Period Shows that are About More than Periods

I’ve been on a kick lately- watching female led shows that take place before the 2000s. By female led show I mean series not only depicting the stories of women with a majority female cast but that are also created, directed, written and produced by women.

There has been a great proliferation of these shows in the last few years; shows that stray away from the “strong female character” stereotype. The female characters are three dimensional and they’re allowed to be petty, sad, brave, smart, funny, angry…I’m going to stop listing emotions because I believe my point has been made. The following shows are all examples of female created media telling female stories. Like Annie & Aretha said, “Sisters are doing for themselves.”

(FYI, the list is in chronological order)

Harlots

(Hulu, 2017-)
Created by: Alison Newman and Moira Buffini based on “The Covent Garden Ladies” by Hallie Rubenhold

Harlots does not shy away from the fact that women in the 18th century didn’t have it easy, whether they be noble women or prostitutes. Their lives revolved around men and the men saw them as help-meets, sex objects, burdens, ornaments, or worse. But the female characters in Harlots find their way in this male dominated world. The central plot of the first season is the battle between two brothels: a lower-class bawdy-house owned by Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and a high-class brothel owned by Lydia Quigley (Leslie Manville). Each woman uses the prostitutes in their employ to learn secrets of their clientele and curry favor with men in positions of power within British society. Each woman in Harlots knows how to use the powers they have -seduction, chastity, love- those most considered ‘feminine wiles,’ to achieve their goals, which all differ, save the one they all share: that of freedom and stability.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

(Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2012-2015 All three seasons are on Netlfix)
Created by: Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger based on Kerry Greenwood’s novels

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries presents the viewer with someone rarely seen in media, a woman in her forties who is independent, smart, and sexual. The fact that this series takes place in 1920’s Melbourne makes this even more wonderful. Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) returns to Australia from traveling abroad and through a series of events, becomes a private detective. I’ve described this character as “a woman who wears beautiful clothes, solves murders, has sexual agency and shit.” She gathers around her other “odd” people: 2 working-class socialists, an excellent butler who has hidden martial talents, a maid, Dot Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) who retains her Roman Catholicism while exploring the brave new world Phryne shows her, and Dr. Elizabeth “Mac” Macmillan (Tammy MacIntosh) who is an accomplished physician and explorer. The series is an updated version of a cozy mystery, the action and sex are amped up, but the show is generally serialized, with each mystery solved by the end of each episode.

Bomb Girls

(Global Television Network, 2012-2013)
Created by: Michael MacLennan and Adrienne Mitchell

During WWII, women entered the workforce in areas that they would never have been able to before. Bomb Girls focuses on the lives of a group of women who work in a munitions factory, women who would ordinarily never interact with each other, but their employment at Victory Munitions brings them together. There’s the married floor matron Lorna Corbett (Meg Tilly), the sheltered runaway Kate Andrews (Charlotte Hegele), the headstrong socialite Gladys Witham (Jodi Balfour), and hardworking, closeted Betty McRae (Ali Liebert). For American viewers, this show also gives us a look into another country’s experience during WWII, as Bomb Girls takes place in Canada. As with the other programs on this list, each woman has personal goals and problems, many that aren’t specifically focused on their being female.

Call the Midwife

(BBC & PBS, 2012- Seasons 1-6 are on Netflix)
Created by: Heidi Thomas based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth

Call the Midwife is a very English show. It takes place during in East End London, the NHS is in its first decade, and the country is still recovering from the WWII, both economically and socially. Call the Midwife is also a show that is fundamentally about women, as the main characters are midwives, some being nuns as well. We get a glimpse into what midwifery is: the care of the woman during the pregnancy, aid with delivery, and care of the women and children after birth. Each episode offers a few new cases for the midwives, and no case is ever the same. A plethora of issues are dealt with: first and foremost, poverty, as well as, gender, sexuality, race, mental illness, etc. The lives of the midwives are portrayed in greater detail, and we get to know these women, their personalities, struggles, triumphs, and dreams and we get to see a society and the women within it change, as the show begins in 1957 and as of season 6, the year is 1965.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

(Amazon Prime, 2017-present)
Created by: Amy Sherman-Palladino

I could do a whole post about Amy Sherman-Palladino shows, and maybe I will, but for now we’ll focus on her newest, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This show takes place during the same time period as Call the Midwife, but since it focuses on an Upper-Middle class Jewish family in New York City, the feel is radically different. Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is living a charmed life- married, two children, loving parents. When her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) leaves her, her life is in a tailspin and she falls, almost quite literally, into stand-up comedy, her family becoming the basis for her material. Midge is the central character, but her manager Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) offers another female character, whose attitude and aesthetic are almost diametrically opposed to Midge’s, but in this show, they aren’t set up as rivals but teammates, each using the skills of the other to achieve their dreams. Am I repeating myself here? About women working together and having individual goals, which often have nothing to do with their “femaleness?” Of course, I am. It’s the whole point of this post.

GLOW

(Netflix 2017-present)
Created by: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a women’s professional wrestling show that existed 1986–1992

The most modern of the series on this list, GLOW still takes viewers back in time, to the 1980’s. The aesthetic and morality set the tone. Women are in the workplace more, they’re educated, their standing in the world is climbing, but things still aren’t great. Women are blamed for sexual assault, not taken seriously in business situations, and still expected to defer to men in most situations. The women who become the performers in GLOW come from diverse backgrounds and use the stereotypes applied to them to create their characters. The cast is diverse, with women of multiple races, ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds; women who never thought they’d be friends find common ground, celebrate and help each other. In my first post, I wrote that season 2 of GLOW is one of my most anticipated pop culture moments of 2018, because I can’t wait to see how the characters grow and how their characters progress with the success of GLOW.

There are a few period shows that have amazing female characters, but much of the cast is male, and the storylines focus on the male characters more like Vikings and Black Sails and even more shows that take place in the present day, but were created by, star and tell the stories of women like Grace and Frankie, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, and Queen Sugar. Excellent shows all, just didn’t quite fit into the parameters of this list. I know there are others that I’ve never seen or heard of, so I’m open to recommendations from y’all, because this habit isn’t dying any time soon.

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Author: atxraven

Howdy! I could spend time listing all of the things I love, but as shorthand I’ll give you this: my two favorite movies when I was about 10 were Dune and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. I think that’s says a lot about my personality: queer, femme, weird, geeky, artsy. My life is absorbed by D&D right now, and I’m excited to be performing at Sherwood Forest Faire this year. Welcome to my writings. @SarahJacobs_ATX on Twitter fangirlfeministe on Tumblr

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