A s   T o l d   B y
H e r

A s   T o l d   B y   H e r

To highlight iconic work by women in television, CNN presents a conversation about strength, authenticity, seeing and being seen. Memorable characters, great stories -- As Told By Her.

Joan Clayton feels a little underdressed for the scenario in front of her. Her boyfriend has surprised her with an elaborate marriage proposal, but she's wearing the universal uniform of comfort -- Ugg boots, a soft cardigan and her glasses. She smooths down her hair with her hands, and as she removes the round frames from the bridge of her nose, her vision blurs. At the request of her boyfriend, Joan puts her glasses back on because he doesn't want her to miss any part of the special moment.

In that scene, "Girlfriends" delivered an engagement seven seasons in the making along with a powerful image: Joan, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, dressed for comfort and fully embraced as she is.

"I had to speak up for those sort of things," "Girlfriends" creator Mara Brock Akil remembered recently this summer during a candid conversation with female actors and producers at the ATX TV festival in Austin, Texas.

Akil recalled an unnamed higher up objecting the first time she wanted to show Joan wearing her glasses on screen -- the look was "not attractive." She raised her voice as she recalled replying to the criticism, "That's the point!"

"We like to take our bras off, our shoes off, our makeup off, we like to get out of that stuff and we like to put our glasses on -- because we can't see," she said to applause from the largely female crowd.

Creatives like Akil, who has been writing and producing shows for more than two decades, are used to fighting on behalf of women who want to see and be seen authentically.

Their experiences inspired CNN's As Told by Her, a video series that highlights iconic television work by women. CNN spoke with ten female storytellers -- Elisabeth Moss, Tig Notaro, Rachel Bloom, Samira Wiley, Mandy Moore, Freida Pinto, Emmy Rossum, Regina King, Logan Browning and Constance Zimmer -- whose work in front of and behind the camera helps bring to life the kind of characters that generations before them fought to make possible.

Television has come a long way in the five decades or so since producers realized it was time to show the average American viewer the truth -- that women were more than happy, pearl-wearing homemakers.

The journey to fuller, more complete portrayals of women on television has been a fraught one, filled with as many setbacks as triumphs, with more to come.

I look for somebody who is human and who is real. And for me, that's the interesting stuff to play.

Elisabeth Moss

The Improbability of Likability

When writer and producer Diane English first pitched "Murphy Brown," she knew it was different than anything on television at the time.

Her main character was turning 40, coming back from rehab, and the kind of perfectly imperfect, successful woman she thought TV needed.

CBS executives felt the same -- sort of.

They asked for adjustments: for Murphy Brown to be 10 years younger and her battle with alcoholism to be nixed from the premise.

"[There's] this word that you hear a lot and still do from executives, which is 'likable.' It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because it really means so many more things than that," English said. "It means sand down the rough edges, and 'Be careful what they say.'"

English, who was among the first female showrunners ever, eventually got her way because a writers strike forced the network to produce the pilot as it had been written.

After its debut, the series quickly became a success. More importantly, English proved that her vision should be trusted.

"We never got a single note after that," she said.

I have a naïve side to me, I think, that surprises me over and over again. But it never dawned on me in my career coming up that any door was closed because of my gender or sexuality.

Tig Notaro

Executives are responsible for perpetuating the so-called likable woman on television. But so, too, are audiences, who have been known to have precarious tolerance for female characters slapped with what writer Roxane Gay has called "the bright scarlet U," for unlikable.

On NBC's hit "This Is Us," Mandy Moore plays a mother of three named Rebecca whose storyline in the show's freshman season largely dealt with her desire to return to her career as a professional singer.

Understandable as it may be that a woman giving herself emotionally and physically to raise her family might also want to carve out a space for herself, Rebecca has been the target of criticism for her choices and, at other times, her human imperfections.

"I feel really fortunate to portray this woman who is so rich and layered and compelling, but she's ultimately not a perfect woman," said Moore. "She's not a perfect partner or perfect mother, and I think that that's relatable -- to see a flawed human on screen."

