7 Reasons 2015 Was a Banner Year for Women on Television

This year’s shows presented perhaps the most nuanced and inclusive on-screen depictions of modern women and their choices.

From left: Viola Davis, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Gina Rodriguez, and Angela Bassett. (Photos: Getty Images)

Dec 26, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Rebecca Raber is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has written for Pitchfork, MTV Hive, The Village Voice, Spin, CMJ, and other publications.

Television’s recent so-called golden age has ushered in a variety of protagonists outside the trifecta of televised stock characters: the bumbling sitcom dad, the gruff cop, and the idealistic doctor. We’ve been intrigued by a depressed Mafia don; a broken, alcoholic ad man with a past; a meek, meth-cooking high school teacher; and a gay “stick-up man” who robs drug dealers.

But female actors are rarely given opportunities to play a range of characters or explore the breadth of women’s lives. For starters, women aren’t usually the lead character; they serve to bolster or oppose the main man instead. Even when they have been a show’s title character, they have been constrained by the need to appear agreeable, sexy, or relatable, so they can’t play the most difficult, unlikable aspects of their personalities or spend time exploring the nuances of life.

But 2015 was a banner year for women on TV. From major networks (such as ABC, whose entire Shondaland-produced Thursday-night lineup features female-fronted shows) to streaming services (such as Netflix, whose Orange Is the New Black features an almost all-woman cast), women’s stories are finally being given the time, weight, and attention they deserve. Beyond the stock homemaker and girlfriend roles, a broad swath of womanhood is being portrayed. And all of these diverse depictions—from convicts to superheroes to LGBTQ women across the spectrum of sexuality and gender representation—are helping to create a wider, more inclusive, three-dimensional idea of womanhood. Here are seven ways the diversity of female experience was explored on television in 2015.

1. African American women finally got the juicy parts they deserved.

It’s no surprise that 2015 will go down as the first year a black woman won the best lead actress Emmy, because, as winner Viola Davis said in her speech, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are not there.” This year, the roles were finally there. In addition to Davis’ strong, sexy role on How to Get Away With Murder, fellow Emmy nominees Taraji P. Henson (as Empire’s fiery, outrageously attired matriarch), Angela Bassett (who played both a three-breasted circus “freak” and a glamorous former Blaxploitation star turned vampire on two different seasons of American Horror Story), and Uzu Adoba (who is heartbreaking as a mentally unstable inmate who writes intergalactic erotica on OITNB) burned up the screen with their talent. And those are just the actors the Television Academy recognized.

2. Older womanhood was not only depicted but also celebrated.

The Women’s Media Center’s report The Status of Women in U.S. Media in 2015 shows how underrepresented women over 40 have been on television: Just 17 percent of all speaking parts go to actors in their 40s, and only 3 percent are portrayed by actors over 60. But if you look at the list of 2015 best lead actress Emmy nominees (in comedies, dramas, and miniseries), 13 of the 18 women are over 40. Women like Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, American Horror Story’s Jessica Lange, and HTGAWM’s Davis are doing some of the best work of their careers with collaborators who are putting the stories of middle-aged women center stage. One remarkable new show, Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, which stars the inimitable Lily Tomlin (who is 76) and Jane Fonda (who is 77), is entirely focused on the second act of modern American women’s lives.

3. Women superheroes ruled the small screen.

At the box office, saving the world is still mainly the purview of men, and women are relegated to wearing the occasional sexy costume. But in 2015, three new television shows debuted that showcased the strength and competence of female superheroes: CBS’s Supergirl, ABC’s Agent Carter, and Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Supergirl is sweet and family friendly but still wears its feminism on its sleeve. (In case you think Supergirl’s diminutive name is antifeminist, one character says: “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? If you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”) Jessica Jones is dark, brooding, and a more serious exploration of what it means to survive abuse. And Agent Carter, a spin-off of the Captain America movies, splits the difference as a plucky post–WWII era spy story that takes time each week to showcase female empowerment in a misogynistic era.

4. Abortion was explicitly explored on mainstream programs.

Earlier this century, such story lines were nowhere to be seen on television, save perhaps on racy HBO. But with the Senate passing a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, we need portrayals of this medical procedure that was performed 1.06 million times in America in 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Such depictions destigmatize women who choose to end pregnancies (which is many women; abortions make up 21 percent of all U.S. pregnancies, excluding miscarriages). Netflix’s Jessica Jones did its part to advocate for keeping abortion legal and accessible when it portrayed a young college athlete in prison who was desperate to end a pregnancy that resulted from the rape by the show’s mind-controlling villain. She paid a fellow inmate to beat her in the hopes of causing a miscarriage before Jessica was able to procure pills for an early medication abortion. Another matter-of-fact depiction of abortion came in the mid-season finale of Scandal, which showed Olivia Pope on a table in a clinic undergoing the procedure after ending her relationship with the president of the United States. As The Atlantic described the dialogue-less, minute-long scene: “The camera didn’t ogle, but it didn’t shy away from Olivia’s wide-eyed gaze either. The message? This is normal. This is acceptable. This is Olivia’s choice, and hers alone.”

5. A greater breadth of transgender women’s stories was given visibility.

Not only did viewers get to watch authentic depictions of life as a trans woman via reality shows such as I Am Caitlyn, I Am Jazz, and Becoming Us, but some of the best narrative storytelling on television revolved around stories of fictional trans women on Transparent and Orange Is the New Black. These different types of shows showcased many diverse facets of transgender life—dealing with puberty as a gender nonconforming person, coming out as trans to your family late in life, dealing with bigotry, navigating dating. The shows illustrated that there is no one monolithic trans experience. In a world where trans women (especially trans women of color) are more likely to be victims of violence, these depictions hopefully helped create some much-needed familiarity with, empathy for, and understanding of an rarely seen and underserved community for those who were previously ignorant.

6. The struggle of modern motherhood, warts and all, was given a much-needed showcase.

Women have long dramatized their parental role on television, but very rarely has life with children, especially with infants, been depicted as difficult. But open your Internet browser and you’ll see that women today are conflicted about many aspects of new motherhood: breast or bottle? Work or stay home? Sleep training or attachment parenting? So it was refreshing that such struggles took center stage on both The Mindy Project and Jane the Virgin. The title characters grappled with going back to work and school after the births of their children (to the detriment of the central relationship on The Mindy Project), and both shows spent several episodes dealing with the characters’ adjustment to new parenthood. Jane Villaneuva, like many modern new moms, even uses a breast pump and talks about keeping up her milk supply—two things rarely discussed or seen on television.

7. The rise of the female showrunner/producer/creator.

The most recent Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s Boxed In report finds that only 26 percent of executive producers and 23 percent of show creators are female. But women are working on the shows that create headlines, win awards, and ignite passionate social media response. We’d have no Scandal (Shonda Rhimes), Orange Is the New Black (Jenji Kohan), Transparent (Jill Soloway), Girls (Lena Dunham), Jane the Virgin (Jennie Snyder Urman), or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Tina Fey) without women in behind-the-scenes positions of power. Those inspired and inspiring ladies are bringing their visions to life on our screens, and those diverse visions are resonating with audiences. If what’s in front of the camera these days looks and feels different, it’s because of these (and many other) women behind the camera, who make it so.