00s had Veronica Mars, Lorelai Gilmore (The Gilmore Girls), and Liz Lemon (30 Rock). But you have to agree that somewhere between Lucy and Liz, female characters on TV shows had started becoming one-dimensional: for every Lucy, there was a Donna Reed (The Donna Reed Show) or Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch) as the much less rebellious housewives. For every kickass Buffy, there was a yearning-for-her-best-friend-who-doesn’t-care Joey (Dawson’s Creek); for every witty and snarky Veronica, there was a bland and stereotypical Marissa Cooper (The OC). There were the occasional gems, but they were hard to come by. And as audiences, we just carried on.
What’s different now, and why we can at least begin to say that the portrayal of women has changed for good is because of the rich density of characters in front of us: on TV right now, we have new and returning shows like Better Things (a divorced Hollywood actress raising her three daughters as a single parent while handling her professional commitments), One Mississippi (a dark comedy about a woman who returns to her childhood hometown to deal with the unexpected death of her mother), Quantico (an Indian-American first-FBI-then-CIA agent saving the US from terror attacks), Jane The Virgin (a comedy about a chaste young woman from a devoutly religious family getting accidentally impregnated via artificial insemination), iZombie (about a medical student-turned brain eating zombie who uses her powers to solve crimes), and Walking Dead (hello machete wielding, zombie killing Michonne!).
Not to mention the ruling queens of the small screen, who come in all shapes and sizes, colours, sexual orientations, and medical conditions: Olivia Pope (Scandal), (Game of Thrones), Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), Hannah/Marnie/Jessa/Shoshanna (Girls), and Dr Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project).
The variety of roles and the unapologetic manner in which these actresses are playing (and often creating and writing) them is perhaps the best thing on television right now (okay fine, second best, after Stranger Things). There are plenty of reasons why, unarguably, TV today is better than films. These kickass women just make it even more so!