The Women Who Shaped Television in the 2010s

This decade we've seen the consequences of what critics referred to as Peak TV, but we've also seen how women went from being strong supporting characters to the stars of acclaimed shows. 
Decade Rewind Women

This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.

As television has continued to grow and expand over the past decade, being a TV viewer has become overwhelming. Keeping up with all the good television shows on various streaming services and networks can feel impossible, but the influx of ways to watch TV has allowed more diverse stories to reach audiences. This decade, we’ve seen the consequences of what critics refer to as “Peak TV,” but we’ve also seen how women went from being strong supporting characters to the stars of acclaimed shows.

“Peak TV” really began with The Sopranos and continued throughout the early 2000s with similar stories of troubled men in moments of crisis. Willa Paskin explains this moment in time for Slate: “It identifies a real phenomenon, the boom in ambitious television that arose in the wake of The Sopranos, while also functioning as a gravitas-laden phrase that boosted the medium of television itself — helping it ascend from the strictly lowbrow trenches where the idiot box and its offerings had long been banished.”

The shows that followed The Sopranos were equally as layered and dynamic, but they continued to focus on men. The trope seemed to be the crowning formula for “Peak TV” dramas.

However, the shows that come to mind when we talk about “Peak TV” have also brought some of the greatest female characters we’ve seen on television. Peggy Olsen from Mad Men. Dr. Jennifer Melfi from The Sopranos. Kima Greggs from The Wire. What was disappointing about watching these shows for those characters is that we would only ever get fleeting moments of them. No matter how big their side plots would be, we always returned to the male star.

All of the aforementioned shows are remembered because they’re fantastic shows. While they were focused on white men, their success and what Paskin refers to as “helping [television] ascend” broadened what stories filled our television screens, including shows focused solely on women. Women’s stories have been treated with the same consideration as the male stories that came before them; they are no longer supporting characters on great shows, but have shows of their own. To understand just how much television has evolved to accommodate female stories, let’s take a look at some of the great women we’ve watched over the past decade and the themes their shows discuss.

Working through trauma

One thread that runs between several great shows about women this decade is trauma. Some of the most compelling stories have involved women experiencing or recovering from trauma. Trauma comes in different forms and it can be systematic like in The Handmaid’s Tale and Orange Is the New Black.

The dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale puts the women in Gilead through horrible experiences, and aspects of the show speak to issues growing in our society. June (Elisabeth Moss) is the kind of character that makes watching such a bleak show rewarding. She’s a conniving survivor despite the hell she goes through in the show. The trauma she and the other women face in the show is horrific, but hopefully, it sheds a light on the similar views on women that extend beyond the fictional place of Gilead and into our society today.

Orange Is the New Black features a large cast of fantastic women who embody a wide range of stories within the prison. Piper (Taylor Schilling) eventually becomes the least interesting character in the show, but she still tells a story we didn’t see in the previous decade of television. Piper, who is ignorant of anything outside of her privileged life before she is sent to prison, learns about the women’s lives in prison and becomes enlightened to aspects of society she’s ignored. Piper is a gateway for the audience to explore these heartbreaking stories of abuse, neglect, and poverty. The trauma and mistreatment that the women face in and out of jail is largely a systematic issue of the prison system, which hasn’t been featured on television until this decade.

Showing personal trauma that women face can be upsetting, but it is a necessary part of telling women’s stories. There have been fantastic shows that feature women dealing with trauma as real women do every day. Big Little Lies had one of the greatest first seasons of the decade. Based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, the series focuses on an unknown tragedy that is hidden from audiences until the end. We slowly watch what leads up to the finale and the trauma that the women in the show experience that leads them to kill a man. Jane (Shailene Woodley) raises the son she had after being raped by a stranger. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) struggles to leave her horrible abusive husband and sees the signs of his violence in her sons.

These women keep these issues to themselves to uphold a perfect image in their rich community, but it hurts them even more. At the end of the season, all of the women in the show become united by the traumatic experience they endure, creating a bond of sorts. What happens to Jane and Celeste is upsetting to watch, but how they survive is more moving in ways other shows that refrain from showing women struggle cannot be.

Other shows that deal with women’s trauma from this decade are Sharp ObjectsTop of the Lake, and The Sinner.

