The past decade has often been called a golden age of TV. Thanks in part to new streaming services and a wider variety of channels, more higher-quality shows are being made. Why? Because now shows can better afford to speak to smaller audiences without worrying about alienating broad swathes of other people. For that reason, TV offers more opportunities for women then say, film, where only 31.4% of speaking characters in 2015 were women.
That means more traditionally unheard voices have entered the field. There are now new, critically acclaimed TV series that are written and directed by and star women. Women are no longer elbowed to the sidelines in flat supporting roles. Instead, women have taken the reins, carving their own space in pop culture and creating three-dimensional characters who actually speak for real women.
The main characters of MTV’s new show Sweet/Vicious, Jules and Ophelia, fit this bill perfectly. The two college students are determined to bring justice to their campus by protecting victims of abuse and sexual assault — and by stalking their offenders. As show creator Jennifer Robinson explains, the show is “not just about getting revenge or beating up the bad guys, it is about learning to heal oneself after unspeakable trauma.”
The main characters were created as a reaction to a complexity that Robinson felt was missing from the small screen. “I just don’t see myself on TV right now,” Robinson told MTV. “I don’t see young women who are broken but who can also be fighters. I really wanted to write a show that would not only showcase women in a way that made them survivors but also in a way that made all the side characters on other shows the main characters on this show.”
Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer would feel right at home with Jules and Ophelia. In 2010, they started a web series, which later got picked up by Comedy Central. The show differs from traditional female-centric shows like Sex and the City because of Abbi and Ilana’s earthy relatability. They get stoned, they take the subway, they deal with catcallers — in short, they act how real women act.
In part, that’s possible because of experimentation. “We told ourselves to take risks and do something really different,” Jacobson says in The Guardian. That has granted them the freedom to tackle topics deemed too strange or risque for past shows: One episode was All About Pegging, and another dealt with rape in a way that was simultaneously intelligent, funny, and complicated.
As Amanda Hess wrote in Slate, “In the alternate universe constructed between Jacobson and Glazer, women engage in activities that were previously unthinkable not just on television, but in life. The typical gender hierarchy is suspended and replaced by an all-powerful female friendship that rules everything and everyone around it.”
Like these shows, Fleabag presents viewers with a complex heroine you can’t help but root for despite her flaws. Based on a play from the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the show follows a horrible but hilarious main character played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In the character’s own words, she is “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” But rather than being a one-dimensional, unlikeable character, she’s sympathetic.
It’s this complexity that makes the show worth watching. During the six episodes of the first season, she has unfettered sex with several men, makes fun of her sister, steals a valuable piece of art, and relentlessly tortures her ex.
But as Waller-Bridge explains, these actions belie her character’s inner depression. “Even though she’s grieving and these terrible things are happening to her, she can say that in a dismissive, funny way: ‘But I’m totally fine.’” By the end of the season, though — when she admits, “I’m sad all the time” — the viewer’s heart breaks for her. It’s moments like these, when her emotions characterize her rather than the men in her life, that make the show so poignant.
Podcasts also are providing an open, accessible space for women to make a pop-culture name for themselves. In part, that’s because this form of media has a lower barrier to entry: Podcasts can be made cheaply and easily. As This American Life Producer Stephanie Foo told The Toast, “You can get free editing software, you can get a pretty basic mic, you can set everything up, and you can make your own podcast for maybe $300 and have it sound really great.”
Inclusivity is the pulse of comedian Phoebe Robinson’s Sooo Many White Guys podcast. Fed up with being the only black woman in the room, Robinson sought to feature talented performers, artists, and musicians who aren’t white men.
As host, Robinson occupies a position of power; she chooses which voices are heard. She uses this power to ask questions you don’t always hear from a male host. “It’s rare to hear a black woman interviewing another black woman,” she says. “You get to hear a different side of people than what you heard on [Jimmy] Kimmel or Marc Maron’s podcast.”
These shows, podcasts, and more prove we’re firmly in the golden age of women in pop culture. Sweet/Vicious’ Jules and Ophelia are no exception, joining the legacy of leading women who have seized the reins of power both on-screen and behind the scenes.
Still, there’s room for more. Despite a small uptick in director diversity in 2015, overall numbers of women and minorities remain low. But the creators and characters above have demonstrated to audiences that women are far more than supporting actors — and that the days of them being treated as such are over.
To see Jules and Ophelia in action, watch the new series Sweet/Vicious, Tuesdays at 10/9c on MTV.
Nandita Raghuram is a Senior Writer at Studio@Gawker. She tweets here.