After more than 70 female TV writers put their name to a letter saying they feel women are not given opportunities to work on prime time shows just last week, it’s clear there’s still a long way to go when it comes to achieving gender equality on the small screen and behind the scenes.
Streaming services can be friendlier places to women, funding more diverse concepts that might not be backed by big broadcasters, or picking up female-led shows when they’re dropped from schedules.
Here are our favourites:
1. Happy Valley
It’s almost guaranteed that any drama Sarah Lancashire is involved in is going to be worth a watch. But Happy Valley, which sees her star as police sergeant Catherine Cawood in what should be the sleepy town of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, must be one of her most memorable.
She juggles petty and not so petty criminals, supporting her alcoholic sister and keeping her grandson away from his predatory dad, all in true Northern salt-of-the-earth style.
A show about an unlikely band of female wrestlers, GLOW is surprisingly based on a real story. But it’s not just about leaping around in leotards, the strong cast is mainly female and the show grapples with the dilemma of whether or not the women’s involvement in the league exploited them or empowered them. GLOW does stand for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling after all.
3. The Sinner
A complex psychological thriller, The Sinner stars Jessica Biel in her creepiest role yet. After she commits a seemingly random act of violence, the show sets about exploring why an apparently normal woman would stab a man to death during a day out at the beach with her family. But it’s not just a mystery drama, it also takes deep dives into sisterhood and women’s traditional roles in society.
4. Grace and Frankie
It’s rare to see one woman over the age of 50 leading a TV show, let alone two. Grace and Frankie follows two women who are forced to confront a long-term shared animosity after their husbands fall in love. The series undercuts myths about female friendship and rivalry, with well, grace and frankness.
5. Call the Midwife
While nunneries might not be the first place you’d go looking for feminist inspiration, the midwives and sisters of Nonnatus House were capable working women, delivering babies among poverty and challenging conditions in London’s East End in the 1950s and '60s. While it’s certainly soft Sunday night viewing, it’s got a strong female cast with standout performances from legendary British actresses like Jenny Agutter and Pam Ayres.
6. Jessica Jones
Any female-led superhero series is a blessing, but when it’s as compelling as Jessica Jones it’s almost beside the point. After her career as a superhero doesn’t quite go to plan, Jones sets up a detective agency with a difference. The show explores the effects of trauma with dark humour and cynicism, but there’s definitely some light at the end of the tunnel.
For many action series, killing off the male lead would mean the end of the show. Not for Homeland, which after the exit of Damien Lewis, was business as usual with Carrie Mathison continuing to fight terrorists and laugh in the face of workplace sexism almost as if nothing had changed. We salute you, Agent Mathison.
8. Orange is the New Black
When it was released in 2013, Orange is the New Black’s almost exclusively female cast was ground-breaking stuff, fast forward to 2018 and five series later, it‘s paved the way for similar shows like Glow, not to mention better representation for lesbian and queer relationships, women of colour and trans women.
It’s wonderfully diverse and a different character’s back story is developed each week, giving space for stand-out performances from the likes of Laverne Cox, Samira Whiley, Uzo Aduba and Taryn Manning.
9. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The ever optimistic Kimmy should be highly irritating, but this main character’s sunny cheer is undercut by the absurdity of her struggles. If anyone ever tries to tell you women can’t be funny, just point them in the way of Ellie Kemper who plays Kimmy, and if they still aren’t convinced, show them her scenes with Tina Fey as an alcoholic therapist in series two. Comedy gold.
Miranda Hart’s self-titled comedy series became a cult classic during its time on the BBC. Endlessly quotable, relentlessly silly and such fun, it catapulted the comedian to fame before cementing her national treasure status.
All shows are available to watch on Netflix.