While I was bingeing season 3 of Orange is the New Black, it occurred to me how rarely I get the opportunity to watch shows with nuanced female characters with extensive plots to match. After talking to my pop culture soulmate Emily Miller, we realized that there are more shows with female leads than most people realize. We see women with all different backgrounds, different body types and of all ages. In the mainstream, the opportunity to have characters like this is not all that common. In fact, sometimes it difficult for shows just to write one fleshed-out female character, much less an entire ensemble. That rarity however, is becoming more and more commonplace. Shows like Orange are paving the way for large female casts with dynamic storytelling. And although these stories are on the rise, there have been more than a few other examples of this trend in the last decade alone.
- Orange is the New Black
Why the Show is Great
Created by Jenji Kohan, Orange follows the lives of the female prisoners of the Litchfield Correctional Facility. Piper, played by Taylor Schilling, is our entryway into the prison system through the eyes of a white, privileged woman. The varied voices on the show are women with such different personalities, body types and ethnicities not often seen on television. Their daily interaction provides consistent humor, while the prison is also a great location for conflict. The influence of privilege is seen in characters like Piper and Red and lack thereof in characters like Pennsatucky and Dayanara. The struggle for acceptance and understanding of transgender women are touched upon through Laverne Cox’s Sophia. Despite struggling through some dragged out and uninspired plots, the relationships between these women is always the real focus of the show.
It is through Piper’s incarceration that we are introduced to the other female prisoners, most of whom are far more interesting to learn about than our self-centered protagonist. Among these other inmates, we have women from all different cultures and backgrounds, women with mental health issues, immature women, fat women, tall women, transgender women and everything in between. Some of the standouts include Susanne, played by the incredible Uzo Aduba, Taystee, played by Danielle Brooks, and Sophia, portrayed by the unstoppable Laverne Cox. The best thing about this show, is that all of these women play their part in forming this community of diverse voices.
Susanne (on what it means to be loved): It’s like you become more you. Which, normally is like *yuck*. But now it’s okay because the person, like, whoever, they chose to take all that on. All that weird stuff. Whatever is wrong, or bad or hiding in you. Suddenly it’s alright. You don’t feel like such a freak anymore.
Where to Watch: NETFLIX. Season 3 was just released last month, so you have plenty of time to catch up for season 4!
- Jane the Virgin
Why the Show is Great
Created by Jennie Snyder Urman, Jane the Virgin is one of those rare gems on television that makes me genuinely excited for every new episode. In the world of binge watching, it is easy to just let the next episode play, but with Jane I am fully committed to the whole ride – despite the agony of waiting every week for a new episode. Jane is a young woman thrust into pregnancy when she is accidentally artificially inseminated and her once ordered life starts to flip on its head. Jane is played with incredible versatility by Gina Rodriguez. While the show’s plot moves at breakneck speed, per telenovela tradition, the emotional resonance of the show lies in the intergenerational relationship between Jane, her mother Xo and her grandmother Alba. Jane herself is surrounded by women in all parts of her life. Rafael’s sister, Luisa was the gynecologist who accidentally artificially inseminated Jane which sent her life into a tailspin. Luisa’s lover Rose, also her stepmother, turns out to have some secrets of her own. Petra, Rafel’s ex-wife, has become personally invested in the Marbella and is a constant thorn in Jane’s side, but is a multi-dimensional character with her own consistent character development. These women are in Jane’s orbit, as well as being well-written and interesting characters in their own right. The incredible ensemble cast of women, and indeed some incredible men, is what makes Jane such a refreshing series on television right now; it also doesn’t hurt having a strong cast of Latina women not reduced to stereotypes, a rare find on TV these days.
The Villanueva women are what makes this show tick. They are the glue that holds the show’s emotional through line together and without them as an anchor, the millions of side plots and twists and turns would have no resonance and would likely fall apart. I personally love Alba, who may not be able to speak great English, but is one of the sassiest, most level-headed women on the show. Her father Rogelio is also a piss and has some of the greatest lines on the show.
Rogelio: Once I secure my Tony, all that remains is an E.G.O.
Alba: Pretty sure you’ve got that covered.
