CNN’s ‘As Told By Her’ Project Celebrates Iconic Female Characters & Women In Television

We’re all about the female gaze and celebrating the voices and stories of women. Over the past few years we have seen some incredible TV and digital streaming shows featuring some badass lead female characters that offer the nuance, complexity and gravitas that has been missing for so long. As more and more female producers, writers, directors and executives get the opportunity to make shows by, about, and for women, it’s clear the female gaze has been a long time coming.

CNN’s ‘As Told By Her’ project celebrates some of the iconic female characters and the work of women in contemporary television. The project comes at a time when women’s voices and stories are being given bigger and bigger platforms, despite continual sexism and push-back against women who dare to speak out or exist publicly. Just look at the insidious double standards former Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been facing about the release of her post-2016 election book ‘What Happened’. Why do people feel the need to tell her to go away or stop speaking, but don’t do the same when other former candidates like Al Gore, Mitt Romney, John McCain or John Kerry do the same?

When it comes to the portrayal of women in media and entertainment, what audiences see, albeit it in a fictional setting, can have a major impact on the way they view the women in their own lives and how they subconsciously assess their lives. Speaking with 10 women – Elisabeth Moss, Tig Notaro, Rachel Bloom, Samira Wiley, Mandy Moore, Freida Pinto, Emmy Rossum, Regina King, Logan Browning and Constance Zimmer – CNN highlighted their work in front of and behind the camera that helped bring to life the kind of characters that generations before them fought to make possible.

“Television has come a long way in the five decades or so since producers realized it was time to show the average American viewer the truth — that women were more than happy, pearl-wearing homemakers. The journey to fuller, more complete portrayals of women on television has been a fraught one, filled with as many setbacks as triumphs, with more to come,” said a description on the landing page.

We also get to hear from TV show creators such as Diane English and Mara Brock Akil who share the barriers they faced when trying to get shows off the ground that featured non-stereotyped women. Diane recalls trying to pitch ‘Murphy Brown’, a woman in her 40’s, with a substance abuse problem, coming back from rehab, to CBS executives, who wanted the character to be younger, and less controversial. In other words, more “likeable”, yet Diane didn’t cave.

“[There’s] this word that you hear a lot and still do from executives, which is ‘likable.’ It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because it really means so many more things than that. It means sand down the rough edges, and ‘Be careful what they say’,” she said.

The show ended up becoming a huge success, and the network didn’t give her any notes on changing her vision.

Female characters who are “unlikeable” often experience audience backlash in a way that an unlikeable male character may not. Actress Mandy Moore, star of ‘This Is Us’ talks about how her character struggles between motherhood and wanting to return to the singing career she never fully got to realize. Audiences have criticized the choice for her to have any sort of selfish ambition, as if it is a sin for a mother to want something for herself.

“I feel really fortunate to portray this woman who is so rich and layered and compelling, but she’s ultimately not a perfect woman. She’s not a perfect partner or perfect mother, and I think that that’s relatable — to see a flawed human on screen,” said Mandy.

Many of the women interviewed credit streaming services like HULU and Netflix, as well as smaller networks wanting to cater to the wave of female empowerment as a reason we are seeing more and more interesting shows featuring complex female protagonists. But Hollywood still largely operates on the older, male-dominated standards which means sexism isn’t completely eliminated.

‘American Crime’ star Regina King is glad for this shift, as it means she can play characters that are not stereotypical.

“You’ve never really seen me play a submissive character; I think primarily because I don’t really know many women like that in my personal life. I think that that woman does exist, but she exists far less than how she’s portrayed, than how many times you see her on TV or in film,” she said.

A study by USC Annenberg looking into the percentages of diversity in entertainment in 2016 found that only 26.6% of regular characters — male or female — on television series were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. It also said women over 40 were pretty much invisible in both film and television, which makes shows like Netflix’s ‘Grace and Frankie’ a rare and much needed exception.

Netflix has been our go-to platform for shows that portray a range of female characters in a very refreshing way. The stand-out show being of course ‘Orange Is The New Black’, which star Samira Wiley, who was killed off a previous season, and is now starring in HULU’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ says has given her an opportunity to be a role model.

“I recognize the platform that I’ve been given in my own life. I want to take on that responsibility and know that I do have a voice, and I have people who are looking to me sometimes to say things and not be afraid of the word ‘role model’,” she said.

‘Dear White People’ star Logan Browning, which is also on Netflix, also sees the importance of visibility in a medium where women of color have for so long been otherized or invisible.

“When I wake up in the morning and I go to the ‘Dear White People’ set, I know that I am challenged with promoting a voice, and being a voice for a group of people,” she said.

‘As Told By Her’ also promotes the importance of initiatives that are encouraging more female directors. ‘American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy launched a foundation which has been able to hire a large percentage of women and people of color, proving this isn’t hard. Ava DuVernay has also proved the same by literally hiring only women to direct every episode of ‘Queen Sugar’ on OWN, which she executive produces.

You can watch video interviews of the women featured by going to the CNN page.



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