Killing Eve cleaned up. On Sunday night at the TV BAFTAs, the BBC America series – which explores the connection between two women so authentically complex that the first series barely scratched the surface of either of their pathologies – won three major awards. Walking away with prizes for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Drama Series, the show is emblematic of a moment when women’s TV is simply becoming what it always should have been: just TV.
In a recent article for The Guardian, Yomi Adegoke writes that “the more female-led shows are made, the less the pressure on them to speak to and for every woman.” This certainly gets to the root of why TV by and for women has been flying so high over the past year. In 2019 alone, TV by women has spanned genres and forms: comedy, drama, and most commonly, programmes that tread the intersection between the two.
On terrestrial TV, shows like Derry Girls, Fleabag and indeed Killing Eve (which airs its second season on the BBC in June) have controlled TV’s critical narrative, and the same is true of streaming. On streaming services like Netflix, women have been having existential crises (Russian Doll), dealing with grief (Dead to Me), and delivered to us in the form of animated birds with anxiety disorders (Tuca and Bertie, created by BoJack Horseman’s Lisa Hanawalt, and voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong) – all to critical acclaim.
Of course, this hasn’t happened in a vacuum. The Killing Eve BAFTA winners are proof of this – they’ve all been starring in projects that champion women’s stories for years. Writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Best Supporting Actress-winner Fiona Shaw both starred in Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, which was lauded for its rich, woman-centric portrayal of trauma and family dynamics. And Jodie Comer, who won Best Actress for her portrayal of Killing Eve’s Villanelle, was previously best known for her role as Chloe in My Mad Fat Diary, a quietly groundbreaking series about mental illness which ran on E4 between 2013 and 2015.
Over the past decade, these shows as well as countless others – from comedies Broad City and Insecure in the US, to dramas Three Girls and Happy Valley in the UK – have slowly been showing TV commissioners that the experiences of women (that is… about half of the TV-viewing audience) can’t be confined to one or two topical shows. As such, there’s countless evidence that this wealth of TV by women is not a phase, mom: across the TV spectrum, major networks are investing in women. In the UK, BBC1 placed the brand new comedy Back to Life, created by and starring Daisy Haggard, in its coveted Monday night “Fleabag slot,” while Channel 4 have announced the renewal of Derry Girls (which, with 2.5 million viewers tuning into the show’s season two premiere, gave the network its biggest comedy launch in 15 years) for a third season.
In the US, TV giant HBO will air the second season of ensemble drama Big Little Lies – with added Meryl Streep – in June, when Euphoria, its teen drama fronted by former Disney star Zendaya will also debut. And in the streaming world, Netflix is betting on What/If, starring Renée Zellweger later in May (indeed, Zellweger is just the latest in a line of film actresses who’ve been tempted to TV by a great story about a woman: Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, and Nicole Kidman – all of whom star in Big Little Lies – have done the same), following the launch of Tuca and Bertie this month.
It’s encouraging to be surrounded by all of this exciting TV by and for women, but it’s even better when you think about what it could and should lead to: more consideration of diversity at the highest level of TV commissioning – and, necessarily, awards – in all areas, and all genres. Outside of the success for shows about women, there's still much work to do when it comes to representation. To take even just one award at the TV BAFTAs as an example, only one of the last decade's winners of the Best Actress prize has gone to someone who is not white (Georgina Campbell for Murdered by My Boyfriend in 2015).
Statistics like this underline beyond doubt that creative industries in the UK have endemic problems with gatekeeping (namely that many of the people in charge of what we read and watch are similarly white and middle class, meaning that our art too often does not reflect our actual culture). But the success of something like Killing Eve – a show about women, yes, but also a show very much about queer desire – should make it clear that explorations of women’s inner lives are genuinely popular, and open doors for an ever-richer landscape of experiences.
Let’s hope that executives take the hint, and that we’ll soon be seeing more people of colour, working class people, disabled people, LGBTQ people, and others who are marginalised collecting their BAFTAs on stage for portrayals of their own stories. TV – a tool to entertain and to inform – and everyone who watches it would be all the better for it.