Where to Watch: Season 1 just ended in May and the first four episodes are streaming on www.cwtv.com
- Ugly Betty
Why the Show is Great
Another show very heavily invested in the idea of important and complicated female relationships is Ugly Betty. I’ve most often compared Jane to Ugly Betty if only for their shared connection to telenovelas and the fact they are led by an incredibly talented female star, with solidly developed female characters rounding out their ensembles. However, Ugly Betty is a much different beast. Betty Suarez, played by the incredible America Ferrera, is a bold, occasionally naïve Mexican American woman from Queens with a dream of making it in the editorial world. After being hired at fashion magazine Mode, Betty is thrust into a world of high fashion, blackmail and petty rivalries. Her family, including her father, sister, and nephew, support her as she finds her voice and stands up for herself. She finds friendship with fellow co-worker and seamstress Christina McKinney, the always charming Ashley Jensen. Creative director Wilhelmina Slater, her personal assistant Marc St. James, and receptionist Amanda Tannen make Betty’s world more difficult on a daily basis as they try to run her over on their way to the top. The show was often very funny, but was always grounded in Betty’s uncompromisingly optimistic view of the world.
Betty and her family are extremely important to her, and she would not be the person she is without them. She is very close to her father Ignacio, but he lost a part of him with the death of their mother and is often in need of Betty’s help, rather than the other way around. Betty’s older sister Hilda has a huge influence on her, especially because their mother passed away and they have to work together to keep their family afloat. Her nephew Justin loves Betty, and her job, and is often there to help Betty when she needs a shoulder or help with a fashion disaster. Personally, from day one, I have always loved Christina. She is often the voice of reason in the chaotic world of fashion, but what I really admire is her ability to make the people around her laugh when they need it. However, I can’t deny that the friendship between Amanda and Willy’s assistant Marc isn’t loads of fun to watch, even if they are pretty awful people.
(to Stuart, after confronting him about the drug test she had performed on some of his hair.)
Christina: They found oxycontin, heroin… It’s like Rush Limbaugh fornicated with Amy Winehouse and they spawned you.
Where to Watch: The entire show is on Hulu. Go forth and binge!
- Broad City
Why the Show is Great
Between Key & Peele, Amy Schumer, and even the boys on Workaholics, the millennial generation has some great comedic talents. But when Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer burst onto the scene with Broad City, no one captured the zeitgeist of the time quite they have. Abbi and Ilana, the characters, are young twenty-somethings with nothing to prove. Despite being complete opposites – Ilana is a balls-to-the-wall, confident risk-taker with nothing to lose and a laid back attitude to match, while Abbi is a cautious, silly over-thinker who can be a bit neurotic, but is always along for the fun – these women would do anything for each other and the heart of the show is their friendship as they explore New York City like their own personal playground. Whether they are spending the day in Central Park with no technology or stumbling upon a late-night speakeasy in the Village, they are up for anything – so long as they are together. This type of female friendship is not often seen on television and it really resonates with our generation, providing a much needed catharsis from the overwhelming issues we face in the world today.
It goes without saying that Abbi and Ilana are the glue that holds the show together, but the people they surround themselves with are just as fun. Take Lincoln, Ilana’s fuck-buddy/responsible dentist, played to perfection by the illustrious Hannibal Buress who provides endless laughs as a laid-back, put-together guy with not many expectations about life, but who always finds the joy in the little moments. While they meet up with other lady friends from time to time, the real focus is on their relationship with each other and there is truly no other show that depicts such a real and loving friendship in today’s millennial world.
Ilana: Nose. Vagina. Butthole. If God didn’t want us to put our fingers in there, then why did she make them perfectly finger sized?
Where to Watch: First two seasons are available on Hulu!
- Downton Abbey
Why the Show is Great
Downton Abbey may be a bit stodgy at times, but the atmosphere of tradition clashing with modernity is the lifeblood of the show – even if the writers forget that now and again– and most definitely a reason why you should watch. Lady Mary is the impetus of the show with her embrace of the tradition at Downton but with an eye towards the future. She is young and understands the world is changing, but she is particular about what she will let go of in this new world. Then we have Mary’s sisters Edith and Sybill, her mother Cora and grandmother Dowager Countess Violet Crawley – the always spectacular Maggie Smith. The servant staff downstairs, led by Mrs. Hughes, has introduced naïve Daisy, optimistic Anna Bates, hardened cook Mrs. Patmore and the always scheming Mrs. O’Brien. The women are all on display, as was the custom, but we get to learn more about their backgrounds, their strengths and weaknesses. Once you’ve spent a weekend at Downton, you will always want to come back and visit.
