“Time of the heroines” – When Girls by Lena Dunham made its debut on HBO in 2012, the so-called “Time of Heroes. Quality television was beginning to flourish in earnest. The intricate narratives, thoughtful form, psychological insight and sensitivity to social issues made the new generation serials comparable to the great novels of the 19th century. The girls entered this reality with a load of post-feminist dilemmas wrapped in a tragicomic convention. The series centered around four young, educated women plagued by life’s disappointments in a fresh way analyzed the hardships of entering adulthood in the modern world.
The greatest merit of Girls, however, must be considered the uprooting of women’s bodies from the power of male gaze – the fetishizing male gaze that reduces women to objects of desire. Lena Dunham has spectacularly de-mythologized the vision of female physicality, eroticism and relationships. Common in the series were images of female characters urinating, images of menstrual blood and sperm, ear cleaning, suffering from rubbed thighs and cystitis from the heat, mending underwear, failed sex – ordinary experiences of every woman, but most often pushed off-screen. The heroines were often sweaty, disheveled, unpainted – and therefore in the common understanding: unattractive. A performance of sorts was created by Dunham herself, playing the role of Hannah – obstinately exposing her body that escapes the aesthetic norms promoted by the film and advertising industry.
On the border
What started with Girls resonated with full force in Orange is The New Black (OITNB). The series, created by Jenji Kohan based on Piper Kerman’s autobiographical novel, not only took the revolution a step further, but avoided the pitfalls into which the Dunham series fell. Indeed, one of the charges against Girls was the lack of differentiation of the protagonists in terms of gender, sexual and ethnic identity. Set in a state women’s prison, OITNB showed a full cross-section of female protagonists – diverse also in terms of economic, age, religion, sexuality and, last but not least, physicality.
In accordance with the postulates of body-positivity, slim, athletic, overweight, wrinkled, with stretch marks, scars or tattoos were shown on equal footing. Conversations about physiology and eroticism were the order of the day; one dared to show a photo of female genitalia or a used tampon. What’s more, in OITNB, carnality has been set in a broad social context, drawing attention to the problems of women of different races and groups. Kohan’s next project, GLOW, a subversive, inclusive story about the behind-the-scenes development of women’s wrestling in the U.S. of the Reagan era, continued a similar policy.
Importantly, not only women of color but also transwomen have gained more space in mainstream series. Until recently, the representation of this group was primarily down to Sophia Burset of OITNB. Recently, transgender issues (and voguing culture) have also been explored by Pose, the teen-addressed Euphoria, and the biographical Veneno.
Herstory and trauma mapping
Contemporary series have also reflected the coming to light of violence against women and the #MeToo movement. In particular, Handy’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, has a special place here. The series unfolded a vision of a state under the rule of religious fundamentalists, where the role of women is limited to reproduction and their rights do not exist. Filled with physical and psychological violence, The Story is a drastic herstory whose matter is the carnality of the main character.
Big Little Lies, based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, and Sharp Objects, based on the prose of Gillian Flynn, follow a similar premise. Both series focus on rape culture, domestic violence and relationships between women. The themes of trauma and violent patterns also appear in Westworld, where they are hidden under the costume of science fiction and westerns. Both the themes of sexual harassment in show business and the overlooking of women’s contributions to culture are addressed in the Fosse/Verdon series about a duo of brilliant dancer-choreographers. The meanders of rape culture are explored in the series Unbelievable and I Can Destroy You, aimed at a younger generation Thirteen Reasons, Euphoria and Riverdale, as well as the British Sex Education and End of the F***ing World.
Although the theme of trauma is firmly embedded in stories about women’s experiences, this does not mean that contemporary series focus exclusively on it. The most hit productions of recent years have also been stories about strong women gaining power or achieving professional success. It is impossible not to mention Claire Underwood from House of Cards, who, for all her cynicism, was certainly someone who can fight for herself. Catherine from the Great and Heroes of Game of Thrones series reached the heights of power by her own efforts. The path of a dream career in the male-dominated world was consistently followed by Peggy Olson in Mad Men, Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit, and the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Time of the heroines
Of course, the aforementioned titles are just a drop in a growing sea of productions centered around female protagonists – we have undoubtedly entered an era in which female subject matter has finally become important and carrying.
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