The Rise of Women’s Pictures on Television

Photo-Illustration: Kelly Chiello and Photos by ABC, CBS and Warner Brothers

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Earlier this year, The Good Wife divided fans on how showrunners Robert and Michelle King decided to end the series. But years before its infamous, final slap, the show marked the surprising rebirth of a type of film that was extremely popular and profitable during classic Hollywood: the women’s picture. Today we can see hallmarks of the genre all over television, from UnREAL to Jane the Virgin.

What, exactly, is a women’s picture? It’s a genre that lasted from 1930 to 1960 during Hollywood’s golden age. If you were a woman in the early ‘40s, the heyday of the women’s picture, Roe v. Wade was about 30 years away, and you were among the first generation of (white) women with the right to vote. And for less than a buck, you could go to a theater and watch Hollywood’s greatest actresses transgress the ever-present social norms that suffocated women in real life. Trying to define the women’s picture in traditional genre terms can prove difficult. It can take many forms: Technicolor noir like Leave Her to Heaven (1946), starring Gene Tierney as a more malicious proto–Amy Dunne à la Gone Girl; a heart-wrenching melodrama like Now, Voyager (1942) about a woman trying to grapple with mental illness; and one of the most successful films of all time, Gone With the Wind (1939), which, for all its glorious excess, is essentially the story of Scarlett O’Hara’s transformative journey from naïve girlhood to womanly independence.

But watching one women’s picture after another, a series of themes emerge: an intimate look at the psychological and social lives of women, a woman at the center of her own cinematic universe, costume as visual shorthand for character and a form of radical liberation for its audience, and the questioning of social mores. One question above all others powers these movies: What does it mean to be a modern woman? To quote film historian Jeanine Basinger’s excellent study of the genre, A Woman’s View, “the function of a [women’s picture] was to articulate female concerns, angers, and desires, to give substance to a woman’s dreams and a woman’s problems.”

To be the center of a women’s picture means the characters had to be strong, transfixing, and willing to traverse social boundaries, even if just for a little while. They could be mercurial, selfish, unlikable, and sometimes even cruel. The genre provided a home to women on the fringes: surrogate mothers, spinster aunts, femme fatales, and single women on the make. In essence, it concentrated on women who were human, who embodied the full breadth of womanhood, and who misbehave in ways unlike anything you’ll see with such regularity in modern films. (Men were at times well-developed secondary characters, but for the most part they functioned as sidepieces.)

The genre comes at this from a number of angles. Psychologically, it takes great care to bring the desires and concerns of women from the margins of society to the center of their narratives. On a social level, it explores motherhood, sexuality, interpersonal relationships, and anything typically viewed as “feminine” in a serious way. It often has worthwhile aesthetic pleasures: While all films should use costuming to signal information about character, the women’s picture directly links what a woman wears to who she is or who she’s trying to become. Put a women’s picture on mute and you can track the entirety of its lead character’s arc in what she wears. The 1938 film Jezebel is an extreme example, as the plot hinges on Bette Davis’s decision to wear a red dress instead of a traditional white one to a ball in the antebellum South, and the social fallout from her choice.

It’s important to understand these films weren’t afterthoughts for the industry. In some ways, they were given the type of prestige treatment we’ve come to expect from superhero films today. Well-funded and extremely popular, the women’s picture didn’t end because it lost its potency. The genre was collateral damage in the fall of Hollywood’s studio system, changing tastes, and the self-fulfilling prophecy that films about women wouldn’t do well at the box office. We still see brief flashes of the genre in film — most recently, in the studied romantic drama Carol, the tonally confused biopic Joy, and the tenderhearted Brooklyn. But while the film industry is slowly coming around to the idea that women are a market worth tapping into again, it’s hard to imagine the women’s picture becoming a cultural and financial behemoth in the medium like it once was. Hollywood’s film industry is no longer interested in producing the sort of films the genre turned into a curious art, or backing stars like Bette Davis, whose prowess and willingness to portray female anger still frightens audiences when they discover her. Instead, a new form of the genre is emerging on television.

I had a suspicion that The Good Wife, more than any other show, was inhabiting this strange subgenre that made stars out of actresses like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland. Over its seven seasons, we watched Alicia Florrick transform from a scorned wife to a more independent lead with antiheroine qualities. But it wasn’t until the fifth season, with episodes like “The Decision Tree,” that it became undeniable. A common women’s-picture trope is the use of memory and fantasy to form character arcs. In displaying the contradictory memories of Alicia and her former lover and boss turned rival Will Gardner, the show was able to comment on how much she’s changed, and the thorny expectations of who she should be. In the episode “The Next Week,” the show used fashion to track her development: Alicia goes from wearing ill-fitting pale-blue suits with a haircut fit for a substitute teacher in flashbacks to the type of broad lapels and strong lines Joan Crawford sported in 1940s films like Mildred Pierce. Once I noticed this in The Good Wife, I started to find the women’s picture throughout the television landscape: in the cynical UnREAL, lush romantic drama Outlander, and meta-telenovela Jane the Virgin, which all deal with the psychological and social lives of women using similar devices.