Lady Mary is the voice of the show and is very interesting, in large part due to the deft portrayal by Michelle Dockery. However, if there was anyone I always come back to it’s the Dowager Countess. She is known for her biting wit and is frequently the voice the reason in the chaotic life at Downton Abbey. She holds true to her values, and is rarely willing to compromise, but she is not naïve or unintelligent – on the contrary, she seems to have the most level head and is by no means stupid.
Isobel Crawley: How you hate to be wrong.
Violet Crawley: I wouldn’t know, I’m not familiar with the sensation.
Where to Watch: Alas, the show airs on PBS so there aren’t many places to stream it. I got the DVD’s for season 1-3 at Walmart for like $20.
- The Golden Girls
Why the Show is Great
“Thank you for being a friend.” Tell me another line that has this much meaning to female friends young and old who were fans of The Golden Girls. Each one of these fabulous women had something amazingly funny to offer this show’s look into friendship as it ages. In one of her best roles Betty White plays the incredibly naïve Rose and often acts as cannon fodder to the other ladies problems of the moment. Blanche, Rue McClanahan, is the sauciest and vivacious member of group who decidedly has a better social life at 80 than I do at 24. Then there’s Dorothy, played by Bea Arthur, who lives and breathes sarcasm. Dorothy’s mother, Sophia, is the snarky straight man of the bunch and always keeps her wits about her, despite being the oldest. Sophia is truly my spirit animal in all ways, but mainly because she has no filter and a comeback for everything. These ladies have such a strong bond of friendship, that no matter what happens, or how old they get, they always have each other’s backs.
Well the girls of course. No one really matters more than them. Personally though, Sophia and Dorothy are where it’s at. ❤
Rose: I haven’t been with a man in that special way since Charlie died.
Blanche: Get outta here!
Rose: It’s true! Charlie is the only man I’ve ever slept with, and my first time was on our wedding night.
Blanche: GET OUTTA HERE!!
Dorothy: Oh back off Blanche! Not all of us are classified by the navy as a friendly port!
Where to Watch: TV Land all the way, baby.
- The Fall
Why the Show is Great
No one brings class to the party quite like Gillian Anderson. Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson is sent in to a small town in Ireland to catch a serial killer, Paul Spector. As Gibson, Anderson gives an incredible performance as a woman who is confident, independent and good at what she does. She also happens to be a very nuanced and realistic character with depths hidden under her icy exterior. And she is not the only complex female character on the show. Archie Panjabi is Professor Reed Smith, a pathologist assigned to Operation Musicman and an equal to Stella, professionally and personally. Even Paul’s wife Sally Ann is a complicated woman. She loves her husband and covers for him when she thinks he is having an affair, but once she finds out that it’s much more serious than that, she comes clean to the police. She is conflicted and is never portrayed as dumb, only ignorant to her husband’s well-hidden extracurricular activities. Paul’s partner in crime and extremely vulnerable teen Katie gets involved way over her head after she falls for the serial killer. Once she is under his spell, it’s very clearly not going to be broken easily – she is stubbornly obsessed with him and is willing to cross a lot of lines just to make him happy. There is a substantial amount of violence in this show, especially against women, but the story provides a very rich, nuanced look at female characters and situations that feel real, with incredible cinematography to boot.
Stella is the most important character on the show; she is extremely intelligent and good at her job. She does not apologize for her choices and does not mince her words. She is also an emotional woman with incredible empathy. She has a depth to her that is becoming more and more common in female characters today, but which Anderson most definitely teaches the master class. Reed is invaluable to Stella during the investigation, as she is extremely good at her job as a forensic pathologist. Stella likes to surround herself with competent people, especially women, which is why she calls on Danielle Ferrington, played by Niamh McGrady, to be her eyes and ears on the ground while she’s on patrol. Then there are the women who were victims of Paul Spector and are the impetus for Stella’s investigation: Annie Brawley, Rose Stagg and Sarah Kay.
