TV’s Strong Female Leads Gain Ground With Women Running Shows on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Steve Clarke

Scripted shows featuring strong female leads have never been more prominent in TV schedules on both sides of the Atlantic.

The trend is evident in such acclaimed serials as “Girls,” “Unreal,” and “Transparent” in the U.S. Meanwhile in the U.K., period pieces “Call the Midwife” and “Victoria,” Blighty’s biggest new drama this fall, have put women to the fore in two different centuries.

The fashion for female leads is just as clear in comedy. A show as radical as “Fleabag” suggests what is creatively possible on internet services that don’t have to please advertisers; “Fleabag” is seen on Amazon in the U.S. and BBC3 in the U.K.

“Fleabag,” created by its star, buzzy newcomer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, began as a fringe production on stage at the Edinburgh Festival. The show’s roots can also be traced to such raunchy groundbreakers as “Sex and the City,” “Girls,” and “Catastrophe.”

Filthily sexual and often brutally dark, its central character is promiscuous, a liar, a thief, and terminally malcontent. In other words, “Fleabag” is about as far away as it’s possible to get from feel-good fare.

“In Britain we’ve never been short of TV drama with strong female leads, but ‘Fleabag’ is doing something genuinely original,” says TV drama doyenne Jane Tranter. “Hopefully this will inspire other people to take scripted in a different direction. Think of how ‘The Office’ affected comedy by having such a potential unlikable guy at the heart of the show.”

Tranter is one of the few TV execs to have worked in big jobs both in the U.K. and the U.S. In London she ran BBC Drama. She then headed to Los Angeles to lead the Beeb’s Worldwide Productions.

Today she is in charge of Welsh-based shingle Bad Wolf, which also keeps a Hollywood office. The company’s co-production deals include a partnership with HBO. She worries that misogyny exploited by Donald Trump’s campaign has a detrimental effect on female characters written for TV shows.

“The U.K. is light years ahead of America in terms of its attitudes to women and how women are portrayed in TV drama,” says Tranter. “In Europe you’ll see a lot more shows that have strong female characters.”

Showrunner Shonda Rhimes helped foster the current wave of female-heavy TV drama, including her best-known characters — the prickly, independent Meredith Grey in “Grey’s Anatomy” and the resourceful yet tormented Olivia Pope in “Scandal.”

In Blighty, resourceful women have long played key roles on the box. “There is nothing new about having strong female characters,” says U.K. screenwriter Debbie Horsfield. “It’s what I’ve been doing since 1988. For me it’s the norm. I don’t feel conscious of myself as part of a movement.”

She emphasizes that successful British writers including Sally Wainwright (creator and helmer of “Happy Valley”), Kay Mellor (writer of “Band of Gold”), and Heidi Thomas (writer of “Call the Midwife”) have all written signature shows for many years.

“Pulling” alum Sharon Horgan even has current series based on both sides of the pond with HBO’s Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle “Divorce” and the Emmy-nominated Channel 4/Amazon comedy “Catastrophe.”

“We may suddenly be in the spotlight, but this is not a new phenomenon,” says Horsfield, writer of the BBC’s rebooted “Poldark,” which went head-to-head with “Victoria” on Sunday nights in the U.K.

“I do, however, think it is true to say there are more female writers coming through,” she adds.

Audiences for TV drama have always tended to be female-skewing. “Women love watching TV drama, and they want to see stories that resonate with and reflect their own lives,” Horsfield says. “They don’t want to see women cast as some passive piece of set dressing. I wouldn’t be interested in writing those roles.”

Despite this, sexual stereotyping is still rife in many dramas in which women occupy pole position. Tranter thinks American shows in particular let women down with formulaic female characters.

“There are the stock types of roles available to women,” she says. “Take the case of clever women. We don’t often see clever women in TV drama who aren’t to some degree flawed.

“There are women who are very clever and good at their job and have sex, but violent things happen to them. Or they are driven by their work and therefore very lonely and never have sex. Or they are driven and have all sorts of addictions. Why aren’t there women on TV who are allowed to be like Tony Soprano, or someone who is really good?”

The Bad Wolf boss is optimistic that Netflix’s hugely anticipated “The Crown,” whose subject is the reign of Elizabeth II, will provide a positive role model for women. Peter Morgan wrote the series.

“Peter is incapable of writing a woman who is not clever so I am looking forward to see how he portrays Elizabeth. I am sure there will be an edge,” she predicts.

“Of course all drama stems from conflict, but it does make me anxious that so many fictional female characters in TV have to be fatally flawed.”

Is part of the answer to encourage more female showrunners? Perhaps producers should hire more women writers.

In the U.K., while female screenwriters are part of television’s fabric, showrunners are rare. Showrunning requires so many different skills that Tranter, a mother to 14-year-old twins, thinks women already juggling work and family responsibilities might regret taking the job.

“Shonda Rhimes is the exception,” she says. “These showrunner jobs are a bit of a nightmare and demand 150% of your life. In the U.K. system we don’t really have showrunners. The ones we do have — people like Russell T. Davies [‘Doctor Who’], Steven Moffat [‘Sherlock’] and Chris Chibnall [‘Broadchurch’] — are mostly men. This might change in the future.”

While showrunners in the U.K. are unusual, Blighty’s thriving independent production sector is full of female-led companies specializing in drama.

Nicola Shindler founded one of Britain’s leading independent producers, Red. The shingle was founded in 1998. Among its many hits are the pioneering “Queer as Folk,” and “Happy Valley,” streamed via Netflix in the U.S. Her latest series is “Paranoid,” bought by Netflix, a co-producer on season two, which features maverick policewoman, Nina Suresh, played by “Game of Thrones” actress Indira Varma.

Shindler admits she is frustrated by the number of female characters who are victims in TV crime shows. She would like to see writers being more adventurous in how they draw their female characters. “It’s great it’s evolving, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet,” she says.

One thing that has changed: when she worked as a script editor at the BBC in the 1990s her bosses were all male. Now drama executives and commissioners in the U.K. are as likely to be women.

However, it was a man, ITV’s ex-director of TV, Peter Fincham, who greenlit “Victoria,” hyped as the new “Downton Abbey” (and headed to PBS’ “Masterpiece” franchise in the U.S. beginning Jan. 15). Already ordered for a second run, “Victoria” — starring Jenna Coleman as the young 19th century British monarch — is the debut drama from English novelist and lifestyle TV specialist Daisy Goodwin.

“What is different about ‘Victoria’ is that the leading woman is not just a romantic lead,” Goodwin says. “That’s unusual for TV. She is in charge, she is the queen and she reigns over the biggest empire the world has ever known. Victoria is an attractive young woman, but she doesn’t use her body and doesn’t take her clothes off. It is not sexually exploitative. That’s girl power.”

Even so, some critics have griped that Goodwin is guilty of turning history into a glossy Mills and Boon-style romance. This, she says, is itself a kind of sexism. “No one ever said that to Julian Fellowes about ‘Downton Abbey,’” Goodwin points out. “I don’t really care, because I’m laughing all the way to the bank.”

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