A Love Letter to TV's Unconventional Women

Waller-Bridge as FleabagImage Courtesy: BBC 

Women, let it be known - we have entered a golden age of television... women’s stories are being told loudly on our screens, and the result is sexier, funnier, sadder, more liberated and more boundary breaking than ever before; whilst the women at the forefront of it are increasingly unconventional, undeniably relatable and a pleasure to watch and root for. 

The past few years have given us unforgettable, women-centric television. It has highlighted women that shatter our deep-rooted understanding of what a woman should be, giving us women that have ultimately rejected societal expectation; sexually liberated, in no rush to become married or mothers, in the midst of existential crises, drug-takers, chain-smokers, binge-drinkers, pathological liars and, at times, generally quite disagreeable people. Some people may find them 'difficult'. (Classic.)

Let’s begin with the fearless Fleabag, currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer, with a second series having just started. Fleabag is the first woman character I can remember watching open-mouthed – owing equally to disbelief and admiration. At its core, Fleabag insists a woman doesn’t have to be likeable in order to be respected or loved. Acclaimed feminist author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said at the Girls Write Now awards, “[The] idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likeable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes […] I say that’s bullshit.” Fleabag agrees.

Fleabag is a selfish woman. She lies. She steals. She is not a ‘typical’ woman, not apparently maternal, not representing our general understanding of a woman worth liking. But Fleabag is a woman that, throughout the course of the series, makes it clear that she – and ‘unlikeable’ women everywhere – are worth love and understanding.

After Fleabag came the Netflix Original She’s Gotta Have It – also renewed for a second season – following the life of Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a woman characterised (though not in a negative light) by her outright rejection of monogamy. Once shrouded by mystery and judgement, polyamory – the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of all involved – is no longer so much of a secret, with reports that a fifth of British people now identify as ‘poly’, there is the indication that sexual liberation and the exploration of relationships outside of typical monogamous structures are finally beginning to be openly discussed and enjoyed.

Wise as Darling in She's Gotta Have It. Image Courtesy: Netflix
Darling is an incredibly important character for women everywhere, regardless of whether or not they are drawn to polyamory; her character shines a much-needed spotlight on a woman’s alternative - a life that prioritises sexual pleasure and freedom. In effect, Darling lets women know that their sexuality is entirely their own to enjoy.

A seemingly immortal woman may sound unrelatable, but the much-acclaimed Netflix hit Russian Doll proved us wrong. Nadia Volvokov (Natasha Lyonne) is a force. Having had the likes of Fleabag and Nola Darling paving her way, Volvokov, too, is unconventional; enjoying casual sex, partying (eternally), calling the shots with men, illustrating almost every sentence with profanity, and donning an androgynous style – defying the age-old “women dress to impress men!” rhetoric. “I just feel so profoundly empty”, she admits, facing up to her inability to control her life, something that defies the relentless perfection shown on social media and the insistent headlines of glossy magazines.

Lyonne as Volvokov in Russian Doll. Image Courtesy: Netflix
Answers are hard to come by, and Volvokov owns that truth that women are taught to resist. Russian Doll insists that we are allowed to be unsure, and we are allowed to feel helpless. There is an undeniable strength in that moment that continues until the closing scene, providing a lasting moment of validation and reassurance to any woman that may need it – and I’m guessing there’s a lot of us. 

It is about time women were given such opportunity to act out lives that stray from the considered norm. Television shows like Fleabag, She’s Gotta Have It and Russian Doll – to name but a few – do an inspiring job of breaking down the conventions set by society and presenting an unapologetic alternative. Women can be whoever they want to be. There is a rising wave of unconventional women in television refusing to bend to expectation, rejecting the heavy weight of expectation placed upon their shoulders. I imagine that this is only going to continue, making existing as a woman easier, and so much more enjoyable.

Follow Kya on Twitter: @kyajbuller