On TV, a new breed of Modern Woman

A ruthlessly self-aware political wife reconsidering her choices. A sensual socialite facing down an oppressive age with informed good humor. A group of young women so busy defying social expectations they’ve forgotten to have any of their own. A working mother with a gift for passionate stillness. A recently recovered drama addict determined to save the world. A bipolar CIA operative, an optimistic bureaucrat, a frightened sex slave turned canny warrior.

The female leads of “House of Cards,” “Parade’s End,” “Girls,” “The Good Wife,” “Enlightened,” “Homeland,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Game of Thrones” are very different sorts of women who share one important trait: We have never seen their like before. While everyone was fixated by the rise of the television anti-hero, on “The Sopranos,” on “House,” on “Dexter” and “Breaking Bad,” female characters quietly went post-archetype.

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More than 40 years after Mary Richards and Maude Findley made their Modern Woman debuts (and 130 since Ibsen’s Nora slammed the door heard ‘round the world), another group of groundbreaking women has emerged on television. They work and they parent; love but don’t always marry; betray or suffer betrayal but don’t necessarily divorce; have flaws, including mental illness, but are not destroyed by them. Most important, they falter, they despair, and then they move on .

Although lacking in demographic diversity — they are all white and mostly middle class — these characters are the fruits of both the feminist revolution and television’s increasing ascendancy. Shut out of the new blockbuster economics of Hollywood, the middle-aged actress and the creators of midlevel films have turned their attention to TV, especially cable series, creating leading ladies of a whole different caliber.


How else to account for Robin Wright’s terrifyingly splendid Claire Underwood in “House of Cards”? Having made a deal with the devil to avoid boredom, she finds the devil himself boring. Or Tom Stoppard and Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia Tietjens of “Parade’s End,” so different from her literary progenitor, with her insights into the era’s sexuality, laughing as she batters herself against the brick wall of Edwardian society. “Good Wife” Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) in “Game of Thrones” may live in worlds apart, but each accepts the inevitability of compromise and twists it into a new source of power.

They are refreshing because their choices are so unexpected, and their choices are unexpected because they actually have them.

For centuries, female characters were for the most part allowed two endings: marriage and death. Early feminists, including Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and later Kate Millet created memorable women who often railed against the narrowness of society, but in the end they either got married or died, often by their own hand. Alcott did her best to have Jo March remain “a happy spinster,” but in the end, even she capitulated to the demands of her audience. In “A Doll’s House,” Nora left her narcissistic husband, and that is where we left her — even Ibsen couldn’t quite imagine what would happen next.

Now we can. Through characters such as Claire and Sylvia, Alicia and “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), we can imagine Anna Karenina if she believed she had a future, Jane Eyre with self-esteem, Elizabeth Bennet granted a real education and maybe a trip or two to London. We can see Tess of the d’Urbervilles provided legal counsel or Jo March allowed to run away and be a soldier.

Access to birth control, equal pay for equal work and the invention of Lycra are all important hallmarks of increasing freedom for women, but so is the existence of “Parks and Recreation’s” Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), an unrelenting optimist with goals both lofty and ludicrous and whose marriage was worth an episode or two before the show moved on. Or “Enlightened’s” Amy Jellicoe, whom Laura Dern infuses with all the hope, anxiety and awkwardness that comes with conscious personal transformation.

Being a modern invention, television had a starting point a bit further along the liberation timeline than “The Taming of the Shrew” or Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” Lucy Ricardo was certainly quite unhappy with the limitations of being a housewife rather than a singing star or even a career gal, but she stopped short of throwing herself under a train.

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There have always been exceptions — the oeuvre of Norman Lear, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Julia,” “Cagney & Lacey,” Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect” and more recently, the women of “Bones,” on which Emily Deschanel’s Dr. Temperance Brennan is marked by the brilliant-but-socially-stunted personality that is the hallmark of a male lead. Even so, most female characters came and went in a fairly limited number of shapes and sizes. Tina Fey was welcome and wonderful as the creator of “30 Rock,” but Liz Lemon was an updated Rhoda Morgenstern — a beautiful, brilliant woman cloaked in overeating and self-deprecation.

And for better and worse, many of these archetypes are alive and well today — on “House of Cards,” Kate Mara’s character is absurdly outdated as a young reporter who thinks she can sleep her way to success. But even as recently as five years ago, characters such as “Homeland’s” Carrie and “Enlightened’s” Amy simply didn’t exist, and women such as Alicia Florrick or Leslie Knope would have been one-dimensional wives or working gals whose real passion was passion. “Sex and the City” took “That Girl,” tricked her out in Manolos, poured her a Cosmo and handed her a condom, but the Fab Four were pretty much fixated on their love lives.

Still, the idea that women could be just as sexually predatory and analytical as men was a game changer and perhaps the secret reason women seemed to vanish from television in the years after “Sex and the City” ended — where on earth, network executives seemed to wonder, were we supposed to go from here?

They didn’t disappear entirely, but for several years it did seem as if “Law & Order’s” Mariska Hargitay, “Bones’” Deschanel and “30 Rock’s” Fey were the only three left standing, at least on the networks. Cable was a different story. After the success of “The Sopranos,” which did almost as well by its women as its men, both premium and basic were suddenly attractive to actresses who had aged out of the increasingly narrow scope of feature films. Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick went to TNT with shows that played more like cinema than television, and when Glenn Close brought Patty Hewes to life on “Damages,” things really began to change.

Patty was a cipher, a woman you loved to hate, with the sort of delicious contradictions usually reserved for male leads, and her love life had nothing to do with it. Indeed, her primary relationship was with another woman, a daughter figure whom she tried to curry and kill. Patty was almost Shakespearean, but far more King Lear than Lady Macbeth. “Damages” struggled to sustain its complicated narrative structure, but Patty Hewes did more than make her mark; she punched a hole in the wall.

Two years after “Damages’” debut, “The Good Wife” appeared. What many anticipated to be simply a novel narrative twist — what happens after the loyal political wife assumes the position during her husband’s fall — became something more profound. Not only did creators Michelle and Robert King re-invent the procedural as true character drama but they and Margulies also created a new sort of woman, quiet where one expected hysterics, contemplative where scheming seemed more predictable.

Critics were charmed, but more important, so were audiences. Not surprisingly, a spate of new female-centric shows sprung up in its wake. Some were instantly terrific (“New Girl”) and some were instantly terrible (“The Playboy Club”); many were just smart new renditions of old characters.

Increasingly, though, they were filled with characters we had never seen before, women allowed to make mistakes without paying the ultimate price, who not only survived the third act but also went on to the fourth.

Which is usually where the good stuff happens.