Burns: Why are women emotionally and spiritually so much stronger than men?
Gibson (while cleaning his nose that she so calmly broke a moment before): Because the basic human form is female. Maleness is a kind of birth defect.
Where to Watch: Netflix! It’s a super short two seasons too, so it should be easy to binge watch 😉
- Orphan Black
Why the Show is Great
Cosima. Sarah. Rachel. Allison. Helena. All played by the incredibly talented, Tatiana Maslany. When I watch this show, I am truly blown away by how often I forget all these amazingly different characters are played by one woman. Orphan Black is full of conspiracies and hijinks and ruminations on gender. It has tackled themes of family and sisterhood and bodily autonomy. There is no other show on TV that explores women’s autonomy/control over our bodies quite like Orphan Black. During this season we were introduced to another clone line – of men, called Project Castor. While they have mostly focused on female body politics, adding another layer with the male clones was an interesting parallel. This show tends to lean heavily on the conspiracy and can sometimes get wrapped up in its own machinations, but it is always worth it to see the work Maslany puts into this show. Sarah is the center of the clone circle with her birth sister Helena tightly in her orbit, both with the rare ability to have children. Sarah is the heart of the show, with a daughter of her own to protect, as she jumps through conspiracy hoops trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Helena is my favorite clone and also the most unhinged; growing up in a cage at a convent doesn’t really make you a people person. Allison is a soccer mom with a bite as mean as her bark. Cosima is a brilliant scientist who is trying to cure herself from a debilitating defect from the clone line, while working within the enemy that is the Dyad Research Institute. Rachel grew up under Dyad and as a result is brainwashed to their mission, but she is ultimately connected to her sisters with a bond even she can’t break.
Her foster brother and gay artist extraordinaire Felix, played by Jordan Gavaris, is a piss and always lights up the screen. Felix is Sarah’s partner in crime and he has become like a one man support system for the Clone Club. Maria Doyle Kennedy is excellent as Mrs. S, Felix and Sarah’s adoptive mom. Mrs. S. is increasingly becoming a bigger player in the narrative, which is showing sides of her we haven’t seen before. This season Evelyn Brochu as Delphine has truly dug into her evil side with an incredibly nuanced performance. The universe is expanding and there are many characters to follow, but I promise it’s all worth it!
Felix: I’m beginning to realize crazy is genetic.
Where to Watch: Seasons 1 & 2 are on Amazon Prime!
- United States of Tara
Why the Show is Great
The Gregson family seems completely normal, aside from the fact that their mother is occasionally…someone else. Tara Gregson is a very laid back person, but her dissociative identity disorder throws a wrench into her everyday life at random. There is no predictability for her disorder, but she does have consistent personalities: There’s “T”, the young-teenaged rebel who has an opinion on everything, 50’s housewife and overall buzzkill Alice, and of course the only male personality: loud-mouthed redneck Buck. The show continued for 5 seasons and a couple more personalities were introduced, but throughout it all it never loses focus of Tara. Tara’s kids Kate (Brie Larson) and Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) and her husband Max (John Corbett) are excellent characters in their own right with some of the best lines, often as comedic relief from the constantly spiraling Gregson family. While Tara is the protagonist, her kids often have some great storylines of their own, like Kate’s friendship with Lynda P. Frazier, the spectacular Viola Davis. Toni Collette is spectacular in the lead role and her tone sets the mood for the entire series. Nothing about the Gregson’s world is perfect; they all have secrets and something to prove, but in the end they are a family that supports each other in the only way they know how. USOT is a dark, but often hilarious, look at living life with a mental illness. It’s one of those shows that really makes you sit and think about some dark topics, but always rewards the audience with incredibly biting wit and interesting and complicated female lead.
