Take one look at the broadcast network’s lineups for this fall TV season, and it’s apparent very quickly that there are few new leading roles for women. In fact, none of CBS’s new drama series features a woman in the lead role. Things aren’t much better at some of the other networks, either. It’s not that these shows won’t or can’t be great — but considering women make up half the population, you’re not alone if you feel a little blah heading into what should be the most exciting time of the year for TV fans.
Of course, there are a handful of superbly written and female-led or equal-billing network shows returning — This Is Us, black-ish, Scandal, to name a few — but these days, if you want forward-thinking and complex female roles, you’re more likely to turn to cable or streaming. From Big Little Lies to The Handmaid’s Tale to The Good Fight, audiences are turning elsewhere to find shows featuring complicated, smart, modern female characters. In other words, cable and streaming are carrying the torch where others aren’t.
For GLOW co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, bringing their ’80s-set wrestling series to Netflix was a no-brainer. “Netflix is a home to a number of strong female-led shows,” the duo told Glamour. “And when we were prepping the show, we said we wanted more female directors and Netflix said, ‘Of course!’ I think there’s a value system in place there that is very real and deeply felt in terms of representation and what is correct for a show creatively.”
The streaming giant isn’t the only online platform featuring shows with female leads, but they certainly are making a concentrated effort to pick up the slack where some of the broadcast networks are not. “Women represent half the global population, and it reflects probably about half the Netflix member population as well,” Netflix’s vice-president of original content, Cindy Holland, points out, stating the obvious. “So excluding women from seeing themselves and their issues dramatized on screen doesn’t seem like a good idea.” And the streaming platform has delivered with shows like Grace and Frankie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Orange Is the New Black, The OA, The Crown, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, One Day at a Time, Fuller House, and, of course, GLOW.
Adds Flahive and Mensch: “It just makes sense to us that you’d want real women with real bodies to tell authentic stories. It’s way more interesting.”
In fact, with 91 Emmy nominations in the bag for Netflix this year (second only to HBO), more than half of those nominations are either for a series with a female lead or feature a female nominee.
“There’s been a lot written about the gender disparity and gap in the traditional entertainment business, and certainly behind the camera as well as in front of the camera,” Holland tells us. “I think a lot of companies, including Netflix, are being conscious of trying to help develop and foster new talent.” Two examples? Gypsy — which stars Naomi Watts — is written by first-time TV writer Lisa Rubin, and GLOW has first-time show runners Flahive and Mensch.
And the push for diversifying talent and creators extends beyond just women: “For the first time, people are seeing people of all genders, of all identities, of all colors, of all sizes and shapes, and that’s a really exciting time,” Holland says.
But Netflix is notorious for not releasing ratings, so there’s no way to tell how their shows hold up against network powerhouses like NCIS or This Is Us. Still, considering the buzz, critical acclaim, and renewals around shows like Orange Is the New Black, it’s safe to say the common sense formula is working.
“Our goal is to continue going down the road we’ve been on,” Holland says. “[We want to] continue to increase our rate of employment as women both in front of and behind the camera — to get to the point where it’s no longer seen as a gap that there’s a big issue there, that we really are trying to reflect what’s going on in society and the world. That’s certainly my ambition.”