From Superman to Woody Allen to Tony Soprano, stories with men at the center have simply been stories, while stories about women have been marginalized according to their presumed gender-specific appeal. The dreaded “chick-flick” and the “rom-com” are socially coded to be seen as vapid and insignificant; accompanied by a persistent stereotype of a groaning heteronormative dude being forced to watch by his equally vapid and insignificant girlfriend or wife — the only scenario in which he would possibly engage with that kind of nonsense.
Film industry influencers who advocate for more female-centric projects often couch their argument in the purchasing power of female moviegoers. While it’s true that women represent under-tapped box office revenue, that argument is driven in part by a dubious stereotype: that only women care about women’s stories. Movie studios, for now, seem content to churn out content informed by biased and outdated presumptions of their audiences, but it’s a different story on the small screen. Particularly in so-called “prestige” television, some of the most celebrated shows of the last few seasons have been led by women, but lead with their characters’ humanity, not their gender: “Orange is the New Black,” “Transparent,” “UnREAL,” “Jessica Jones” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (a show with a title and musical comedy format that almost dares you to pigeonhole it).
“Transparent” is arguably the most culturally significant among the recent crop of mold-breaking television series. The impact of Jill Soloway’s celebrated dramedy about a late-life gender transition, which gave a platform to an unfairly and dangerously maligned demographic, was nearly impossible to ignore, even if you don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime. The reception was on par with the most beloved television series in recent decades: “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad.”
But of course, unlike those prestige dramas, “Transparent” is a show about living as a woman — beyond the central protagonist. With only one lead male character, and two supporting regulars, it feels safe to say that Soloway wasn’t intending to appeal to a male audience. But appeal she did, even more so in the second season: Influential Vox critic Todd Vanderfwerff said in a tweet that “Transparent” is the best show on television. The New York Times’ James Poniewazik is an enthusiastic fan, and Indiewire TV critic Ben Travers gave the season a rave review. You’d be hard-pressed to find an end-of-2015 “Best of TV” list written by a critic of any gender that doesn’t have “Transparent” somewhere near the top.
The success of shows like “Transparent” tells us that audiences want our stories to represent “real” life — it just doesn’t have to be our lives. Anyone who isn’t a straight white man is already accustomed to having their identity under-represented on screen. But in the latest iteration of television’s golden age, it’s the patriarchy that is being marginalized. And those who have traditionally benefited from it don’t seem to see this as a problem.
Sure, there’s an emotional reward for recognizing ourselves in appealing characters, but it can be just as satisfying for a viewer to have his open-mindedness and inclusiveness affirmed. It’s exciting and self-legitimizing to participate in a cultural moment that’s banishing the damaging stereotypes pop culture created and enforced, with our help. We don’t just love shows like “Transparent” and “Broad City” and “Orange is the New Black”: We love loving them.
Today, pop culture is making it easier and more socially rewarding than ever before to be a feminist. Unlike “Sex & the City,” and to a lesser extent, “Girls,” the recent crop of female-driven shows aren’t positioning their male viewers in opposition to the goals of the protagonists. When they are, they do so in a way that includes the enlightened male viewer in the commentary. This feels less like an effect of a conscious political agenda than a natural byproduct of smarter writing, with deeper and more nuanced character development, that’s been behind the rebranding of television in general from a shallow guilty pleasure to a significant cultural product.
Many of the more successful female-centric shows also make it easier for men to enjoy them by presenting thoughtful portrayals of men, in a way that “Entourage” never bothered to do for women (and for that matter, “Sex and The City,” a frequent target of “Broad City’s” subversive humor, didn’t seem too concerned about). “Broad City” reads as a buddy comedy more than it does a feminist commentary, but it nonetheless slyly sends up the cultural tropes that have previously kept female-driven shows from trafficking in affirmative promiscuity, bathroom humor, and faithful avoidance of long-term romantic attachments. The most significant male character, Hannibal Buress’ Lincoln, is an astonishingly decent dude: laid-back, successful, supportive, and open-minded and without a shred of antagonism.
On “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) is absolutely her own worst enemy — not a victim of any particularly “bad” guy — and she’s permitted to have a real and serious struggle with depression and anxiety and self-loathing in a way that we’ve usually seen reserved for male protagonists. On “UnREAL,” Lifetime’s biting satire of reality competition shows like “The Bachelor,” no one treats the women competing worse than the female producers, and the bachelor himself turns out to be an unlikely moral compass who resists the exploitation and manipulation of the women jockeying for his attention. These shows, like “Transparent,” might be primarily concerned with the interior lives of progressive women, but they don’t cast men as obstacles or enemies.
When men are villains — such as on “Orange is the New Black” and “Jessica Jones” — they are enemies of everyone, like the universally vile prison guard “Pornstache,” who eventually becomes slightly more sympathetic as his character’s backstory is developed further in Season 3, but only after the audience has invested in two seasons that are almost entirely dominated by complex women (after all, it does take place in a women’s prison). On “Jessica Jones,” Jessica’s nemesis is supervillain Kilgrave, a.k.a. The Purple Man. Kilgrave’s terribleness is so extreme that any well-adjusted male viewer is not likely to take the villain’s monstrosity as a personal accusation or insult. And he’s also invited to see Kilgrave as a not very subtle metaphor for the dangers of male entitlement; again, without necessarily feeling symbolically culpable for Kilgrave’s egregious abuses, which victimize men and women.
“Transparent” is heavier and more complicated. It critiques male-dominant, heteronormative power structures by marginalizing them. In “Man on the Land,” the penultimate Season 2 episode, a male character doesn’t speak until nearly 22 minutes into the 26-minute episode. On the series as a whole, only one cisgender male gets a significant amount of screen time. But while Josh Pfefferman, like the rest of his family, is overprivileged and careless and comically self-involved, he’s not a *bad* guy. He almost always means well, and, maybe more importantly, he’s cool. He’s rich and good-looking and gets invited to the right parties and is frequently in the company of beautiful women. Even someone who is not particularly plugged-in to the ideologies of the show, or naturally open to the alternative ways of living and thinking the series presents, can still be drawn in by a character like Josh, whose masculinity is never threatened by his embrace of gender fluidity in those around him.
Amazon and Netflix don’t release audience data, but “Broad City” and “UnREAL” have been modest hits for their respective networks, Comedy Central and Lifetime. (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” hasn’t done the same for CW, yet, but it won the Golden Globe award for Best Actress and, buzz-wise, falls neatly into the category of Great Shows You’re Not Watching and Should Be.) More men than women are watching “Broad City” — the ratings are split 60/40 — which tracks pretty closely to Comedy Central’s overall audience demographics, but it’s drawing more men than the celebrated “Inside Amy Schumer,” which has been credited with making feminist humor appetizing for male audiences. Similarly, “UnREAL”‘s audience is roughly 20 percent male, in line with network averages. But while male viewers may have needed a nudge to get on board, the satirical series — created by women — easily won them over. “UnREAL” made end-of-year lists at The Atlantic, Vulture, Indiewire and Paste; a first for Lifetime, which has dropped the “Television for Women” tagline but not the association.
None of this means that we’ve reached a utopia of inclusion and representation, but the success of shows like “Transparent” and “Broad City” and “UnREAL” should be seen as evidence that lazy stereotypes don’t sell. An increasingly sophisticated and discerning television consumer doesn’t want stories that traffic in them — we are hungy for an on-screen world that accurately reflects the one we live in — and we don’t want to be stereotyped ourselves.
For some more girl power…