This year Ava DuVernay did something radical. She wrote a show about women. And she hired women to make it.
To make her Louisiana soap opera Queen Sugar, a slow-burn portrait of grief, family, and Southern blackness that made The Daily Beast’s list of Top 20 TV Shows of 2016, DuVernay hired what she called her #InclusiveCrew: talented, diverse, routinely overlooked writers, editors, and top-to-bottom crew members who were women and people of color.
“The crew itself looked like the freaking United Nations every time I went on set,” DuVernay told The Daily Beast ahead of Queen Sugar’s launch this fall. And as for the similarly inclusive ensemble of actors she hired: “The cast of talent is I guess you would say quote unquote ‘untapped.’ But I hate that word because it just means they’re dope and nobody wanted to look at [them].”
In a year when the Center For the Study of Women in Television & Film reported that women comprised of just 26 percent of creators, directors, writers, producers, and editors behind the scenes in 2015-16 (PDF), DuVernay mandated that each episode of the first season of Queen Sugar be directed by a woman who needed to be given the opportunity of a major television gig in order to catapult their careers. Those women are now among the most in-demand directors in television.
In a sense, DuVernay, who also directed the vital Oscar-contending documentary 13th now streaming on Netflix, didn’t just create great, inclusive, refreshing, recognizable content this year. She created change.
She created change at a time when television—and, perhaps more importantly, the people who watch it—needed it most. It was a year rotten with vitriolic discourse about women and people of color, often at the political stage that’s supposed to be concerned with respecting and protecting them, not harming them and inciting fear.
It was a year when gender equity, racial visibility, and opportunity dominated the conversation in the entertainment industry and beyond. Provocative, representational, and entertaining content about women and for women was as crucial as ever.
It was also a year when the best new programming and the strongest of the returning fare—Shonda, Lena, Tina, Rachel: We see you—was created by, starred, and concerned women, while demanding to be consumed by everyone.
From fresh talent like Issa Rae to icons like Beyoncé, news distillers like Megyn Kelly to news skewers like Samantha Bee, women changed the way we watched television and thought about the world. They offered the boldest and most immediate content at a time when their male counterparts across the industry continued to rest on their laurels, to effects both eye-rolling (Man With a Plan? Seriously?) and resounding (President-Elect Who?).
While by no means a utopia of equity and greatness, 2016 was a banner year for changing industry norms and the way we are entertained—and doing it, in many cases, by actively fighting.
Going through a list of the year’s best new comedies, it’s overwhelming that, with the exception of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, they exclusively featured female leads and nearly all of them were also created or co-created by women—a fact that you can’t help but think contributed to the cleverness, adventurousness, and emotional resonance of their content.
Minnie Driver and Kristen Bell didn’t create Speechless or The Good Place, respectively the best new broadcast sitcoms. But both actresses brought new depths to the tropes of “overbearing mother” and “bad girl,” while playing key roles in changing what heartwarming and high-concept sitcoms can be without alienating audiences and critics.
It’s worth celebrating, too, that Sarah Jessica Parker’s long-awaited return to HBO is, unlike Sex and the City, in a series created by a woman, Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan—who, by the way, has become TV’s singular voice in capturing the reality and bleakness of being love, with multiple developmental deals to prove it.
Then there is the triumph of Issa Rae’s Insecure, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, each of which was created by and is written by its star.
Each woman had a specific story to tell, a story that, in its specificity, resonated loudly: a black girl in Los Angeles just trying to figure herself out, a single mom and working actress with a heart as strong as her wit, a lesbian comedian recovering from cancer and a loss, and a British woman coping with her vices and a personal tragedy.
These were quiet, self-assured portraits of women who were funny and flawed and strong and vulnerable, but, more importantly, felt like people you actually know—perhaps the most transgressive development in TV in 2016.
On the drama side, the exhausting search for TV’s next Game of Thrones continued in earnest, but interestingly landed on the closest thing yet with HBO’s Westworld.
It should be no coincidence, especially as the rise of the female characters on Thrones has contributed to some of its strongest episodes yet, that the success of Westworld comes with a female co-creator, Lisa Joy, at the helm. And that’s not to mention the fact that the admittedly polarizing show’s best storylines and performances came from its female leads: Evan Rachel Wood and especially Thandie Newton.