Spotlight on Sex

Along with giving a voice to women’s struggles, the shows of this decade have also opened up the opportunity to speak about women’s sexuality. There have been crude shows about men who love sex, but for a long time, women’s interest in sex was rarely represented on television, perhaps never outside of Sex and the City.

Comedy is one place where women can outwardly joke about sex. Abbi (Jacobson) and Ilana (Glazer) are never shy about their sexuality and the fluidity of their desires on Broad City. In the show, they address aspects of sex that had been taboo for women to joke about on television. As the show came to an end this decade, it reflected how the political climate affected women and how they feel in their bodies as well. The show was able to address political issues like abortion while shining a positive light on women’s desires and sexuality beyond heterosexuality as well.

One of the best shows of the decade also dealt with sex, but in a different way. Fleabag is a blunt dark comedy about its title character’s sex addiction and how it complicates her life and those around her. There are hilarious scenes in the show that joke about explicit sex, but there are often the same scenes that break the audience’s hearts. Fleabag’s sex life affects and reflects her emotional well-being. The show does a monumental job of showing the complex relationship women have with sex that can be positive and negative.

Other shows that feature women candidly talking about sex are Tuca & Bertie, Mrs. Fletcher, I Love Dick, and Girls.

Older Women of television

In past decades, women in acclaimed shows had to fit certain stereotypes. If they were objects of desire, they needed to be young and beautiful. If they were in power, they needed to be young and beautiful. Even if they were a mother, they needed to look young and beautiful. Even if television shows did feature older women within realistic standards, they were never the focus of the show. Thankfully, we’ve gotten to see some older women on television in the past decade that are more realized as characters and given the same consideration as the older men we’ve built shows around during the previous decade of “Peak TV.”

Grace & Frankie is the most obvious example, which features Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as recently divorced older women connected by the fact that their ex-husbands have been in love with each other. The two women get into just as much trouble and have just as much fun as the younger women we see in comedic television shows. It’s a delight to watch and utilizes these two comedic geniuses and their age as an asset.

Other shows that feature glorious older women are Veep, Downton Abbey, and Call the Midwife.

More than just victims

Women have been a huge part of true crime since the dawn of the genre, but at times, they have simply been a number to discuss the mind of a killer. True crime as a whole has become a bigger part of entertainment in the past decade with the rise of true crime podcasts. Several networks and streaming services have capitalized on the desire for true crime content by cranking out captivating documentaries and docuseries. While not all of them have focused on women in meaningful ways, multiple examples depict women as more than just another victim.

The Keepers starts as an investigation into the unsolved murder of a Catholic school nun, but it becomes a deep dive into the sexual abuse that happened at the school. The murder of Nun Cathy Cesnik was just one evil of many happening at the school, and the most devastating crime in the series is how the women had to fight to convince authorities that they were abused as children at the school. The series highlights the bravery of  the women who faced the public to condemn the church for allowing the priest to continue working for the church after they knew how he had treated the girls of the school.

Many people remember the case involving Lorena Bobbitt because she cut off her husband’s penis, but few remember her part of the story. The Amazon docuseries Lorena retells the story of her trial and the media storm that surrounded Lorena in the 1990s. It explores the horrendous way the media portrayed her, the lasting effect the case had on her life, and how her husband gained fame from the case despite being accused of raping his wife repeatedly. Lorena is finally given the chance to speak about what it felt like to be judged by the entire country.

Murder on the Bayou investigates the murders of eight women in the “ghettos” of Louisiana and the police corruption that left their murders unsolved. The series challenges the idea that these women didn’t matter because they were addicted to drugs or participated in sex work to survive, and it shows how they were taken advantage of by police and ripped from their families without any explanation. It’s a heartbreaking series, but it takes into consideration the lives of women that never get the sensational news story even though they matter just as much as any rich white murder victim.

Other true crime shows that focus on women: Evil GeniusThe Act (technically dramatized true crime), and Amanda Knox.

There have been so many fantastic shows about women this decade that it’s impossible to talk about them all in one article. It’s important to seek out diverse stories so that networks to continue to make them. Thankfully, the follow up to “Peak TV” was a decade full of variety on television, and here’s to hoping that continues into the next decade.

Emily Kubincanek: Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_