Film & Television

Women’s Voices on the Small Screen: A Half-Dozen Shows to Watch

Unless you’re an “essential worker” (and if you are, we all owe you a debt of gratitude), chances are you’re finding yourself home more than usual. Even those who aren’t sick or symptomatic are encouraged (and in some states mandated) to sequester themselves and maintain social distance. And, despite best intentions to lose ten pounds or write the great American novel or learn to make a soufflé or finally clean out the attic, I’m guessing that much of that newfound home time is being spent on the couch.

Here’s something you can do (with little effort and much potential for amusement) . . . support women’s work on some of the best shows streaming on the on-demand services Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Disney+. 

 

Good Girls Revolt (Amazon Prime)

Dana Calvo began her professional life as a paralegal, but quickly decided to pursue her dreams of being a writer. After landing a job as a copy girl at The New York Times‘s Washington bureau, she spent eleven years in the news industry before moving to what she called, “the dark side,” Hollywood. Eventually, she was approached by a Sony executive about adapting Lynn Povitch’s book The Good Girls Revolt. With her background, it must have seemed like a perfect fit. Good Girls Revolt dramatizes the real-life 1970 lawsuit brought by a coalition of 46 women against Newsweek magazine. At the time, men were “reporters;” women were “researchers.” Although the women often spent far more time on a story than their male counterparts, the byline — and significantly higher salary — went to the man. Calvo’s series, unfortunately canceled after a single season, drills into the lives, dreams, and ambitions of a handful of the women at the magazine. It’s a meticulous look back at a time when women started to fight for recognition and equality at the workplace. You can read our longer story on Good Girls Revolt here.

 

Thirteen (Amazon Prime)

When showrunner Marnie Dickens created Thirteen for BBC in 2016, she was interested not in stories of abduction, but in exploring their aftermath. Her five-part mini-series focuses on 26-year old Ivy, who was kidnapped at age 13 and held in a basement for 13 years before escaping. Dickens has her heroine, Ivy, go through many of the emotions so brilliantly brought to life by Oscar-winner Brie Larson in 2015’s Room. But she adds a thrilling plot development. Ivy’s kidnapper has not been captured and, in fact, abducts another girl. Ivy must overcome her psychological and physical trauma to help the police track down her captor before it’s too late. Once manipulated and abused by the man who abducted her, there is a sense that she’s being used again by the authorities, most of whom never wholly believe her story. Jody Comer, who has since earned international acclaim and an Emmy Award for Killing Eve, is memorable and often heartbreaking in the lead role.

 

Derry Girls (Netflix)

Lisa McGee grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1990s during “the Troubles,” the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Drawing on her own past, she’s created an irreverent and endlessly humorous series about coming of age in the war-torn town of Derry. Her protagonists, the “Derry girls,” comprise Erin, an ambitious but socially awkward aspiring writer; her cousin, the dimwitted Orla; pseudo-serious bookworm Clare; and precocious Michelle. They’ve also adopted an English boy, James, who has been sent to their Catholic girls’ school because the authorities feared he’d be beaten up if he went to a school for boys. The fast-paced episodes (each just a half-hour long) focus on universal high school issues (popularity, sex, rebellion, sex, music, did I mention sex?) set against a war-torn backdrop. Every character, from Erin’s ornery grandfather to the belligerent owner of the local sweet shop to the exasperated headmistress of the high school (Sister Michael’s disgusted side comments are a continual highlight) to the Derry girls (and boy) themselves, is perfection. Don’t be put off by the thick Irish accents; you’ll get used to them within minutes. And if you appreciate drinking games, you might try doing a shot of Jameson’s each time someone describes something as “wee.”

 

Sex Education (Netflix)

As I parenthetically pointed out, sex is top of mind for the Derry girls. It’s also, as the title implies, at the center of another coming-of-age dramedy, Sex Education.

Creator Laurie Nunn was ready to give up her dreams of screenwriting when her concept for a show that would present all of the hormonally-challenged issues of high schoolers, tempered with a more serious look at current and traditional sexual mores, was picked up by Netflix. At Moordale Secondary School, everyone is either “thinking about shagging, about to shag, or actually shagging.” They are sorely in need of advice — especially around the subject of what’s normal and what’s not — and when one of their own steps up as an underground sex counselor, it complicates things even more. Although the lead character is a boy, Otis, he is surrounded by women who are wiser when it comes to life and sex. His mother, Jean, is a licensed sex therapist. His girlfriend, Ola, has progressive views. His business partner, Maeve, is wise beyond her years due to her fractured family life. In fact, it’s Maeve who sets up the school’s secret sex clinic, convincing Otis that years of living with his mother qualify him to counsel his oversexed and undereducated peers. Although much of Sex Education‘s content is comic, Nunn deftly weaves in genuine issues, like sexual harassment and homophobia. The result is balanced and highly entertaining.

 

Harlots (Hulu)

Co-creators Alison Newman and Moira Buffini found their inspiration for this period drama in the 18th-century directory Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. It was, in essence, a guidebook to the names and “specialties” of London’s prostitutes, and sold an astonishing quarter of a million copies decades before books were mass produced. Harlots focuses on the rivalry between two houses of ill repute and the women employed there. Although the idea of the series is about whores — including abundant scenes of sex, sexual fetishes, and characters in beguiling dishabille —  the truly fascinating thing about the series is the undertone of feminism. Martha Wells and Lydia Quigley fight for territory, customers, and reputation, but each is more the agent of her own life than respectable women of their time. Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy seeing Jessica Brown Findlay, but be prepared. Her seductive and much-sought-after Charlotte is a far cry from Lady Sybil. As Charlotte’s listing in Harris’s List warns, “Her extravagance would scatter the fortune of any but the most ambitious keeper.”

 

Diary of a Future President (Disney+)

If you were a fan of Jane the Virgin, you’ll appreciate this origin story about the first female, Latina president (played briefly in episodes one and ten by Jane herself, Gina Rodriguez, who also serves as an executive producer).  In a recent interview, creator Ilana Peña told Variety, “Originally when I first came up with this idea, I wanted tell a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up. In a way, I feel we see a lot of boyhood stories, and I wanted to see my own experience onscreen . . . . My coming-of-age was much more Wonder Years than Euphoria.” The show follows the ups and downs of sixth-grader Gabi Cañero-Reed, a determined young woman navigating the fairly choppy waters of middle school. Her widowed mother is a lawyer finding a new lease on love with a coworker. Her older brother is a superstar athlete balancing his first girlfriend (“Monyka with a Y”) and his first crush (spoiler: they’re not — at all — the same person). Throughout, Peña subtly teaches life lessons about family, integrity, and the rewards of perseverance and hard work. Diary of a Future President is an excellent option to watch with a younger person, or anyone who can still appreciate just how awkward social growing pains can be. 

As we’ve long reported, women tend to get the short end of the stick in Hollywood. However, these series, and others like them, demonstrate the unique perspective female creators can bring to television programming. I was asked recently by a group of women in my town how we can help create more opportunities for women in film and television. As consumers, we can vote with our wallets. Attend movies made by women as soon as they’re released, increasing those all-important opening weekend box office figures. Go out of our way to catch independent and foreign films made by and about women. Subscribe to services that recognize and reward women auteurs.

And, right now, and for as long as we have the time at home, we can vote for women from our couch.

 

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