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Must-See TV: Why The Female Gaze Is Thriving On The Small Screen

21st-century television has become the birthplace of the female gaze. Jennifer McShane looks at the rise of powerful women behind and on the small screen.  


Likely, everyone is familiar with the term ‘The Male Gaze.’ It was coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975 and simply put, used to describe film created through the eyes (or lens) of a heterosexual male. This is what, by-and-large, we’ve seen on TV and in cinemas for decades; Boy has issues. Boy goes on a journey. Boy meets girl. Boy desires and falls in love with girl.

Women are too often the object of desire; an addition to the plot, as opposed to the main subject of the action and thus, ‘The Female Gaze,’ has been harder to define and depict on screen. This is thanks to the dishearting number of women writers, directors and cinematographers currently working in Hollywood.

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But now, thanks to a welcome explosion of original content on the small screen, greater opportunities now exist for female filmmakers, writers and creatives. As a result, a growing number of shows are turning the lens around; women are now front and centre, a direct cause and result of the action and more than just the token Girlfriend or beautiful Damsel in Distress. Note: have you seen Big Little Lies?

And the female gaze takes many forms. Here is our pick of six of the best female-focused TV programmes on, or about to, air on the small screen.

Twin Peaks

It is happening again. Twenty-five years after the cult series’ untimely end, we finally get to return to the town of Twin Peaks. The show’s central character was murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer and even after we discovered her killer, she continued to haunt the townsfolk in various ways. While the rest went on about logs, coffee and cherry pie, Laura always lingered in the background. Creator David Lynch has said little about the new series but has specified that his feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me depicting the last seven days of her life (told from her point of view; a telling look into just how complex a woman she was) plays an important part in the third season. Actress Sheryl Lee will return as Laura, so we can scarcely wait to see the effect she has had on the town, 25 years on.

Twin Peaks Season 3 will air on May 21 on Sky Atlantic

House of Cards

The 30 May sees the highly anticipated return of the brilliant House of Cards for its fifth series. While at the start, the focus was on Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), as the show progressed, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) became a central figure in the show; at one point, audience polls depicted that she was more popular than Spacey’s character. Few series can say that two of their lead characters hold equal weight and as a result, Wright demanded equal pay as her role was as pivotal to the series. She has been credited instrumental in making Claire the central character she is – she was initially written as mere “arm candy” in the early scripts. Her enigmatic portrayal has been widely acclaimed and credited as a crucial part to the show’s prolonged success; season four took a turn giving us Claire’s version of events and was its best.

House of Cards Season 5 will air on Netflix on May 30

Jessica Jones

Have you watched the brilliant series that is Jessica Jones? Start now if you haven’t as series two is upcoming. Why? It tells the story of a former female superhero, played by Krysten Ritter, who quits the cape game and decides to try her hand at being a private detective for Avenger types. It’s all powerful females and mature sexuality. It has broken the mould in terms of stereotyping females on the small screen; Ritter’s portrayal is complex and careful, she’s no damsel in distress. “[She] does not give a shit about how she looks,” said Ritter. “Honey pot, seductress,” she added, “We are never doing that.”  It presented, in short, a rare female-focused look at the superhero universe and Netflix is working on its second season, in which every episode will have a female director.

Transparent

Transparent is a show of brilliance and one that has broken new ground through its depictions of transgender people and its exploration of human sexuality. The series has been critically acclaimed for tackling female sexuality and transgender issues in a fluid, real and emphatic manner. Maura, a transgender woman played by Jeffrey Tambor reveals to her family that she has always identified as a woman. Her family take the news in various ways and she receives support via ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light) who reveals she was always aware of her feelings. Creator Jill Soloway was inspired to write the series by her transgender father and has said that she hoped to use the series to explore ideas of gender identity through a “wounded father being replaced by a blossoming femininity.”

Transparent is currently streaming on Amazon

Insecure

Insecure has been hailed as “radically different,” as unlike virtually anything else on TV, scenes unfold from the perspective of black women. It follows the ups and downs of Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji), two young women living in L.A. The series was created by Rae who wanted to realistically depict the life experiences of African-American women: “We’re just trying to convey that people of colour are relatable. This is not a hood story. This is about regular people living life,” she said of the show. While the first series wasn’t directed entirely by women, half of its first season was directed by Melina Matsoukas, the filmmaker behind Beyoncé’s Formation video and she serves as its executive producer.

Insecure’s second season will premiere on HBO this July 

The Handmaid’s Tale

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred (Elizabeth Moss), one the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander (Joesph Fiennes) and his resentful wife. Many are familiar with the acclaimed novel of the same name, written by Margaret Atwood and its TV adaptation has received similar praise from critics. In one of the series most-talked-about scenes, we see Offred, forced to engage in an act of ritualistic intercourse known as “the ceremony.” But unlike many shows before, we see everything from her point of view; it’s the Commander and his wife who are made look to the most disconnected. “We wanted the audience to see what she would be seeing,” explained director, Reed Morano. The series also contains much voiceover from Offred, to add to what is an unfiltered point of view from the heroine.

The Handmaid’s Tale is currently streaming on Hulu and is expected to air here in the coming weeks 

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