Comedy-drama series like Fleabag and Transparent show how vulnerability is as important as unlikeability and strength when it comes to portraying fictional women.
In the first episode of the HBO series Enlightened, the show’s heroine, Amy Jellicoe, learns that she’s been fired. She does not take the news well. Within minutes, she goes from pitiable victim, sobbing abjectly in a bathroom stall, to mascara-streaked fury. “Go back to your sad, fucking, little desk,” she sneers at her assistant before tracking her ex-lover and presumed betrayer to the office lobby. “I will destroy you—I will bury you—I will kill you, motherfucker!” she screams at him through the elevator doors that she somehow, in a feat of desperation, manages to pry open.
Though the scene aired five years ago, it’s still a pretty radical few minutes of television, and not just because of the ferocity of Laura Dern’s performance. What feels most striking is the series’ willingness to dramatize an extended scene of female distress for something other than a moralizing end. In this sense, Enlightened anticipates the Amazon series, Fleabag, which evinces a similar empathy toward a female character in the grip of powerfully negative emotions: anger, sadness, grief, self-doubt, shame. It’s probably no accident the two shows have almost identical promotional stills—close-ups of their protagonist’s makeup-smudged faces, staring directly to camera. Like a number of other female-centric, female-created tragicomedies to have emerged on TV in recent years—Transparent, Girls, Catastrophe, Insecure—the series also share a commitment to more compassionate portrayals of dysfunctional heroines, by suspending judgment even (or especially) when they’re at their worst.