Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards have rightly been hailed for their feminist flavor. And part of what was notable about the conversation that took place on the stage of the Beverly Hilton ballroom was that co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler didn’t have to drive it all themselves: Men and women alike took the stage to talk about gender and art. As I watched a supercut of the best feminist moments put together by the wonderful PostTV team, something else struck me:
As Maggie Gyllenhaal put it in accepting an award for her performance in “The Honorable Woman”: “What I see, actually, are women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not, sometimes sexy, sometimes not, sometimes honorable, sometimes not. And what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film.”
What was best in film and television last year was the stripping away of the requirement that female characters have to be “strong” to be interesting or admirable. That designation was originally intended to refer to the quality of the writing, but it has frequently been misinterpreted to suggest that all fictional women must be moral, take-no-prisoners perfectionists (while also being sexy and pleasant to be around). If real equality in fiction means the right to be deeply imperfect and still be loved anyway, than the winners of this year’s Golden Globe Awards do signal a new era.
What makes Maura Pfefferman, the main character in “Transparent” (and played by Jeffrey Tambor), an endearing woman and a fascinating character is not because she is absolutely secure in her identity or because she’s smacking down anti-transgender sentiments with the wickedly efficient competence of Liam Neeson in a ridiculous action movie. Rather it’s her anxieties, her tentative coming into herself, her experimentation with various ways to express her femininity, from ’80s power woman to 21st-century queen of the caftan. “Transparent” captures that with great sensitivity and looks at how her explorations reverberate with every other member of her family.
In “Boyhood,” Olivia (Patricia Arquette), whom Arquette described as an “under-appreciated single mother,” is a powerful person because of how she handles the choices that go bad on her. She shows great determination in her pursuit of her education despite her obligations to her children, for whom she is primarily responsible. Olivia pursues relationships that she hopes will produce stability for her family, but when her marriages turn violent and her husbands turn on her son Mason (Ellar Coltrane), Olivia is not afraid to extricate herself and start anew. As I wrote when the movie came out last year, the tragedy is that she has such a hard time enjoying the life she built for herself.
Fey and Poehler mined Disney’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s fractured fairy tale for projectiles to fling at Bill Cosby, with Fey cracking, “In ‘Into the Woods,’ Cinderella runs from her prince, Rapunzel is thrown from a tower for her prince, and Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby.” In the days since the ceremony, the focus has been on the way Fey and Poehler zinged Cosby, but Fey inadvertently called attention to the complexities of female characters in “Into The Woods.”
Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Sleeping Beauty (who is referred to only on-screen), as well as the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), aren’t wrong or weak or foolish for falling for the blandishments of a pair of handsome princes. Neither are the princes villains. Those men, after all, have been “raised to be charming, not sincere,” as Cinderella’s prince (Chris Pine) puts it. All of them, male and female, have been raised to venerate things and relationships that are designed to forestall honest communication and real personal happiness.
Gina Rodriguez, who plays the titular character in the CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” doesn’t have all the answers to her decidedly unusual predicament: She’s a virgin who is accidentally artificially inseminated. But then, who would? What makes Jane the kind of hero Rodriguez hoped the character would be when she took the part is her deep goodness. We root for the best outcome for her because we trust her to make the best choice even when the ones available aren’t particularly good.
And in “The Honorable Woman,” the fact that Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who advocates for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, is dashing herself against historical forces doesn’t mean that she’s ineffective or fighting a quixotic campaign. Some battles can’t be won by even the strongest fighter, nor resolved by even the deftest thinker. But that doesn’t mean they ought to be preemptively surrendered.
The performances that were awarded Golden Globes this year are allowed to be remarkable because a heavy load has been removed from them. In being liberated from the requirement to be paragons, these women get to be actual, lovable people. And because we can watch them struggle without being asked to dislike them, we can see the world around them more clearly, too.