How ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,’ ‘Jane the Virgin’ Break New Ground for Female TV Characters

From Starz’ “Outlander” to Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” new female-centric shows prove women can be antiheroes too

Last Updated: October 12, 2015 @ 7:20 AM

The CW is getting a neurotic, obsessive and slightly dramatic heroine in its new musical dramedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” but the craziest part may be just how commonplace such an unconventional female lead has come to be in the years since “Sex and the City” went off the air.

When we first meet her, Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch quits a lucrative lawyer job in New York City to follow an ex-boyfriend to West Covina, Calif. (just two hours from the beach). But she also owns her desires, however “crazy” they might seem, and is a character to root for, relate to and laugh with, not at.

She’s not alone in today’s TV landscape, something Carrie Bradshaw may not have been able to say 10 years ago. While shows like “Sex and the City” and FX’s “Damages” have paved the way, the diversity of offerings on TV aimed at women has grown exponentially in recent years.

Lifetime’s “UnREAL” features Shiri Appleby as an unapologetic antihero of a reality show producer, while Starz’s “Outlander” has all the gritty action of “Game of Thrones,” filtered through the decidedly female gaze of Caitriona Balfe‘s time-traveling Claire Fraser.

Then there’s Shonda Rhimes‘ TGIT threesome of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” to say nothing of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” with its wide array of female characters, a rainbow spectrum of different depictions of women that are a far cry from the weak-vs.-strong dichotomy.

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” creator and showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna credits the success of The CW’s previous unconventional female-led dramedy for her show getting the green light.

“We were very inspired by ‘Jane the Virgin’ and The CW is an incredibly friendly place for female-led programming,” McKenna told TheWrap. “‘Jane’ was so warmly received that I definitely think that created the circumstances for them to find something that matched up well with it.”

More than ever, women have a wide range of programming aimed at them to choose from. That so many women are allowed to be “crazy,” ambitious, selfish, unique and own it on TV these days could be attributed to revolutionary changes in television distribution models, particularly the onset of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon.

“You can get a big audience for something very unique for something like ‘Transparent’ or ‘Orange’ because you don’t have to worry about box office or getting a certain amount of advertisers,” Stephanie Allain, a Women in Film board member and Los Angeles Film Festival director, told TheWrap. “That’s why Amazon and Hulu and Netflix are such great places right now to sell and produce content that is uniquely ours.”

TV executives are also actually looking to develop diverse and female-driven content, which is part of the reason filmmakers are increasingly drawn to develop projects for the small screen.

“One reason I’m getting into television is that there are more opportunities to tell stories that may not fit the mandate for the big studios,” said Allain. “That’s what’s really exciting, is being able to take projects that are women-centered or diverse and going to a place where they’re looking for that, as opposed to not looking for it, which is more rare at big studios.”

According to a new study from the marketing firm Trailer Park, female TV characters currently on the air are still largely skewed towards male audiences’ preferences, possessing qualities like beauty and independence over more female-preferred characteristics like compassion.

“When we looked at overall audiences and what they’re getting, and then at what men want versus what women want, by and large the men’s top traits matched for what they’re seeing and what they want to see,”  Trailer Park’s Head of Integrated Strategy D’nae Kingsley told TheWrap.

But things may be changing. The study also found younger TV audiences prefer nontraditional gender roles in their characters, and more strongly self-identify as feminists, which could explain the increased hunger for more complexity and layers in female-driven TV content.

As the marketplace shifts to include the preferences of younger viewers coming of age and entering advertisers’ most desired demographics, the need for women behind the scenes becomes more important than ever.

“If you’re a female creator, by your very nature, you’ll be writing these characters with a different kind of insight, and willingness to take chances with the portrayal based on what you see and experience,” said McKenna. “I know a lot of these women and I’m a big admirer of their work. I don’t think any female creator thinks of themselves as a female creator. Everyone just thinks of themselves as a writer, and these characters as characters. If you’re writing complex, interesting character, you’re not necessarily dwelling on their genders or writing to genders.”

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” premieres Monday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. ET on The CW, followed by the Season 2 premiere of “Jane The Virgin” at 9 p.m.