Critic's Notebook: Why Female-Driven TV Matters More Than Ever

Netflix; Sundance Channel; OWN
'Alias Grace,' 'Top of the Lake: China Girl,' 'Queen Sugar.'

Like the earliest women film directors, today's female TV creators, from Jane Campion to Ava DuVernay, are using their platform to tackle the biggest of big issues — and making some of the best shows in the process.

Top of the Lake: China Girl, the second season of Jane Campion’s fierce, dazzling detective series for SundanceTV, begins with a dead body in a suitcase. But as Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) searches for the killer, she finds clues in a brothel, and also meets the 17-year-old daughter — the product of rape — she gave up for adoption. As no ordinary police procedural does, China Girl spirals out to explore sex trafficking, abuse and motherhood in many forms, including by adoption and surrogacy.  

Campion is one of several high-profile women, including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Ava DuVernay, behind some of the best television series of the moment. When DuVernay created Queen Sugar and declared that the production would hire only women directors, she kickstarted a mini-trend that the industry and press noticed. But that headline has overshadowed the other noteworthy element that unites these women-driven projects and sets them apart from the crowd: their urgent social and political relevance. 

These shows are more than just examples of progress in gender equality among small-screen creators (which would be plenty good in itself). They address hot-button issues, exploding typical television narratives with stories that ripple beyond the screen, into the real world.

Queen Sugar deals with class, race and the prison system through the lens of one African-American family. Big Little Lies, produced by and starring Witherspoon and Kidman, takes on domestic abuse and rape in upscale suburbia. Margaret Atwood’s novels have been turned into two resonant series: Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale, for which four of the five directors were women, is frighteningly timely in its dystopian portrait of a fascist regime that treats women as reproductive property; the forthcoming Netflix series Alias Grace, entirely written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, mines the story of a 19th-century murder for themes including abortion and abuse. 

It’s not as if men never tackle such subjects, but the pattern among shows dominated by women producers and directors is unmistakable. There is a full-circle aspect to this trend that goes back to the earliest days of movies. The first woman director, Alice-Guy Blache, made films about abuse and poverty. Lois Weber made silent films about alcoholism and prostitution. For a time, until men figured out that Hollywood was a playing field for big business, Weber was the most successful director in the country. In the 1940s and '50s, Ida Lupino became one of the lone women directors, creating first-rate movies about unwed mothers and rape. 

Those filmmakers took on tough subjects not because they were specialized "women's issues," but because they were both significant and largely ignored by men. There was no secret agenda, just eyes wide open, and a fearless will to forge ahead. The same is happening in television now.  

The best part of the current trend is that these dramas are spectacular as art and entertainment — complex and sophisticated but relatable for men as well as women. China Girl (premiering Sept. 10) displays Campion’s signature artistic flair, with poetic images that convey at least as much as the dialogue does: a bridal gown is held aloft and set on fire after a wedding is called off; the green suitcase holding the corpse is tossed into the ocean, strands of long black hair floating out of a hole in its side. But there is also gritty realism. The casual sexism Robin faces in the Sydney police department is so routine that she brushes it off. Meanwhile, being a mother and a victim of rape are entrenched and entwined in Robin's richly developed character. There's no need for Campion to be didactic; the social commentary springs organically from the drama. 

Queen Sugar, executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and now in its second season on OWN, offers a character for every class to identify with. Charlie (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) is a rich businesswoman and single mother, whose basketball-star husband was accused of rape. Her story deals with matters from family to celebrity culture. Charlie’s sister (Rutina Wesley) is a journalist crusading for prison reform and against racial profiling. Their brother (Kofi Siriboe) is an ex-convict trying to reclaim his life. Viewers who come for the domestic saga may have their social consciousness awakened along the way. What could be more Oprah?

In Big Little Lies, Kidman’s character is abused by her husband and Shailene Woodley plays a young mother haunted by memories of having been raped. As the addictive HBO show took off among viewers, those issues became part of the conversation in recaps and among writers and fans. A headline on an episode review from The A.V. Club website put it bluntly: “Big Little Lies is telling a vital story about abuse.” A Vulture piece argued that the show, despite its soapy trappings, was "about very big things," notably "the natural human instinct to pass judgment on others, especially when those others are female."

The Handmaid's Tale has penetrated reality even more visibly, as women's-rights advocates have shown up at marches and protests wearing the red cloaks and white winged caps worn by the enslaved women in the show’s fictional country, Gilead. No one could have predicted how much currency the series would gain simply by landing in the Trump era.

Those feminist issues have always run through Atwood’s work. Alias Grace (premiering Nov. 3) is based on a true story about a servant named Grace (Sarah Gadon) imprisoned for the murder of the housekeeper and her master. Suspense is built on the question of whether she is innocent, as she claims, or a great liar. Either way, the series reveals how women then and now are often victims — of domestic abuse, of assumptions about class, or of men who see what they choose to see in a woman’s character. Grace doesn’t have to be a saint for those themes to be powerful today. 

Of course, men have been deeply involved in these series, too. David E. Kelley wrote and Jean-Marc Valee directed Lies, for example. Campion wrote China Girl with Gerard Lee, and directed two of the six episodes while Ariel Kleiman (a man) directed the others. But all of these series have women as their primary movers. 

Not every female-driven project is so topical. Women have made smaller inroads in traditionally male-dominated genres. Lisa Joy is the co-creator of HBO's sci-fi Western Westworld. Moira Walley-Beckett became an important producer and writer on Breaking Bad (and went on to create the Netflix series Anne With an E, based on the girls’ classic Anne of Green Gables). But women in genre niches are, unfortunately, still the exceptions. 

Social themes haven’t entered female-driven blockbusters in the same way, perhaps because of the higher economic stakes and studio oversight. But the fact that Patty Jenkins directed the summer’s biggest hit, Wonder Woman, may be more relevant than the movie’s content (even though the film sends an empowering message to girls). And DuVernay made a strong unspoken statement with A Wrinkle in Time simply by using a multiracial cast, including Winfrey, Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. That both women have made films with $100-million budgets is progress. 

But television continues to offer greater opportunities. As their ancestors did in early Hollywood, women are using their power dynamically, connecting television to the ever-more-urgent realities of the world today.

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