With the surprise hit that everyone saw coming, the TV show “Hacks” has seemingly ushered in a new era for roles for women over a certain age. Starring Jean Smart as Deborah Vance (earning her an Emmy for best actress in the role) and Hannah Eindbinder as Ava, “Hacks” is delightfully funny, smart, and not your usual comedy starring women. The last 15 years has been a great era for TV shows, and roles for women have started to evolve and become as complicated and varied as women themselves. They no longer have to fit into certain roles, looks, jobs, or stereotypes. From Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) on “Vikings,” Michonne (Danai Guirera) on “The Walking Dead,” Eve (Sandra Oh) on “Killing Eve,” to groundbreaking shows like “Pose” and “Claws,” the face of mainstream roles and ages for women in film and TV is evolving.
“The Golden Age of TV” changed how viewers relate to characters in shows and we’ve slowly been getting a revolution for women as well, which seems to have come to fruition over the past few years. With shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Killing Eve,” “The Walking Dead,” “Hacks,” “Mare of Eastown,” “Shrill,” “Claws,” “Animal Kingdom,” and “Hightown,” women have been able to play roles with more complexity than we’ve ever seen before and viewers can’t get enough. The days where women had to be pretty, submissive, and boring are long over, and the actresses are eating these new and diverse roles up.
So what does this mean for women going forward and why is this important to point out and celebrate? Making roles for women as diverse as possible makes them not only more relatable, but more encompassing of the American experience. Women are no longer forced into a box of being a perfect mother or overachiever or kick-ass vampire slayer. While it was great to have characters like Buffy to look up to in the 90s, it was also an impossible standard to live up to. Women either had to be gorgeous and a size zero to be a lead, or they had to be a complete mess. There wasn’t much in between. And don’t even get me started about the lack of roles for “mature women,” (i.e. women over the age of 26). The emergence of shows like “Hacks,” “Mare of Eastown,” and “Claws” are an accumulation of what’s been slowly happening in media over the past ten years or so and suddenly it seems like there’s a plethora of roles for “older” women to take on besides just being a mother or grandmother. Roles like this show that women of any age have lives outside of their families and are still desirable and that life doesn’t end at 40.
So while “Hacks” isn’t all that groundbreaking in this day and age— it’s just damn good. What got people’s attention about it was HOW good it was and how it allowed two women leads to feed off of each other in ways that people are still talking about, just because they were allowed to be messy, vulnerable, not “likable,” and real. The premise is a simple enough concept: an older comedian is trying to reclaim some of her “glory days” while staying relevant enough to fill seats for her Vegas residency. She’s been threatened by the property owner to lose some of her biggest nights and is fighting to make sure she keeps them. Ava is a writer who was cancelled for a tweet and can’t find work anywhere in town. She hates everything that Deborah stands for, but eventually they find a way to work together.
Without the brilliant Emmy nominated performance by Jean Smart, this could’ve easily just been another fish-out-of-water story, but because of her talent and chemistry with Ava and the rest of the cast, it became the must see hit of the season.
A lot of shows featuring ensembles are becoming sleeper hits, which highlights the importance of casting and writing. But it also shows that women of any age, when given good parts, are watchable. And people are watching. For example, Nicole Kidman has become a powerhouse with shows like “Big Little Lies” and “Nine Perfect Strangers.” Her daring performances have earned her accolades from almost every awards show and audiences alike. Her shows were also ensembles, and she was an executive producer, which gives her more control. As women like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Angela Basset are using their pull to gain more creative control for women, these characters are getting even more complex and juicier as the roles evolve.
As more shows for women and starring women of all age and ethnicity start becoming mainstream, it’s time to celebrate how far we’ve come— from an age when only white women had leading roles to a time when we have lead actresses from multiple ethnicities and backgrounds headlining TV shows and movies. It opens up the landscape for stories to be told that until recently would never have even been considered as a one off, let alone a lead role. It makes for shows that are richer in complexity, and tells more stories truly authentic to living in America.