Outlander is a great example of how women’s pictures use costuming to telegraph character. This season especially it’s been a commentary on the shifting relationship between the show’s leads during their time in Paris. Claire Fraser’s scene-stealing red dress in the second episode speaks to her modernity, with its lack of embellishment and strong architectural qualities. But as her time in Paris continues and her relationship with her husband, Jamie, grows more strained, Claire’s clothes noticeably change. She begins to incorporate the tulle, beading, embroidery, and delicate chokers of the French women around her. This shift visually speaks to the emotional distance she feels both within her marriage and from whom she once was. Jane the Virgin leans heavily on memory to tell its story. The show regularly brings in Jane’s childhood experiences and weaves in fantasy sequences to communicate what our heroine is going through internally. (In an early subplot during the second season, we watch Jane converse with a hallucinatory Bachelorette version of herself, who tries to help her solve her love-triangle dilemma.) And just because a show doesn’t use memory, fantastical imagery, or costuming doesn’t preclude it from being a women’s picture. UnREAL continues the genre’s interest by displaying women at their most monstrous. The second season is currently digging deep into the ways women deal with power, carefully charting the social dynamics women must navigate, and what they lose by adopting masculine traits to gain control in sexist industries.

The return of the women’s picture shouldn’t be confused with the way people talk about the proliferation of the female antihero. While it does provide a useful lens for the history of the antihero archetype in pop culture, the women’s picture deals with the themes of an entire genre, not just characterization. Not every series with complicated women falls into the bracket of women’s pictures — shows like Supergirl, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, iZombie, and The Americans, for example, aren’t. They don’t quite fit the definition for a number of reasons: male co-leads of equal or greater importance, the lack of interest in costuming as character, and, most crucially, the inconsistent use of the genre’s most defining trait — what it means to be a woman. The Girlfriend Experience only became a women’s picture during the second half of its season, as the show zeroed in on the ways its lead navigated the damning repercussions that came with using sex to get power.

The rebirth of women’s pictures on television can be attributed to one simple fact: TV is more willing to market to women. While the genre was taking its final breaths in the 1950s, television began to pick up the slack in the following decades with shows like Bewitched, I Love Lucy, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. These weren’t necessarily women’s pictures, but their success proved that television was more interested in catering to female audiences.

And while women’s pictures of classic Hollywood were primarily (but not entirely) directed, written, and produced by men, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the genre’s emergence on television coincides with the rise of female creatives behind the scenes like Shonda Rhimes (Scandal), Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23), Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane), and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (UnREAL). The collaborative nature of writers’ rooms, plus the sheer number of opportunities in television, makes the medium a seemingly better place for women as characters and creators than film.

Creatively, there’s even more potential for the genre to thrive on television, where its themes can be explored over the course of several seasons, rather than the two hours they would get in film. But the main reason it’s found a good environment is the absence of the Hays Code, guidelines that dictated what was “morally acceptable” for most films from 1930 to 1968. While women’s pictures explored the lives of women in a serious way, they weren’t perfect feminist creations, in part due to the regulation, which caused a number of contradictory qualities within the genre: The endings often depicted the main character dying, befalling tragedy, or deciding to put the love of a good man or a child’s well-being before her own. At times, this dichotomy between feminist impulse and toeing the line, what the female characters want and what society expects of them, could make the genre more powerful. In this way, they become fables for what it means to survive as a woman in our culture.

Even without the Hayes Code, TV shows have to meet the expectations of fans, networks, and so forth. But modern women’s pictures are more free to use and subvert the conventions of the genre. For one, what once had to be subtext is now text. A recent Scandal story line in which Olivia Pope gets an abortion in a brief, unexpected scene lacks the usual histrionics we expect from the show. Orphan Black takes the body politics of the ongoing abortion debate and twists it into a tale involving multiple clones, powerful organizations seeking ownership over women’s bodies, and a new definition of what family means. Jessica Jones is a depiction of the ways women are abused, sexually and psychologically, through the titular character’s single-minded quest to take down the villainous Kilgrave. UnREAL and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are the most explicit indictments of internalized sexism on television. (Like Jane the Virgin, CXG also displays how great women’s pictures can be as comedies.) These shows, among others, bring the subtextual concerns of the genre to the surface.

They also make it clear that a lot of what it means to be a woman hasn’t changed as much as we think since the golden age of women’s pictures. We still deal with the question of controlling our own bodies. We struggle to maintain a balance between professional and personal desires. But modern women’s pictures speak to a wider group of people — black, gay, Latina, childless, trans — than they did in their original incarnation. The genre’s evolution on television means it has become more diverse and, in turn, more radical. On shows like Scandal, Jane the Virgin, Orphan Black, The Fall, Top of the Lake, and UnREAL, we get to witness the interior lives of women who were never the center of the genre during classic Hollywood, or, at best, existed on the outskirts.

But what modern women’s pictures most powerfully change from their antecedents is a sense of freedom. As much as I love the women’s pictures of classic Hollywood, more often their contradictions could make it seem like womanhood is ultimately a gilded prison. They never provide tidy answers to the questions they ask again and again: What does it mean to be a modern woman? Can we balance our desires with those of the people we care about? When they do provide answers, they can be disheartening: That joy is ultimately fleeting due to the political and social strictures placed on women. Modern women’s pictures aren’t perfect, either, but they are willing to show more than the tragedies and thorny interpersonal politics that come with being a woman. On television, women are able to find answers for themselves, live out their wildest dreams, find love, defeat mind-controlling villains, and reconcile their darker natures, all with less compromise. The genre has become more honest, in-depth, hopeful, and willing to show the full experiences of women — not just our trials, but our triumphs, too.

The Rise of Women’s Pictures on TV