Tara’s alters are a part of her, even when all she wants is for them to go away. Alice swoops in when a situation is too stressful for Tara to handle and T comes out when she is overwhelmed by responsibility. Buck tends to take over when she’s feeling despondent or angry and often acts like her protective shield. Tara’s immediate family is understanding of her disorder while her sister Charmaine and her parents are judgmental and uninformed about what she’s going through. Charmaine eventually comes around to be a more supportive member in her older sister’s life, and their relationship is such a great example of how a sister’s relationship can evolve into something more meaningful. Even though her parents don’t ever seem to understand, she eventually comes around to accepting herself so their opinion doesn’t really matter. The show utilized some excellent guest stars including Patton Oswalt and Eddie Izzard, and a very memorably creepy Nate Corddry.
Max: Is Mom here?
Marshall: Yeah. I mean Mom’s here… but, I’m just not sure if Mom’s ‘here’.
Tara [as ‘T’]: Dude, I have been digging around in your closet for an hour and I can’t fuckin’ get to Narnia.
Benjamin Lambert: Ow! Mrs. Gregor, stop! I can’t hit you!
Tara [as Buck]: What’s this ‘Mrs. Gregor’ bullshit? I’m Buck and I will fuck you sideways!
Tara [as Alice]: Kate, I know you aren’t fond of me, but I’m concerned about your development as a young woman, just like your mother. You’re promiscuous. You aren’t guarding your flower.
Where to Watch: Hulu Plus! Netflix! If you don’t have ‘em, ask to steal someone’s password!
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
If this is not the most intense 90’s picture you’ve ever seen, I’ll eat my hair.
Why the Show is Great
If you know me even a little bit, you’ll know that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my lifeblood. I have been watching this show since I was about 11 and my love has own grown since. Buffy was one of the first shows to come to TV where there was not only a protagonist who was female, but a female who could kick some serious ass and always had a witty comeback when needed. I fell in love with that show from the pilot because it felt like something revolutionary, and yet so simple. Sarah Michelle Gellar paved the way for young women’s stories on television. Without Buffy there would be no Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and a handful of other shows that have been created since then. Not only was Buffy a badass, and the snarkiest of the bunch, she was also a flawed teenager who worried about boys and did not want to die at such a young age like so many of the slayers before her. Buffy assembled a family of friends who were there to help her out whenever she needed them. Willow Rosenberg, her best friend and tech nerd, starts the series meek and unsure of herself and grows up into an incredible Wiccan and one half of one of the first lesbian relationships on TV. Buffy and Willow’s friendship went through some incredibly difficult hurdles, but they still found each other in the end. Xander Harris is her most loyal friend and doesn’t leave her side in all 7 seasons. Even without any powers, he continues to support her and sacrifice his well-being in order to help her save the world. The show is incredibly well written and full of complicated and fun characters and if you don’t go check it out now, you never know what you’ll be missing.
One woman may have been tasked with saving the world from vampires and creatures of darkness, but she likely could not have done it alone and survived. Her friendship with Xander and Willow is the backbone of the series and without their constant support and sacrifices Buffy would not be the same person. Giles, Buffy’s father figure/mentor, loves her and would risk his life for her, but he can be a blind spot to Buffy as she sometimes takes him for granted. There is also Anya, an ex-vengeance demon, a member of the Scoobies (aka Buffy & Co.) who is brutally honest and has some of the greatest lines in the show’s run. Then we have the Slayer lineage which wasn’t explored as in depth until the final season, but the women who all came before Buffy and the ones who will come after, are a part of her history. Despite the fact that the first Slayer was created by a group of men, these women have taken their power back. Buffy could be campy or silly or heartbreaking, but what it did for me as a teenager was give me a sense of self – any girl could be strong but it was ok to be weak; kicking ass can be messy – but we don’t need to be perfect; when you take everything away, it’s only you left, so be brave and stand up for yourself. Buffy saved the world. A lot. But this show gave me the courage to believe that so could I.
[After discovering the Slayer was real] Maggie Walsh: We thought you were a myth.
Buffy:“Well you were myth-taken.
Where to Watch: NETFLIX!! But you can always come over my house and we can binge watch together!
And of course, I could not include all of the amazing shows with excellent female characters and female driven plots, so here are some other shows to check out!
Inside Amy Schumer
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Call the Midwife
American Horror Story: Coven
The Honorable Woman
Garfunkel & Oats
Top of the Lake
Masters of Sex
Drop Dead Diva
Now, hop on over to Emily’s blog for Part 2!