No More One-Dimensional Characters
It’s only just begun, but there’s strong evidence already that 2014 could be a banner year for powerful women. Janet Yellen was confirmed this month to chair the Federal Reserve. Hillary Clinton is likely to launch a much-anticipated presidential bid. And women have finally broken into the top ranks this year at traditionally male-dominated companies like General Motors (Mary Barra) and Apple (Angela Ahrendts).
So it shouldn’t be surprising that women’s roles are evolving on television, too. Whether it’s on Netflix or on the networks, strong female characters are dominating the screens and storylines of some of the most successful shows on air — from period pieces like “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men” to contemporary fare like “Homeland” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Here are some of our favorites.
Olivia Pope from “Scandal”
Fast-talking, fast-thinking and fast-moving, Pope's power is evident from the very beginning. The Washington, D.C. crisis manager is a doer and a problem-solver. And instead of being positioned as a cruel boss lady, Pope is portrayed as a highly intelligent woman deserving of awe and respect. (As is the woman her character was inspired by: real-life D.C. “fixer” Judy Smith, who has been hired to help celebrities, like Paula Deen, Michael Vick and Wesley Snipes, in the midst of their own scandals.)
Yes, she's flawed. An affair with the president? Probably not the best idea. But Pope is still the superhero, so to speak, of this show. In a world where those who traditionally save the day are male (and white), “Scandal” is a refreshing, needed change.
Daenerys Targaryen from “Game of Thrones”
As the mother of dragons, this fierce female has swayed armies of thousands to willingly die for her. But after the death of her husband Drogo, by arranged marriage, and before she gathered her legions of men and women, her future seemed ambiguous. After all, “Game of Thrones” is set in a medieval world where women are rarely on their own, let alone in charge. Her example of being on the front lines, rather than the sidelines, sets a standard for powerful warrior women on TV.
Her role as such comes at an apt time, given women's changing roles in the military — in November, three women made history by completing Marine combat training, the first ever to do so.
Carrie Mathison from “Homeland”
Smashing the old boys’ club stereotype of the CIA is this agent, played expertly by Claire Danes. While her story line has shifted greatly over the series' twists and turns, Mathison's major groundbreaking qualities lie in her dedication to action (one of her best quotes: "The world is about to end, and we’re standing around talking!").
But there's another layer to her character: She has a secret struggle with psychiatric issues. We rarely see strong characters on television who are also suffering from bipolar disorder, but what makes Mathison powerful is her ability to trust her instincts even though she grapples with this illness. Complex, flawed and tough, this character continues to cover uncharted territory for women's roles.
Alicia Florrick from “The Good Wife”
While Florrick appears at the outset to be just another wife standing by her man post-sex scandal, her character is hardly a martyr. After being forced to go back to work in the wake of her husband's transgressions, Florrick proves herself to be both a capable mother and a respected colleague, even among her male peers. (And, yes, it's sad that this combination of characteristics is novel, rather than the norm.)
Rayna Jaymes from “Nashville”
It's hard not to love Connie Britton (forever Tami Taylor in our hearts), but admiring her role as a middle-aged country star who's feeling like her time at the top is ticking away isn't just a simple girl crush. Her character, Jaymes, is a multifaceted heroine worthy of respect and admiration.
While many older, female characters are portrayed as emotionally unstable, longing for youth, Jaymes is sexy, strong and self-aware — and most importantly, relevant. Instead of shirking from the spotlight or turning to physical extremes to recapture her glory days, Jaymes evolves by branching out from her musical genre (working with a non-country producer) and starting her own music label, all while navigating a divorce, raising two daughters and trying to figure out what she wants next out of her career and love life.
Peggy Olson from “Mad Men”
Navigating a male-dominated work life and excelling to boot, Olson's growth over the show's six seasons shows that persistence, intelligent, and pure talent can get a woman to the top. While she had hiccups along the way (namely, sleeping with a married colleague and getting pregnant), these transgressions didn't come in the way of her career: Her desire to give in to her sexuality went unpunished (a rarity when it comes to women's plotlines).
In addition to her work life, Olson balances the opinions of her conservative mother, who upon hearing Olson was using her hard-earned money to rent her own place in the city, warned her by frantically asking, “You want to be one of those girls?” Well, Peggy, said, “I am one of those girls." In fact, at the end of last season, Peggy was promoted to be her firm's interim creative director, and we see her sitting in her boss Don Draper's office chair, a moment symbolic of how far she's come.
The Cast of “Orange Is the New Black”
With a mostly female ensemble cast that includes women of various backgrounds and races, including a transgendered actress, this Netflix series is breaking new ground. But aside from showcasing women of color in dynamic, meaty roles, this show also provides powerful commentary on the modern prison system and explores the reasons why so many women end up behind bars — and stay there — through a careful examination of our government's flawed justice system.
Lady Edith Crawley in “Downton Abbey”
This period drama on PBS shows the evolution of post-war British lifestyle and how roles for women, royals and even servants changed over time. But more than any other character, Lady Edith demonstrates a new wave of forward-thinking and power for the so-called fairer sex: After being left at the altar, she decides her life can't be governed by whom she's married to — especially because she's not married to anyone at all. In an era where women were primarily wives and mothers, this way of thinking is novel. Rather than resign herself to spinsterhood, Lady Edith gets a job in London as a newspaper columnist (scandalous for a women of her high station) and ends up falling in love with her boss, a still-married man. Instead of being punished for breaking boundaries, she's rewarded with personal satisfaction and romance.
Hannah Horvath in “Girls”
Clouded in self-doubt and prone to making bad decisions, Horvath's story might seem like more of a cautionary tale than one other women would want to emulate. However, it's in her various tragedies and embarrassing moments that this character's power lies. As we watch aspiring writer Horvath grow up and find her voice, we see a picture of young womanhood that's unlike any other depiction on television. Lena Dunham, the show’s creator, is an atypical leading lady, making her character a commanding figure as she breaks boundaries of what leading ladies look and act like (while naked, in many cases, at that).
In fact, the troupe of troubled, flawed but ultimately strong women in “Girls” act as an antithesis of sorts to the happy-go-lucky crew we watched on “Friends” over a decade ago, where NYC dwellers had fabulous jobs and lives with few real troubles to speak of. Authentic and raw, the girls in “Girls” break new ground.