Critic’s Notebook: For Women Over 40, TV’s Feminism Is Flawed

Veep_I Love Dick_Claws_Split - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HBO; Courtesy of Amazon Studios; Wilson Webb/Turner Entertainment Networks

Television remains a much richer medium when it comes to juicy roles for women, but why are so many female characters over 40 so dysfunctional?

The most inspiring women on television today are the 60-something justice seekers at the heart of The Keepers. Netflix billed its latest multi-part true-crime doc, which debuted last month, as a whodunit about the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a 26-year-old teacher at a prestigious Catholic girls’ school who turned up dead after learning about the sexual abuse of a student by a school priest. But the series derives its emotional might from three living women: Jean Hargadon Wehner, the survivor who brought to light Father Joseph Maskell’s rapes (and worse) of dozens, if not hundreds, of his teenage students, as well as Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, the self-described “grandma Nancy Drews” who have refused to let Sister Cathy — or the crimes at their alma mater — fade from remembrance. Wehner, especially, speaks eloquently about the twin ordeals of un-repressing her memories of sexual assault and pursuing legal action against the deeply resourced Church. Her personal journey and long fight on behalf of victims are nothing short of heroic.

On one level, The Keepers is the most recent example of how Peak TV has been a boon to female representation on screen. With unflinching candor and insightful sensitivity, the documentary tackles issues of rape, trauma, secrecy, recovery and how the aging process has shifted the survivors’ relationships to their painful experiences. But the series is also a rara avis: A scan of the TV landscape reveals that shows about intrepid, high-minded older women we might look to as role models remain drearily scarce. (For simplicity’s sake, let’s define “older” as aged 40-plus.) And so, as much as the current proliferation of women’s stories on television deserves celebration, we should keep in mind that feminist progress is highly imperfect — and that assumptions about certain groups of women continue to go (dangerously) unchallenged.

Moral ambiguity is the currency of today’s prestige and middlebrow small-screen projects, and ethical transgressions can indeed make for a more compelling protagonist. And yet, there’s something sour about constantly wallowing in vinegar. Three of 2017’s buzziest series center on women over 40 — Veep (HBO), Feud (FX) and Big Little Lies (HBO) — but nobody watches ex-president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) or Ryan Murphy’s versions of Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and thinks, “I want to be that petty, bitter and ultimately tragic one day.” Big Little Lies exhibits far more empathy toward its core group of struggling moms, but the credit for actually slaying the villain belongs to Zoe Kravitz’s considerably younger second-wife character.

The list goes on of female protagonists of a certain age who are no strangers to dysfunction. Murphy’s American Horror Story (FX) is stacked with monstrous mothers. Artist Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) is less than kind to her husband when she throws away their marriage to openly pursue another man on I Love Dick (Amazon). Nail-shop owner Desna Simms’ (Niecy Nash) gangland troubles on the just-premiered Claws (TNT) start because she agreed to participate in a money-laundering scheme involving the Dixie Mafia. Maria Bamford plays a talented but largely depleted and helpless version of herself on Lady Dynamite (Netflix). Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) finally got to sit on the Iron Throne at the end of last season, but — in true Game of Thrones (HBO) style — only after massacring half the capital. I shouldn’t have to explain law professor Annalise Keating’s (Viola Davis) moral orientation on How to Get Away With Murder (ABC). And in Netflix's upcoming Gypsy, Naomi Watts plays an unprofessionally obsessed therapist. There’s not a powerful and pure-hearted Buffy Summers, Dana Scully or Jane Villanueva among them. (And let’s not make the mistake of confusing goodness for a lack of complexity.)

In recent years, TV has been a great laboratory for experimenting with female unlikeability. The most narratively innovative shows — among them Girls, Orange Is the New Black and The Girlfriend Experience — care much more about conveying a specificity of vision than getting viewers to root for their protagonists. But it matters that positive portrayals of older women are so scant, especially in a medium that’s presently thought of as a kind of female utopia, because there have traditionally been so few models of older women as valuable members of society outside of a domestic or familial context (i.e., Grandma).

In fairy tales, any woman past virgin age carries an aura of wickedness. In real life, just take a look at the fantastical conspiracy theories people have believed about Hillary Clinton: that she had a secret lover killed, that she was secretly dying but feigned good health during the presidential campaign, that she was connected to a child sex-trafficking ring that operated from the basement of a pizzeria. Multiple conservative commentators accused Clinton of being a witch — not just in a metaphorical sense, but in the “has magical powers” sort of way. Do the Clintons push the berserk button for a lot of people? Sure. Did a culture where older women are rarely valued for their real or potential contributions to public life add a few spikier edges to the intergenerational clashes between female voters in 2016, thus dampening enthusiasm and turnout for Clinton on Election Day? It’s certainly conceivable.

Our stories reflect our biases, but new tales can help us get rid of our prejudices. After bingeing The Keepers, I was flooded with a sense of relief: Watching Wehner, Hoskins and Schaub crusade for truth, justice and healing in their retirement years, I felt significantly unburdened of my own fears of aging. And thankfully, there are a few shows that do showcase the steely altruism of women of a certain age. With their focus on rape and murder, Netflix’s British imports Happy Valley and The Fall aren’t much lighter than The Keepers, but their female police-officer protagonists, played by Sarah Lancashire and Gillian Anderson, respectively, display the kind of strength and poise we all hope to master one day. Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin playing Golden Girls whose husbands leave them for each other, imagines older women as entrepreneurs who embark on a new (yam vaginal lubricant) business late in life. CBS’s Madam Secretary, starring Tea Leoni as a reluctant Secretary of State, and CBS All Access’s The Good Fight, about Christine Baranski’s high-powered attorney (from The Good Wife) starting over after losing her life’s savings, also offer aspirational figures.

But this loose constellation of shows (solely from Netflix and CBS, moreover) isn’t enough to represent the gamut of the constructive over-40 female experience — not when all of their protagonists are straight, white and rich or middle-class. And the erasure of older women and their contributions to a better world doesn’t jibe at all with a reality where women make up the majority of the American workforce and middle-aged women, especially, are leading the anti-Trump resistance at the grassroots level. It’s dispiriting to see older women rendered invisible, and it’s peculiarly insulting to watch their virtues ignored or dismissed. We must confront the paltriness of our collective imaginations when it comes to what women over 40 can accomplish. Our future may depend on it.

Inkoo Kang is the chief TV critic at MTV.