Emmys' Limited-Series Race Dominated by Feminist Stories

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Courtesy of Networks

Shows devoted to women's real-life narratives were once restricted to female-centric cablers (and largely overlooked at the awards show). Now with 'Mrs. America,' 'Unbelievable' and 'Self Made,' the fight for equality is front and center, and the TV Academy has taken notice.

One hundred years ago this August, women's suffrage was codified into law, becoming the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The change, which prohibits governmental powers from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex, required 36 states to secure ratification and ultimately hinged on a tie-breaking vote from a young legislator who took his mom's advice.

In 2020, the Emmy nominees — from FX on Hulu's Mrs. America to Netflix's Unorthodox — remind us that women's struggle for independence is an ongoing effort.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is no stranger to female-forward stories that incisively critique gender expectations and gendered oppression. In the past five years alone, the Emmys have honored such sharply drawn shows as Fleabag, Pose, Killing Eve, Transparent, Big Little Lies, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Inside Amy Schumer, Better Things, GLOW and Orange Is the New Black, which each excavate — and harpoon — what defines "womanhood." This year, however, thanks to a wave of commanding screen stories influenced by the #MeToo movement and America's broader political upheavals, it's no longer enough for TV to winkingly inverse or scrutinize gendered stereotypes. Audiences now crave good old-fashioned stories about "the fight."

Once the bread-and-butter of unfairly ridiculed networks like Lifetime and OWN, stories about women's battles over autonomy or recognition now make for Prestige TV. Recent Emmy stalwarts The Handmaid's Tale, a thriller, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a comedy, each present a fun-mirror version of America: The former speculates about a future right wing theocratic dictatorship that turns women into breeding mares, and the latter imagines a candy-colored 1950s Manhattan where a fledgling female comic could develop a subversive "blue" persona.

Both protagonists must actively confront the abusive and repressive systems that try to weaken their voices. For survivalist June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), this includes waging a war of espionage and violence against the fascist government exploiting her body. For glamorous Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), this includes scandalously divorcing her cheating husband and getting herself arrested for public nudity as a statement about her art.

This year, however, TV's most voracious crusades for female liberation arrived via miniseries inspired by true life, with limited-episode serials Mrs. America (10 nominations), Unorthodox (eight nominations), Unbelievable (four nominations) and Self Made (one nomination) leading the charge.

Sprawling 1970s-set dramedy Mrs. America, the most politically potent of these contenders, deliciously delves into the downfall of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. The series follows the machinations of traditional-values campaigner Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), who mobilizes the burgeoning evangelical movement to oppose the agenda of Second Wave feminists. Forty years later, Americans still feel the aftershocks of this ideological shift.

Netflix's Unbelievable dramatizes a stranger-than-fiction real-life serial rape case that rocked the western U.S. a decade ago, homing in on two detectives (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) who unravel the truth after a teenager (Kaitlyn Dever) is falsely charged with lying about having been raped. Aiming at the macro, the series openly challenges the byzantine legal barriers that sexual assault survivors often face when reporting these crimes and especially reproaches the actions of bullying and dismissive police.

Unorthodox and Self Made, in the meantime, each personalize the political. Unorthodox showcases the intimate and harrowing story of a pregnant teenage newlywed (Shira Haas) who escapes her domineering Hasidic Jewish community, while the historical drama Self Made chronicles the extraordinary life and ambitions of Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer), a hair-care mogul who became America's first self-made Black female millionaire.

Although Mrs. America briefly touches on how the women's liberation movement began to fracture as a result of racial and cultural power discrepancies (namely, how the mainstream white, heterosexual organizers ignored the needs of Black and queer women), Unorthodox and Self Made crucially address the intersections of gender and ethnic/racial/religious identity. Both Haas' Esty and Spencer's Walker must learn to navigate the delicate and despotic social infrastructures keeping them poor, dependent and uneducated. Once they locate all the gears of the lock, they're finally able to break free, but their self-determination ultimately robs them of their families.

While many of these feminist contenders are period pieces detailing suffocating histories or terrifying futures, they all reflect the anxieties of the now: a world in which governments are eroding reproductive rights around the world and women, on average, still earn a fraction of men's salaries. As a deadly pandemic and a global shift toward authoritarianism rages, classic stories of women's fight for independence still manage to ignite the weary.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.