Speaking of Westworld and buzzy series that were polarizing, few television events were met with as much rapture as the revival of Gilmore Girls, which, while not uniformly loved, dared to feature women who make bad choices and even frustrate us, all while accomplishing the previously unthinkable: an emotional dramedy about a mother and a daughter and the complicated ways they love each other completely dominating the zeitgeist.
It was a year in which the redemption of Marcia Clark was perhaps the year’s biggest pop culture story, with People v. O.J. Simpson creator Ryan Murphy and star Sarah Paulson forcing us to reevaluate the sexism and misogyny with which we treated the famed prosecutor and, if there’s any justice to come out of this story, reframe the way we treat such figures in the future.
Murphy himself, who will continue his tradition of bringing us surprising stories starring underused actresses with next year’s Susan Sarandon-Jessica Lange starrer Feud, deserves credit for illuminating the industries’ biases and doing something active to change them. His Half Foundation will mentor women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community with the goal of filling 50 percent of directing slots on his shows with people from those communities.
Ways in which the industry is failing women, in some part at least, were brought under a harsh light.
Good Girls Revolt, a resonant, if imperfect series about the Newsweek reporters who led the landmark 1970 all-female class action suit alleging gender discrimination in hiring and promotion, was one of the few series to ever be abruptly canceled by Amazon Studios (or any streaming service, for that matter).
But rather than simply accept the seemingly rash decision, series creator Dana Calvo herself revolted. She detailed the ways in which the show was dismissed by Amazon’s execs from the beginning, which—in a bit of life imitating art—made breaking into what Calvo called Amazon’s “impenetrable” culture impossible. (Amazon has denied this version of events.)
Capping off a year in which pay equity was a dominant conversation, Emmy Rossum spent the last few weeks in a headline-making stand-off with Showtime to have her salary finally match, and then exceed, what her male co-star on Shameless—the series in which she is unequivocally the lead—makes.
Earlier this year, Gillian Anderson shocked The Daily Beast when she told reporter Melissa Leon that she was only offered half of David Duchovny’s pay for The X-Files revival and battled to be compensated equally. And The Good Wife star Julianna Marguiles spoke about the lengths she had to go to prove to the Producers Guild of America that she was worthy of a producing credit on her drama series, and “wondered whether that fight would have been as great and as long if she were a man.”
Even when it comes to content, there are battle lines that are beginning to be drawn about what is acceptable. TV critics made a splash this summer when they took HBO to task over the network’s frequent reliance on sexual violence against women for plot exposition. A must-read column by Variey’s Maureen Ryan follows up on the issue, examining the progress, pitfalls, and even sheer awareness within the industry when it comes to its treatment of rape.
Intelligence and anger were terms that were reclaimed and redefined, thanks to the likes of Samantha Bee’s pitch-perfect Full Frontal which, just as we all suspected, proved that the new Jon Stewart should and needed to be a woman.
Megyn Kelly became the subject of the news, thanks to Donald Trump’s misogynistic attacks against her. She emerged not only a breakout star of the election cycle, but a complicated beacon of feminism, professionalism, and conservativism in a volatile media age.
We saw Beyoncé reinvent the ways in which music, television, identity, and culture can interplay, not only with her transcendent Lemonade special but a Super Bowl halftime performance that refused to back away from a necessary point.
Again, this isn’t to say that TV’s sexism and our culture’s misogyny is cured and the small screen is suddenly a haven for a commune of lady creators. If nothing else, the din of conversation kicked up by that Super Bowl performance—not to mention the reductive and offensive debates that preceded many of the moments listed above—illustrate how shitty things still are for women in Hollywood, and TV especially.
Representation and opportunities are still scarce, and recognition is still sparse enough to merit think pieces such as this. Things are not good.
But when progress isn’t celebrated, let alone acknowledged, it makes it hard to envision more progress, to activate change. 2016 had moments. It had progress. It had bravery and radicalism and risks and mistakes and beauty and messiness, and it had women to thank for that. More, please.