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With House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and other Emmy-nominated dramas, women’s stories dominate

Wright Robin
Robin Wright in House of Cards

The film and television industries have been under pressure to include more women both behind and in front of the camera. But if movie studios have lagged behind the vanguard of change, there is no doubt that the television industry has increasingly embraced an array of rich portrayals of women as leaders and essential central characters. This reality is evident in the 2016 Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series, where enormously popular female-driven narratives dominate the category.

Among the seven nominees for drama series, only two—Mr. Robot and Better Call Saul—are anchored by a central male protagonist. The other five revolve around or feature powerful women: House of Cards, Game of Thrones, The Americans, Downton Abbey, and Homeland. The women in each of these series don't just struggle for power; we get to see them attain it. Whether it’s the wife of a shrewd politician who routinely beats him at his own game, or women who reach beyond being wives of kings to become powerful monarchs in their own right, female-driven narratives rule this year's Emmy race for Outstanding Drama Series.

Now in its sixth season, Game of Thrones won the category for the first time in 2015, and it looks to be the frontrunner again this year. While Game of Thrones gives ample attention to its many male characters, there is no doubt that the most recent season has handed the reins of power to women. Considering stories about women rising to the top of the food chain in such extraordinary fashion is a new phenomenon for Emmy voters.

While there have long been more opportunities for female actors of any age on television than in feature films, the Emmys have not always paid tribute to those programs when it came time to name the best. Even though sophisticated series like Homeland, Downton Abbey, and The Good Wife have been regularly nominated over the past several years, Emmy voters have more often given wins to male-centric shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Sopranos. Most viewers would agree that the new “golden age of television” began with the phenomenon of The Sopranos, the landmark series that changed the way we watch television. Are we now witnessing a second phase of that change—one in which viewers are captivated by stories about women as much as, if not more than, those about men?

Old-fashioned concepts of patriarchy were tightly woven into the narrative thrust of The Sopranos, and its formula set the tone for dozens of programs that followed—most bound to the same dated dynamic of a male-worshiping worldview where women knew their place and men wielded all the power. That was certainly true of Mad Men (despite its supporting cast of vibrant women), which won Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row, from 2008 to 2011.

While shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos centered on the singular male hero or antihero, they also reflected a sense that this tradition was losing its grip on dominance and a new model would soon rise to take its place. After all, the protagonists in both The Sopranos and Mad Men were trying to survive in cultures that were evolving beyond their ability to fully appreciate, and their failure to adapt would lead to their demise.

HBO forever altered the rules of the game. By elevating television to cinematic levels of scope and prestige, HBO set a precedent and mapped a pathway for other cable channels to become equal players in the Emmy race, so that nominations and wins were no longer monopolized by the major networks. None of the Big Three networks have won Outstanding Drama Series in over ten years, not since ABC’s Lost prevailed in 2005.

The film industry has shown us the wasteland that can result when the single-minded pursuit of blockbuster money becomes the only driver for projects. Film studios are hanging their hopes on a dwindling number of name-brand stars who can open a movie and justify exorbitant budgets. Without a strong opening weekend and the subsequent word of mouth, an expensive major release can sink like a stone. Even smaller films in limited release can struggle to gain enough eyeballs to turn a respectable profit. Women who direct and star have suffered as a result, because executives often see them as less reliable when it comes to opening films. This is especially true as studios increasingly rely on earning money overseas, since international audiences have been conditioned to expect the kind of American films that seldom feature women in charge.

In contrast, to attract advertisers and premium cable subscribers, the television industry relies on ratings, which measure entire households—with specific attention to the composition of the consumers. Ratings mattered more before cable got into the game because there were so few networks competing for eyeballs. Now that the entire industry has generated hundreds of channels, there is a bigger market for every kind of programming. With less of a reliance on beating competing networks, television affords greater room for experimentation, and more of that new work is now put in the hands of women, as directors, writers, and actors.

There is now an astonishing range of programs that have brought women to the forefront. At one end of the spectrum we have a show like The People v. O.J. Simpson, garnering 22 Emmy nominations overall. The standout of that series is Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, the prosecutor who took on Simpson's "dream team" of high-priced defense attorneys.

The increasing prominence of great female characters in television programming has done more than offer exciting new choices for viewers and Emmy voters. It has also provided a level of proven success that enables more opportunities for women filmmakers overall, opened the door for more experimentation in storytelling techniques, expanded the landscape for greater creative possibilities, and ultimately fostered a sensational range of female-dominated programming rarely seen in American narrative film. Women are allowed to be old on television. They’re allowed their imperfections, their traumas, and their flaws. These options have always been open to men but until recently were elusive for women.

Women have fought hard for equal inclusion, and the fight isn't over yet. For decades the power in Hollywood, behind the camera and in front of it, has been in the hands of men. That power won't be given up easily, so every victory is worth celebrating. This year, with Game of Thrones and The People v. O.J. Simpson as frontrunners (and Julia Louis Dreyfus' Veep a favorite in the Comedy Series category), it’s possible that nearly every major Emmy will be awarded to a series led by women—outstanding shows driven by powerful, merciless, complex, flawed, and fascinating women.

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