I think now more than ever, it's important to strive to be as creative as possible, to use your voice, to use your platform, to express yourself. It's important to keep art alive.

Mandy Moore

Moore doesn't always agree with her character's choices, "but I have a lot of compassion and I have a lot of empathy for her."

Time and persistence gave way to more anti-heroines on television, from columnist Carrie Bradshaw on "Sex and the City" to First Lady Claire Underwood on "House of Cards" to unscrupulous TV producer Quinn on Lifetime's "UnREAL."

I'm still out there competing with the best of the best. I look around the room and I just think, ‘How are we all still here fighting for this one role?' Oh, right, because it's an incredible female role.

Constance Zimmer

"I actually was okay with her not being likable," Constance Zimmer, who plays Quinn, said. "I just wanted her to be relatable."

Freida Pinto has also sought out roles that challenge the outside world's preconceptions of who she is and the characters she would play.

On Showtime's "Guerrilla," she played a morally ambiguous woman named Jas on the frontline of a battle against racial and social injustices in 1970s London.

"If I can speak for myself, my stereotype that I had to constantly battle and fight, was the exotic piece of sunshine," Pinto said. "You know, [the girl who] just comes and makes everyone happy, or saves the day; and not saves the day in the way that the guy saves the day, but saves the day in the way that she says a beautiful thing and that melts everyone's hearts."

I feel everyone's exotic and different and unique, but we're all also complex. We don't want to be just black or white characters.

Freida Pinto

She groaned recalling the typecasting.

"I'm so tired of playing roles like that, and I'm so tired of being perceived as someone like that."

Progress Report

Pop culture historians will often point to Murphy Brown or Mary Richards as progressive portraits of working women. But they don't often acknowledge the large club of personality-devoid female characters from TV history who faded into the background on lazy sitcoms.

You could count on two hands the number of shows that explore the complexities of motherhood as exceptionally as HBO's "Big Little Lies" or FX's "Better Things." But there are enough sitcoms in TV history featuring a wife whose sole purpose is to react to the blandly amusing man in her life to fill the most depressing binge watching experience of all time.

"These are tropes and terrible stereotypes and they still exist," English said. "It's always been hard to weed those out."

But, boy, do the women behind and in front of the camera try.

I feel like I am lucky to be in my 40s and have gained some wisdom during this time of our industry.

Regina King

"You've never really seen me play a submissive character; I think primarily because I don't really know many women like that in my personal life," Regina King, a member of a recurring ensemble of actors who reinvented themselves every season on John Ridley's anthology "American Crime," said. "I think that that woman does exist, but she exists far less than how she's portrayed, than how many times you see her on TV or in film."

Many of the female writers and producers interviewed for this series have theories about why you're seeing more television about and by women. The rise of streaming networks, cable doubling down in its commitment to the female voice, and more quality programming on smaller networks (think Bravo's "Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce") are a few examples.

"[You] don't have to command the same size of audience that you used to back in the day when there was just the three big networks," "Crazy-Ex Girlfriend" co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna said. "There's just so many places now that content can get out there, I think it's made room for different kinds of stories."

English worries, though, that some of the same basic pillars of Hollywood sexism will be hard to dismantle.

What I would say to the generation after us or people who watch the show who want to do their own show, all we did was we stayed true to our voice and we stayed true to what we wanted to say, and true to our own experiences.

Rachel Bloom

"You can't go to a broadcast network and say, 'I'm doing this show about a woman turning sixty.' They turn white," she said. "It's a little different in streaming and premium cable, but the tendency is [to say], 'Okay, we have our 'Grace and Frankie,' we don't really need another one.'"

Her point speaks to a hard truth: Females from marginalized populations -- be they of a certain age group, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation -- fight an even harder battle for representation.

A mammoth 2016 study of diversity in entertainment by USC Annenberg found that only 26.6% of regular characters -- male or female -- on television series were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

And members of more than one disenfranchised community? Good luck.

The study, for example, called females over 40 "largely invisible" in film and television. The television real estate these characters occupy is small -- New York City studio apartment small.

