Had “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” been pitched in the era it depicts (the 1950s), creator Amy Sherman-Palladino suspects network executives would have loved the idea of a character that, when their marriage falls apart, finds a voice within standup comedy — save for one small detail: “They would say, ‘No one would believe that — make the woman a man,’” she says.
“Ambitious” may never have fit the description of the perfect mid-century housewife, but the aversion toward outspoken women on TV has lingered long past the ’50s. A collective uproar against not just sexual harassment, but also the lack of diversity, women’s roles and gender parity in the entertainment industry and beyond has boosted the demand for unapologetic female voices both before and behind the camera.
“The ironic thing about ‘Maisel’ is, the series dropped right as the #MeToo movement was happening, and I looked like Nostradamus,” says Sherman-Palladino. “I just really wanted Midge to feel and appeal to modern women and modern girls — vibrant, energetic and pulsating, like the world is now.”
A wave of social-justice movements in the past few years has meant that the titular Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) isn’t the only woman on TV shaking off archaic ideals of female conduct and expectations. In the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, creators are going back in time to deliver a fresh perspective of our past and present.
For her take on the prolific and heavily mythologized poet Emily Dickinson in Apple TV Plus’ comedy “Dickinson,” creator Alena Smith wanted to shine a light on a free-spirited, passionate and queer woman fighting to have her voice heard. Seeing a woman from the late 19th century in this way is something that could only be done through the modern lens, as back then there were certain societal standards to cultivate.
“That myth of the reclusive lady in white who was suffering from a tragic love affair with a man has been constructed by Emily’s first editor as a ploy to sell books when she died, a trope of the 1880s and ’90s of what was considered tantalizing,” she says. “People say, ‘Emily Dickinson was so weird. She never left her room.’ Philip Roth didn’t leave his house and neither did J.D. Salinger. It’s called being a writer. It’s only because she’s female that it’s presented as a bizarre choice. That feels extremely contemporary.”
“Unbelievable,” the based-on-true-events limited series depicting a series of related rape cases in the mid-aughts, made its way to Netflix just before the rise of the #MeToo movement. But even then, creator Susannah Grant could sense a shift in the cultural conversation.
“We were part of a wave of a hunger to talk about systemic injustice and abuse,” says Grant. “It felt like it was a collective idea that hadn’t yet become a collective conversation.”
Asked by Netflix if she wanted to revise the script due to #MeToo, Grant’s answer was no. From the on-screen depiction of female partnership to the subjective portrayal of sexual assault, Grant was already upending a familiar genre, by virtue of her own sensibility.
“I had never written a scene of sexual violence before,” says Grant. “I started in on the first description of it, and there was just something that felt inherently wrong and irresponsible about showing those assaults from an objective point of view. There’s so much overt rape porn, but also quasi-rape porn in our culture. I didn’t want to do anything that would invoke any of those associations.”
Whether showing the past from a different angle or trying to decode history as it is being written, these writers are equally concerned with creating nuanced characters, regardless of gender, in addition to allowing women to get their due.
“I really wanted to create a universe where everyone has good and bad in them,” says “The Morning Show” showrunner Kerry Ehrin, whose Apple TV Plus drama depicts #MeToo allegations head-on. “I wanted it to be about people who are on such a track of ambition, success, getting ahead and doing your job that they don’t think, ‘Is this right or wrong?’”
But in humanizing the show’s villain, Ehrin sparked an intense public debate. “There were early reviews that were very offended that Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) was part of the story,” says Ehrin. “Part of not wanting to come out of the gate with Mitch being just a monster was so that people might learn about the way that society looks at women as conquests and objectifies them. All I ever wanted to accomplish by writing this was to get people to look at their own behavior and question it.”
It is not only sex and gender politics that are being re-examined through a modern lens, though. Through the adaptation of Celeste Ng’s book “Little Fires Everywhere,” showrunner Liz Tigelaar shines a light on race relations in the ’90s.
“There was a philosophy that color blindness was a good thing: We don’t see color so that means we see everyone as equal,” Tigelaar says. “Of course, implicit in that is that if you have to ignore someone’s race to see them as equal to you or your race, that’s incredibly prejudiced, ranging to incredibly racist.”
The storyline that explores white fragility, predominantly through Reese Witherspoon’s character Elena, who prides herself on having attended the March on Washington, is as relevant today as it was in the time that the show takes place.
“We really wanted to examine the people who can’t see how insidious and ingrained [institutional racism] is in themselves because they just don’t perceive themselves to be ‘that way,’” says Tigelaar.
This fairly recent opportunity to amplify voices and viewpoints that historically have struggled to find representation on television can bring with it intense pressure, but it’s a challenge these writers and producers are facing head on.
“It’s easier to say nothing because you don’t want to make somebody else uncomfortable,” Tigelaar says. “But the stakes feel so high right now that we can’t not say anything. Who are we if we’re not saying something?”