How Women Are Doing on TV, According to the Emmys

5 minute read

The Emmys are a seriously flawed institution: Great shows get snubbed while flailing ones clean up, and this year is no exception. (You’ll be hard-pressed to find a TV critic who preferred this season of Downton Abbey, which got 12 nominations, to The Americans, which got just one.) Ratings determine what stays on TV, and other awards like the Golden Globes often honor those who are snubbed at the Emmys. So while the nominations released this morning don’t mean everything, they often act as a barometer for how female actors, writers, directors and producers are doing on TV.

A slew of studies released this year revealed that the gender gap in Hollywood is still alive, well and as depressing as ever. But there’s a silver lining: TV is offering women a number of opportunities, including more robust and challenging roles for actresses and more options for those behind the camera. In a Hollywood Reporter roundtable of women on TV this spring, six women that the publication deemed to be “Emmy contenders” spoke about the advantages of working on the small screen.

“The film world is becoming quite flimsy for women,” said Julianna Margulies, star of The Good Wife. “They’re also not scared of women working in television. My unit production manager is a woman, two of my executive producers are women and three of the writers…The hardest thing about being an actor, and especially when you’re a woman trying to also have a family and a relationship, is to maintain some sort of normalcy. With television, you might not be home a lot, but you have a routine.”

“There’s just a deeper level of sophistication in the writing of female characters on TV,” added Vera Farmiga of Bates Motel.

The Emmy nominations prove this year that that’s true. The actress categories were arguably more competitive than ever before. Here’s why this past year was a great one for women on television.

Orange Is the New Black cleans up

Orange Is the New Black, a show with an almost entirely female cast, received 12 nominations. Netflix doesn’t reveal how many people stream its various shows, so while many critics assumed that people were tuning in, skeptics could still make the argument that the female-minded show wouldn’t appeal to men. But a prestigious Emmy nomination proves that the show isn’t just a one-trick pony: Orange Is the New Black actually got better after a well-reviewed first season. And more good news: The establishment is recognizing a show about people who are otherwise marginalized in our society.

The “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad

Moira Walley-Beckett was recognized for penning “Ozymandias,” which many consider to be one of Breaking Bad‘s best episodes. The nomination is not surprising, but it does reinforce the idea that sometimes a testosterone-laden show like Breaking Bad needs a woman’s touch. For those of you who don’t remember, “Ozymandias” was the episode in which Walter stole his baby girl away from his wife and son (before realizing he’s made a mistake and returning her). The heart-wrenching shot of Walter driving madly away with his weeping screaming wife on her knees in the road in the background, calling for her child was simultaneously beautiful, tragic, frightening and liberating. It brought much-needed humanity to the show’s final episodes.

Robin Wright in season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.
Actress, drama series - Robin Wright, House of CardsNetflix

Older women get a shot on TV

Most Hollywood insiders would tell you that being an actress over 40 is a death sentence. But not on television. If we look at this year’s female nominees, most are doing some of the best work of their careers as they approach (or exceed) middle age, including Robin Wright (House of Cards, age 48), Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife, age 48), Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad, age 45), Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey, age 79), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones, age 40), Christine Baranski (The Good Wife, age 62), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie, age 51), Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation, age 42), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep, age 53), Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly, age 43), Julie Bowen (Modern Family, age 44), Allison Janney (Mom, age 54) and Kate Mulgrew (Orange Is the New Black, age 59).

Many of these actresses, like Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Robin Wright, had long and varied careers before even starting to film their current shows.

Of course, a lot of great actresses were overlooked. Keri Russell was snubbed for her performance on The Americans, which many critics agree was the best drama on TV this year. Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany was passed over for a second year in a row despite giving an outstanding while playing several clone characters, all with different personalities. Elizabeth Moss missed out on a nomination for Mad Men after doing some of her best work on the show. And, perhaps most shockingly, The Good Wife, a show that (spoiler alert!) dispatched of its lead male character and now centers on two strong women, did not earn a nomination for best drama. Perhaps the reason is this was a particularly competitive year for women, and overall that’s great news.

One area that could use some improvement is comedy. Girls and Orange Is the New Black are not really comedies in the traditional sense, and Parks and Recreation is rumored to be close to its final season. I confess I haven’t seen either Nurse Jackie or Mike & Molly but Veep is hilarious. More comedies starring women like Louis-Dreyfus would be a great boost to TV. Some potential future contenders include Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central, which is making a concerted effort to bring more women to its network.

Find out which ladies will actually take home statues when the 2014 Emmys air on August 25, with Seth Meyers hosting.

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