How 2019 Has Been a Good Year for Female Characters
How 2019 Has Been a Good Year for Female Characters

How 2019 Has Been a Good Year for Female Characters

VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Savannah Sher
We're going to break down how 2019 has been a good year for female characters.

This year, it seemed like it was finally time to tell women’s stories. In the aftermath of #MeToo and the cultural reckoning we have experienced when it comes to the poor treatment of women both in the workplace and in everyday life, there has been a palpable shift in how women are portrayed in the media. We now understand the importance of believing women, and what comes along with that is to accommodate a female perspective in fiction as well as in real life. Though this trend has been building for several years, in 2019 we saw more compelling female characters than ever before. Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re going to break down How 2019 Has Been a Good Year for Female Characters.

Let’s start with the most widely viewed examples. “Captain Marvel”, a female led superhero movie, grossed over a billion dollars at the box office, becoming one of the most financially successful films of the year. In the most textbook sense, this is a progressive step towards more representation for women. We also saw a major “girl power” moment in “Avengers: Endgame”, the number one top grossing film of the year, when all of the female figures from the MCU came together to fight alongside one another. While seeing a focus on female characters in such major blockbusters is great, we’re actually less interested in the “strong female character” trope and more interested in how this year has paved the way for much more nuanced characters to be developed in both TV and film.

The theme of believing women is no more apparent than in the Netflix original series, “Unbelievable”. In fact, Jen Chaney at Vulture called it the most feminist crime show she had ever seen. With over 32 million people tuning in during the first month that this show was released, it was an undeniable hit for the streaming service. Based on a collaborative article from ProPublica and The Marshall Project that told the real life story of a serial rapist, this was largely a tale about women, not just because of the victims, but also because both of the cops who solved the case were female too. The show treats the victims with respect, never sensationalizing what happened to them or offering gratuitous footage of the crimes taking place. Though the first episode sees a young woman being repeatedly and brutally interrogated by male police officers, that all changes as the show progresses. We see in “Unbelievable” how things can be different when women are the ones in charge, and it feels revelatory. In one memorable scene in the fourth episode, a group of female police officers discuss the case while playing pool together in a tableau that is all too familiar, except as an audience we’re used to seeing it be populated by men.

“Hustlers” is a prime example of a 2019 film that feels as though it couldn’t have been made in earlier years. The film’s director, Lorene Scafaria, said, “I think it’s hard to get any movie made nowadays. It’s especially hard to get movies made about women doing questionable things.” The film is about New York strippers during the 2008 financial crisis who decide to try illegal pursuits to make their income. Though it’s a story about the sex work industry, the male gaze is entirely absent from the film, with female empowerment taking center stage. The movie also has the audacity to show older women in these roles. Jennifer Lopez was 50 when the film was released and Constance Wu was 37. “Hustlers” is based on a true story and the women involved were much younger in real life; it would have been easy for the filmmakers to cast younger actors in the central roles.

This movie treats men how women are treated in so many mainstream films- as background characters with few lines and no backstories. The story unapologetically focuses on the women and doesn’t take any pains to make the audience feel for the men who are suffering from the consequences of their actions. In one scene, men are conspicuously completely absent. It’s Christmas and the main characters are with their families, but it’s only mothers and daughters who appear with no fathers or sons in sight.

While there were many unique stories like “Hustlers”, 2019 also saw subversions of traditionally male-centric films with women in the primary roles instead. There was the comedy “Booksmart”, which felt akin to “Superbad” but with Olivia Wilde directing and Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in the central roles. We also saw a reversal of the 2000 Mel Gibson movie “What Women Want” with the updated “What Men Want”, starring the effervescent Taraji P. Henson.

While the first season of “Fleabag” came out in 2016, it was only in 2019 with the release of the second season that the show became a true cultural phenomenon. “Fleabag” essentially swept the comedy categories at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in September, with the show’s creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge taking home awards for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. Both seasons also pulled off the nearly unattainable 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

She may not have set out to create a feminist show, but perhaps that’s actually a salient point. The show’s titular character, who we only know by the moniker Fleabag, is unlike any figure we’ve seen on television before. She is a woman who is deeply broken and floundering, who has progressive ideas but feels like she’s failing at implementing them. She is transgressive and overt about her sexuality, but not in a way that is meant to entice or titillate. Waller-Bridge said of the character, “I’ve never played a part that’s just shamelessly dangerous as a woman, and she’s like, I know I’m dangerous. I know I’m naughty. I know I’m massively broken.” The point isn’t, of course, to create a character that we aspire to be, but rather to show a real woman living in a world that she’s deeply aware is structured by men.

We’ve seen male characters like this for years, from Tony Soprano to Walter White, the “antihero” who you can root for while understanding that they’re definitely not on the right side of morality. There has been very little space for women to occupy in this realm, until now.

While most of the focus is on a woman in her 30s, in the second season, the show even features a scene about the joys of menopause, which might be the first time that sentiment has found itself on television.

In an interview with Marie Claire, Waller-Bridge said, "I'll never get bored of seeing flawed women on the screen." And she’s certainly doing a good job of creating them herself, because while “Fleabag” has been in the spotlight this year, she also developed another critically acclaimed show: “Killing Eve”. This female-centric spy thriller features three female protagonists who are in some ways the stereotypical “strong female character,” but in others subvert the trope flawlessly by displaying their flaws.

Some shows decided to tackle #MeToo head on, including Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show”, which stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon as two TV journalists struggling in the wake of Aniston’s co-anchor being fired due to sexual misconduct. The plot obviously mirrors some of the story of Matt Lauer on “The Today Show” and gives its female leads plenty of room to shine. Alex Levy (Aniston) has to contend with the complex emotions of someone she was so close to being “cancelled” because of their behavior in the workplace, showing the consequences for women in this new era.

One thing that ties all of these properties together is that they’re not just focused on women, they’re largely created by women as well. Along with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Lorene Scafaria, who was at the helm of Hustlers, “Unbelievable” was created by Susannah Grant. Some of “The Morning Show”’s episodes are directed by Mimi Leder, who also executive produced the miniseries alongside Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. “Captain Marvel” was co-directed by Anna Boden. And while major strides have been made in terms of women working behind the camera, we still have a long way to go. In the 2018-2019 season for indie films at American festivals, women only made up 32% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers. While we’re definitely in an era of change when it comes to women in media, it’s exciting to think about how much further it can go.