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After so many prestige TV male antiheroes, 2017 Emmy nominations at last spotlight the female experience

Many already are calling the 2017 Emmys the Year of the Woman. But Year of the Women might be more like it.

This year’s Emmy nominations, announced Thursday, were dominated by “Big Little Lies,” “The Crown,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Feud: Bette and Joan” — shows that not only highlight strong female performances but also put women’s stories at the center of the action.

The range of these stories — and the women who helped bring them to life — is a reminder that the Golden Age of TV, ushered in by male antiheroes, is increasingly casting a spotlight on the collective female experience.

With “Game of Thrones” out of contention, the drama series category welcomed two newcomers that, in wildly different ways, saw women pitted against one another. In Netflix’s “The Crown,” the young Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) reluctantly squelches her sister’s romance with a divorced man. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” imagines a theocratic dystopia in which fertile women are enslaved as surrogates to the wives of the ruling class. Each series received 13 nominations.

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Full coverage: 2017 Emmy Award nominations »

PASADENA,, CALIF. -- SATURDAY, JANUARY 14, 2017: Cast of the upcoming HBO series “Big Little Lies”
PASADENA,, CALIF. -- SATURDAY, JANUARY 14, 2017: Cast of the upcoming HBO series "Big Little Lies" from left: Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel / Wisteria Cottage in Pasadena Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)e
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Likewise, the limited-series category was led by two stories of women with complex relationships: “Feud,” which dramatized the legendary rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and “Big Little Lies,” a murder mystery set among well-heeled Monterey mothers.

Meanwhile, the documentary nominee “Bright Lights” poignantly captured the loving if fraught mother-daughter bond between the late actresses Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.

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“Feud,” Ryan Murphy’s tale of sexism and ageism in Hollywood, racked up 18 nods. In a fitting twist for a series about actresses vying for Oscar glory, both leads, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, were nominated for their performances.

Another leading contender, HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” earned 16 nominations for its portrayal of the competitive, often toxic relationships among a group of socially striving women. Executive produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, the limited series earned praise for its handling of class, domestic violence and motherhood. Four actresses from the series were nominated Thursday.

“This series was borne out of a frustration of not enough roles — interesting, complicated roles — for women,” said Kidman. “Reese and I felt like we weren’t being given the roles that are sort of multilayered and beautifully written.”

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Substantive roles for women were not in short supply this year, however, and the nominated performances often dealt headlong with the insecurities and anxieties of being female.

“This is Us” star Chrissy Metz was recognized for her turn as an overweight woman struggling with body image. Pamela Adlon earned a surprise nomination for comedy actress for her work in “Better Things,” a deeply personal series about a single mother raising three daughters.

Perhaps less surprising were the nods for Foy in “The Crown” and Elisabeth Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” actresses widely acclaimed for their expressive portrayals of women — one a young, sheltered monarch, the other an indentured surrogate — placed in rigid patriarchal systems.

The range in age of this year’s nominated actresses, from 13-year-old Millie Bobby Brown of “Stranger Things” to 79-year-old Jane Fonda of “Grace and Frankie,” suggests greater opportunities for women on either side of the ingenue age bracket.

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And encouragingly, there were multiple nominations for actresses of color, including Samira Wiley, Tracee Ellis Ross, Thandie Newton and Viola Davis.

A number of the nominees gave voice to the frustrations of many women at a time of great political division in the U.S. Inspired by “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s celebrated novel that premiered in April, activists have taken to wearing the show’s distinctive red robes and white bonnets at protests around the country.

“It’s showing me and everyone else how important and how timely this show is, how symbolic it is for people,” said Wiley.

This year also marked a major breakthrough for women — or at least one woman — in the perpetual boys’ club of late night TV. The staunchly feminist “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” which runs on TBS, earned its first nomination for variety talk series and a second consecutive nod for writing.

Bee’s cheeky bit of counter-programming, “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” in which the former “Daily Show” correspondent wore a symbolically resonant white pantsuit, was also nominated for variety special.

And there was some encouraging progress in the directing categories.

Women accounted for three of the seven drama directing nominees — a field historically dominated by men. Celebrated filmmaker Ava DuVernay picked up two nominations for directing and producing “13th,” her documentary about race and mass incarceration.

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Yet in spite of the prominence of women on-screen, there was still evidence of a persistent gender imbalance. Only a handful of women were represented in the writing categories.

Emmy voters largely ignored such acclaimed shows as “Insecure,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Fleabag” and “Queen Sugar,” all of which focus on woman and have female showrunners and/or creators. “Transparent,” Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking series about a transgender woman, was also left out of the comedy series category for the first time.

It’s also worth noting that many of this year’s female-centered shows — “The Crown,” “Big Little Lies,” Feud” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to name a few — were actually steered by men in key creative positions. And none of the 14 comedy and drama series nominees has a solo female showrunner.

Something to work on next year.

Staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

meredith.blake@latimes.com

Follow me @MeredithBlake

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