In 1852 Emily Dickinson published her first poem anonymously. She was still just a teenager, but the reason for keeping her name off the verses ran deeper: In the 1800s, a woman’s place was in the home, with few attending school, let alone pursuing public positions. But Dickinson was determined to “make sure her work was seen and heard,” notes Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays the legendary poet in Apple TV Plus’ “Dickinson.”
“She didn’t necessarily care about being famous; she just wanted to be recognized for what she was good at,” Steinfeld says. “She’d dress up as a boy to sneak into university and see a lecture. She would pretend to be deathly ill so she could stay in her room and write. She did whatever she could to break out of the box that she was put in.”
There are still many strides for women to make, including in the areas of equal pay and reproductive rights, but things have thankfully come a long way in the past two centuries. Women have obtained agency in their lives from the right to vote to working outside the home; women own their own property and often act as head of household. What’s more, their stories are being told on television at an increasing rate, and this allows for a wide range of tales of empowered women who are taking control of their lives by any means necessary.
In Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” Octavia Spencer portrays the titular hair-care millionaire, a Black woman who managed to build an empire in the late-1800s. Slavery had only been abolished two years before the real-life Walker was born, and the darkness of her skin, aside from her gender, was something that could have held her back. But she was “just a very driven woman,” Spencer says. “Driven by the fact that she was born free and boundless to anyone or anything. And that, I think, motivated her to pursue all that made her happy and all that made her feel fulfilled. She may not have had agency in society, but she damn sure took it in her own life.”
As time has gone on, the level of ruthless ambition women have been allowed to display when it comes to both business and family has expanded. In the third season of Netflix’s “Ozark,” for example, Laura Linney’s Wendy Byrde ordered murders (including of her own brother) in order to keep her money-laundering business going.
“She’s competitive and she has blood in her mouth,” Linney says. “She’s been a creature of survival since she was very young. And she’s very savvy and very smart, but she’s very reactive.”
Meanwhile, in the second season of “Dead to Me,” Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) goes to extreme lengths to cover up a murder she committed. This includes dragging her friend Judy (Linda Cardellini) into helping bury the body of Judy’s husband, as well as burning his car. While much of it is self-preservation, the latter is to protect Jen’s teenage son, who took a joyride in the car.
“Jen was incredibly selfish in this; she’s making this person help her — she’s manipulating her — because she’s scared because she’s going to lose everything if anyone finds out,” Applegate says. “But it’s desperation. It’s the story of the mom lifting the car off of their kid — having almost superhuman strength because she can’t let them go down with her.”
A traumatic experience was also the catalyst for Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) in Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” stepping up for her children and herself. Krystal’s involved in a pyramid scheme after losing her husband, not only to make more money but also to feel a sense of power, despite the harm it does to the friends who get dragged into the scheme too.
“As a woman, so many characters often are buttoned-up, and why I took this part was because I thought it was an opportunity to take every shameful thing about myself and put it into the role,” says Dunst. “For me, it was just such a relief that she wasn’t crying about this man. Whenever you can put all of your emotions into something, it always feels the most cathartic, and I feel like that’s what you want the audience to feel too: It helps to get out that rage that none of us are supposed to share.”
In HBO’s “Watchmen,” Regina King’s Angela Abar is a cop, wife and mother by day who dons a mask as Sister Night to take down criminals in the Seventh Kavalry.
“There could not be a Sister Night without Angela’s experiences, and Angela needs Sister Night beyond just policing experiences that happened that led her to having to disguise herself,” King says. “The choice of Sister Night, in particular, is an extension of who she is but who she tucks away. I think it’s a great visual metaphor for trauma and how we carry our trauma with us.”
Angela’s drive comes, in great part, from a sense of justice for the world, but also to protect her family members, who survived a previous Kavalry attack and are still in danger due to her police work.
Family is a powerful motivator for many of these female characters, but the way one defines family has changed over the years.
Blanca Rodriguez’s (MJ Rodriguez) family in FX’s “Pose” is a combination of friends in the ballroom scene and the next generation she has taken in and given a safe space. In the second season, the HIV-positive woman not only empowered herself by opening her own nail salon, but also her kids to chase their dreams, resulting in one becoming a choreographer and another opening his own talent management company.
“As a woman of color, our stories are not always put on the forefront, and HIV was one where they weren’t really showing the black community,” Rodriguez says. “There were a lot of scenes that were really challenging for me because they hit a nerve. But I took some from myself and my experience of what I’ve gone through as a woman in general, aside from being trans. And I took a lot from my mother because she is a strong, powerful, self-made, Black woman. Blanca knows she has to live now because she’s a mother, and she is somebody who is making stands not only for herself but also for the women who come after her.”