Due to the current COVID climate, women in midlife and beyond are turning more to the television screen and online services for entertainment and inspiration than usual. While young people may be watching media to see examples of how to navigate the world — not as direct lessons — but as further expanding the database, mature people may watch thinking more about what it would have felt like, or what they would have done.
As people age, they develop more interest and ability to process more cognitively complex storylines – explains to NBC News- Pamela Rutledge PhD, MBA, behavioural scientist, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and Media Psychology faculty at Fielding Graduate University-. They seek out storylines that resonate with them and characters with whom they identify.
However, even though Television remains a much richer medium when it comes to juicy roles for women and one of the favourite platforms for middle-aged ladies who want to be entertained, it’s still not clear why there are so many female characters over 40 depicted so dysfunctional on-screen or why they often have to play a secondary part remaining in the background.
Luckily, there are a few shows and movies that break the mould featuring stellar casts playing complex roles. There’s Emma Thompson, starring as a sinister British prime minister in the BBC’s ‘Years and Years‘; Gillian Anderson, 50, plays a liberated therapist in Netflix’s comedy ‘Sex Education‘; Suranne Jones, 40, playing the role of a lesbian landowner in 19th-century Yorkshire in the BBC’s ‘Gentleman Jack‘.
TV Shows featuring strong women
According to ‘The Financial Times‘ things are changing: “We are currently witnessing a dramatic change that partly reflects the reckoning after the Harvey Weinstein revelations — but also a new-found confidence that a bankable audience exists for such programmes. TV commissioners have seen the shift in ratings in recent years and responded. There is a small-screen gold rush taking place, and female directors, writers and leads are in everyone’s sights“.
Here are our favourite Tv series that goes beyond the usual clichés featuring strong and passionate women.
Mrs America is a 2020 series on Hulu depicting prominent women from the Equal Rights movement. In this limited series, the ERA is seen through two distinct lenses: one through conservative Phillis Schlafly who fought strongly against the ERA and the second through activists like Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. The series is a dramatization of the actual events and the acting is incredible. Cate Blanchett portrays Phillis Schlafly as a complex conservative married mother of 6 who fights against the Equal Rights Amendment while still actively pursuing a law degree and future political aspirations. The hypocrisy is clear as she straddles her professional path with her personal beliefs. The other side of the movement also has powerful performances by Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm’s strength and her confidence in knowing she should run for office during those tumultuous times is incredibly inspiring. It is hard to believe this was 50 years ago.
The Ascent Of Women
For midlife women interested in history, The Ascent of Women is a four-part documentary on Netflix and YouTube that portrays varying roles of women throughout 10,000 years of history. It is a fascinating series hosted by Dr Amanda Foreman in which she travels the world exploring the constantly changing roles of women in different cultures. She begins her journey in Anatolia, Turkey visiting one of the first known civilizations. It appears that the Catalhoyuk civilization knew no gender roles or divisions and shared equally in all things (family, work and food). She then proceeds to Egypt to reflect on 2300 BC when women began to lose power and equality. She moves through Vietnam, China and Japan showcasing the strong women that fought against an ever-growing backdrop of patriarchy. She describes the roles of women in early Christianity as either pure and virginal or evil and temptress. In her last episode, she reflects on the growth of feminism, the suffrage movement, reproductive rights and women as leaders in our modern world. This documentary is one of the most comprehensive portrayals of women in history.
The next recommendation comes on the heels of the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendments which gives women the right to vote. Suffragette is a 2015 film now on Netflix. It takes place in early 1900’s London as a young woman (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) steps out of her predetermined life as a wife, mother and worker in a laundry facility to join the suffrage movement and fight for women’s rights to vote. Meryl Streep is Mrs Pankhurst who advocates the need for radical action and is willing to face prison to give women the right to vote. At a pivotal point in the movie, Mrs Pinkhurst gives a poignant speech stating in part “Never underestimate the power we women have to define our own destinies. We do not want to be lawbreakers, we want to be lawmakers.” The film takes on even more meaning today.
Grace & Frankie
A lighter option would be Grace & Frankie, an American Netflix series that is set to film its last Season (7) in 2021. Jane Fonda (Grace) and Lily Tomlin (Frankie) characters are polar opposites reminiscent of the Odd Couple. Grace is a retired executive and Frankie is a hippie and the show starts with their husbands announcing that they are in love and are leaving the ladies for each other. This sets off a chain of events that result in Grace and Frankie living together and comedy ensues. They learn to lean on each other as they navigate dating, health, business and family dynamics. The show is relatable, delightful and a great binge series.
Big Little Lies
This small-screen adaptation of the Liane Moriarty novel is about the complexities of middle-aged women (and the men that don’t love them). Fueled by a female-driven narrative and a superstar cast (Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern) the HBO TV series explores the apparently perfect lives of upper-class mothers, at a prestigious elementary school and unravel to the point of murder when a single-mother moves to their quaint Californian beach town. The boldest thing about Big Little Lie? The way it centres on women’s experiences as wives and mothers and depicts their internecine fights with each other as a distraction from a larger, ongoing conflict with men.
A final recommendation would be Killing Eve, a psychological thriller (mixed with some dark comedy) on Hulu that stars the 47-year-old Sandra Oh (Eve Polastri) as an American investigator working in Britain and chasing a female assassin in an emotional cat and mouse game. Jodie Comer plays the assassin Villanelle who is psychotically brilliant in her profession and unapologetic in her power. It is refreshing to see two dominant female characters that are not necessarily considered the heroines but use intellect and femininity to their advantage. Season 4 has been confirmed to the delight of its viewers.
This shortlist should leave you craving more female-driven series. With the increasing number of female network executives, directors and producers, we hope to start seeing more midlife women as leads and inspirational characters.