Movies and TV shows about women aren't just for women
There are films and TV shows that we tend to think of as truly great, both in terms of their commercial success and lasting cultural impact.
The Godfather, for instance, is often postulated as the greatest film of all time. At a macro level, it’s about men: the things that men do, the problems that affect them and how they deal with those problems. However, the film is not necessarily for men; its appeal is much broader than that. Conversely, you can take a film like Thelma and Louise, which is similarly acclaimed, and follows a similar dramatic formula in that it’s about the things that women do, the problems that affect them and how they deal with those problems (by driving off a cliff, evidently).
While not explicitly for women, Thelma and Louise carries a distinctly female legacy, positioned as much as a filmmaking achievement as it is a piece of feminist film history. Consequently, we can discern an accepted falsehood that films and TV shows about men are for everyone, while films and TV shows about women—however entertaining—are for women, or at least exist to teach a lesson about women.
Perhaps comparing The Godfather to Thelma and Louise is unfair. After all, they’re products of different times, genres and visionaries. A more apt example might be the 2018 film Widows. Directed by Steve McQueen and starring a mostly female cast, including the likes of Oscar winner Viola Davis, it’s a blistering heist film in the vein of The Departed; the kind of thing that should appeal to a range of audiences. It has action, drama, intensity and emotion, and it was pretty much completely snubbed during awards season. That isn’t to say that awards are the only metric of a good film but it didn’t find much commercial success either, only just managing to break even at the box office. As far as I’m aware, there’s no neat explanation for its lack of commercial or cultural success.
It’s probably no surprise to hear that many of what are often considered to be the best films of the past century (in western cinema, at least) are about men. I’m talking Citizen Kane, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather Part I and Part II, the original Star Wars trilogy, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, Jaws, Terminator 2, Heat, The Usual Suspects, The Shining, Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, Good Will Hunting, Fight Club, The Shawshank Redemption, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Zodiac, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, The Social Network — I could keep going. All of these are wonderful, compelling films and many of them changed the course of cinema. To go one step further, I was raised on films of this ilk. Like a lot of us out there, they gave me my cinematic education. So, it’s no wonder that in an industry that has been shaped by and is shaping the way we think and feel about the world, we tend to privilege the viewpoints and subjects that history has taught us are worth privileging.
American cinema tends to glamorise depictions of masculinity and the ways men communicate emotion (or fail to do so). A lot of that is due to an empathy gap that exists between men and women because of patriarchal norms but it’s also the result of a cultivated fascination with the way men handle themselves. In both the real world and the world on screen (there might be a bit of a chicken-egg thing happening here), men are taught to suppress emotion and resist vulnerability, so when given the opportunity to witness men do just the opposite—to talk, to be open, to be honest, to grieve, and even cry—we’re more than happy to indulge that.
What, for example, is the most memorable scene of Good Will Hunting? It’s the moment when Matt Damon finally gives in to his pain and cries in Robin Williams’ arms, right? It’s a beautifully written and performed scene and I’d argue that it’s at least partially lasting in our cultural consciousness because it shows two men overcoming barriers of silence and internalised grief to be vulnerable together. Women, on the other hand, cry and share their emotions on screen all the time, seemingly without difficulty. Because of this, the female experience of pain is simplified and rendered as unremarkable rather than as a transformative moment on the road towards healing.
And that’s just the films. There’s a more niche vein that runs through TV history, what’s often referred to as the 'Golden Age of television', which ran approximately from 2000 (roughly around the time The Sopranos started) to approximately 2018 (though some would argue much earlier). It’s a period widely regarded as being marked by a number of internationally acclaimed television programs, most of them about men. There’s The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, House of Cards, and more. There are some notable shows about women (Homeland; Orange is the New Black) but these have historically been few and far between, their cultural impact overridden by their male-dominated forebearers. Even someone as prolific as Shonda Rhimes, the beloved creator of Grey's Anatomy who has produced some 70 hours of annual television in 256 territories, has never quite managed to bridge the divide between 'prestige television' and the melodramatic fluff it's nestled between.
Slowly, though, there’s a shift occurring, attributable to the rise of streaming service or "streaming wars" as—almost overnight—the size of the TV landscape increased exponentially, and with it, on-screen female representation. As a result, female writers and directors have more access and power in the entertainment industry than ever before. Take Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of critically acclaimed black comedy Fleabag, which ran for two seasons between 2016-2019. What followed was a smörgåsbord of similarly successful, female-driven shows, like Big Little Lies, Killing Eve, High Fidelity, Russian Doll, This Way Up, and I May Destroy You, all of which have helped characterise the past 5 years of prestige TV.
More recently, HBO's Mare of Easttown represents a deviation from a well-worn formula. There's a small town, a grim murder and a hard-boiled lead detective, except where previously that lead detective role has been played by Matthew McConaughey in True Detective or Dominic West in The Wire, here, it’s Kate Winslet. Clearly, women are finding their place in the spaces men used to occupy; not as sub-ins or placeholders but as figures worthy of the spotlight, right where they always should have been.