Updated: Friday, December 1, 2017, 6:40 AM
It’s been a year rich with television about women. Maybe it’s no coincidence that 2017 also turned out to be the year of #MeToo.
What Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and HBO’s Big Little Lies have in common — besides a slew of Emmys and some extraordinary performances — is that their stories, based on books by Margaret Atwood and Liane Moriarty, are ultimately about the abuse of women. By men.
There’s no prettying that up.
HBO’s Game of Thrones this season was marked by the continuing ascent of female characters who’ve experienced sexualized violence and who spit nearly as much fire as the show’s dragons.
From Amazon’s One Mississippi, into whose second season creator and star Tig Notaro tucked a story line that appears to refer quite specifically to the accusations against Louis C.K. (who had his name on the show as an executive producer) to Netflix’s remarkable documentary series The Keepers, in which the investigation of a nun’s long-ago murder became a story, too, of sexual abuse, our sisterhood-is-powerful messages have been served with a helping of horror.
Greenleaf, the OWN drama set in a megachurch, has from the beginning been about a community that’s harbored a predator and about the crushing, long-term suffering of his victims. It’s also a showcase for the work of actresses like Merle Dandridge, Lynn Whitfield, Deborah Joy Winans, and OWN boss Oprah Winfrey.
And then there’s Pamela Adlon’s FX series Better Things, the very personal, semiautobiographical show in which Louis C.K. has been far more involved than One Mississippi, having created it and cowritten it with Adlon. She stars as Sam Fox, an actress and single mother of three daughters whose dealings with men are as realistic (and often as cringe-inducing) as anything I’ve seen on TV.
Now that her cocreator has acknowledged his own sexual misconduct — and FX has severed ties with him — it’s hard not to wonder how such perceptive work coexisted with such blind idiocy.
Yet many of these shows are produced, and written, and scheduled by men. Because although we love to note the exceptions — Shonda Rhimes, Tina Fey, Amy Sherman-Palladino — TV, like most workplaces, is still largely run by men.
Fortunately, not every show with great roles for women deals with abuse or predatory men, though plenty feature the disappointing variety.
Looking for a Wonder Woman-like power boost, I recently dived into the second season of Netflix’s The Crown, which debuts Dec. 8, only to be reminded that Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) has also known her share of men who disappoint.
The new season, as engrossing as the first, deals with significant strains in the earlier years of what we know now as a seven-decade marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith), and proves to be a surprisingly compelling take on what amounts to very old gossip. Elizabeth, though, takes her work seriously, and so her concern about a philandering Philip competes for attention with Prime Minister Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), whose bungling of the Suez Crisis shows her, not for the first time, how little power she actually has.
Meanwhile, across the pond, a (fictional) star is rising.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amazon’s new dramedy from Gilmore Girls creator Sherman-Palladino, begins, like this season of The Crown, in the late 1950s. But once you get past the period wardrobes — and, OK, the wandering husbands — the only thing the two have in common is that their main characters are marvelous.
Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards) stars as Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a Manhattan housewife who’s as fast-talking as any Sherman-Palladino character. When we meet Midge, she’s enjoying uptown motherhood while spending evenings in downtown comedy clubs — where she sometimes totes along a brisket as a bribe to get her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), an aspiring stand-up, a spot in the lineup. Even before she realizes Joel’s not as original a comic as she’d believed, we know who the funny one is, and it’s not the guy on stage.
Much of what follows Midge’s disillusionment may be a ’50s fantasy: She literally stumbles, drunk, into a new career, acquiring an agent (Alex Borstein, Family Guy) and striking up an oddball friendship with comedian Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), all while navigating a breakup that lands her in hot water with her parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) and Joel’s (Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron).
But maybe I’m just in the mood for that kind of fantasy, or for the one lived by Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), the heroine of Spike Lee’s new Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, which, thanks perhaps to the presence of women on its writing staff, is less hyper-focused than Lee’s original film was on Nola’s sex life and more on her life as a struggling artist in ever-gentrifying Brooklyn.
Shows like these remind me that women have other things to say and other stories to tell, beyond the ones about what’s been done to them.
The remarkable moment we’re living through, in which the victims of abuse are finally being believed, and powerful, predatory men are toppling from their perches, shouldn’t be an end in itself. Yes, we want them to stop. Oh, boy, do we want them to stop. And not just in entertainment, news, and politics. Everywhere.
But we want this behavior to stop not just because it’s awful, disgusting, and harmful, but because until it does, we’ll have to keep talking about the Harvey Weinsteins, the Matt Lauers, the Charlie Roses. If we don’t, nothing will change.
And it has to change.
For every woman (or man) who’s added the hashtag #MeToo to a story about abuse, there’s likely a story you’re not hearing — about an opportunity lost, a career shifted, or a lingering trauma that changed a life while the person who caused that trauma continued to prosper. Talent is being wasted, not just in show business, but everywhere.
Television shows that acknowledge that women have been victimized won’t mean much if television itself doesn’t own up to the part it’s played in protecting people who’ve victimized them.
There are all kinds of stories to be told by, and about, women. It’s time we got to see more of them.