I recognize the platform that I've been given in my own life. I want to take on that responsibility and know that I do have a voice and I have people who are looking to me sometimes to say things and not be afraid of the word role model.

Samira Wiley

Some actors might feel additional pressure when portraying marginalized characters in the face of those odds. Samira Wiley, once a standout on "Orange is the New Black" and now a fan-favorite character on Hulu's Emmy-nominated "The Handmaid's Tale," feels grateful.

"I recognize the platform that I've been given in my own life," she said. "I want to take on that responsibility and know that I do have a voice, and I have people who are looking to me sometimes to say things and not be afraid of the word 'role model.'"

I have Post-its on my mirror. They're affirmations.

Logan Browning

A sense of purpose is also not lost on Logan Browning, star of Netflix's "Dear White People."

"When I wake up in the morning and I go to the 'Dear White People' set, I know that I am challenged with promoting a voice, and being a voice for a group of people," she said.

What's Next

If the bombardment of programming in this so-called Golden Age of TV has done anything -- besides make the average TV viewer feel overwhelmed -- it has blown the door open for the arrival of the Golden Age of Women on TV.

And we're already seeing the effects.

In June, the nominees for the Television Critics Association's annual award show reflected a sign of the times: Female nominees outnumbered men in the comedy and drama acting categories, which unlike the Emmys or Golden Globes are not separated by gender. All the acting nominees were women, a person of color, or both.

Elisabeth Moss and the cast of "The Handmaid's Tale," went on to win for program of the year. For the project, Moss stepped into the role of producer for the first time and saw the move as a natural next step in her career.

"As a woman in this business, I so admire other women who have … taken some ownership of their career, and gotten either behind the camera or gotten involved as a producer," said Moss, who was promoted to executive producer for the upcoming second season. "For me, those are the women I look up to."

It's our responsibility to get as much as we can, to get what's right.

Emmy Rossum

Emmy Rossum's own move to the director's chair stemmed from a deep curiosity that developed over several seasons on Showtime's "Shameless."

She finally took the plunge in Season 7. The process was "demystified" through shadowing other directors, observing her husband Sam Esmail (creator of "Mr. Robot") in action and attending a class at New York University, she said.

"I am a great believer in: You should know what you don't know," she said. "I still don't know a lot, but this is just the beginning of me figuring out what I don't know, I guess."

Nicole Kidman is a perfect example of that.

After decades of illuminating the big screen, the actress jumped into executive producing to adapt "Big Little Lies" for television. Finding people to collaborate with on the project -- including Reese Witherspoon -- was easy enough. But she admitted to facing challenges getting the project made.

"It's never easy," she told reporters after a recent Television Critics Association discussion. "You have to convince people to put the money there, you have to convince them it's going to work, [and] you have to kind of trick yourself into thinking it's going to work."

There are still many corners of the industry where the bright light of progress fails to reach.

In the 2015-16 TV season, women directed just 17% of all episodic television, according to Directors Guild of America stats.

Sure, well-intentioned networks (like FX and NBC) and filmmakers (like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Murphy) have attempted to put in place initiatives that aim to help, but far too many shows remain complacent with the status quo behind the scenes.

"X-Files" became the target of criticism this summer when it was reported the series had hired all white male writers for its upcoming season. (Later, Fox announced two women were assigned to write episodes.) Upon initially hearing about the lack of female representation, star Gillian Anderson declared on Twitter, "I believe we can do better."

That is, perhaps, the key phrase that has fueled generations of female creatives and will continue to do so -- Hollywood can do better.

Those who don't see it that way might be advised to put their glasses on.

Great Women of Television

Story by Sandra Gonzalez

Editorial by Megan Thomas

Series produced by CNN Digital Labs Stephany Cardet, Gary Crook, Cullen Daly, Padraic Driscoll, Page Ellerson, Lisa France, Chloe Melas, Damian Prado, Gabe Ramirez, Meshach Rojas, Robert Sevilla, Melissah Yang, Alice Yu

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