In Focus

Calling a TV show “feminist” doesn’t make it feminist

Blanket labels restrict the way we talk about progress on TV.
In Focus

Calling a TV show “feminist” doesn’t make it feminist

Blanket labels restrict the way we talk about progress on TV.

In 1977, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show won a Peabody Award, it was praised for its "sympathetic portrayal of a career woman in today’s changing society." Alongside other 1970s sitcoms, like the high-concept Bewitched and blistering Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show brought into the spotlight the concerns of second-wave feminism and the conversations real women were having about abortion, equal pay, sexuality, and the home/career divide. Fast forward 39 years: Feminism hasn’t only become a major fixture in the making and marketing of a series, it’s almost a requirement. It isn’t just female-led comedies that exemplify this. You can see feminist ideals running through shows like the cheery girl-power utopia of Supergirl, the dramedy Transparent, the noir-tinged superhero drama Jessica Jones, the icy The Girlfriend Experience, and the nighttime soap operas with black antiheroines like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. Even a show like Better Call Saul has been dubbed feminist by critics at IndieWire and Bustle for doing what amounts to the bare minimum: giving its lone female character interiority and goals.

Looking at today’s television landscape, it is easy to believe that we’re in what the writer Zeba Blay calls "The Golden Age of Feminist TV." But dig beneath the surface and you’ll find that this progress starts to look more complicated. In We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, Andi Zeisler writes, “The Golden Age of Feminist Television is thrilling to watch and gratifying to hear its creators discuss, but, as with TV itself, things are often much better looking on the surface. ... [T]oo much emphasis on all the good stuff can lead us to gloss over how many intractable barriers remain.” And those barriers stand tall. As Maureen Ryan reports for Variety, “the 2016-17 season reveals that 90 percent of showrunners are white, and almost 80 percent are male.” While there are more LGBTQ characters on network television now than ever before, we’ve seen 25 queer female characters killed off onscreen this year.

The way feminism within TV is discussed is less about how art can reckon with institutionalized structures and challenge our world views and more about personal identity. When a series is described as "feminist," it’s as if it earns a gold star signifying its importance. Such a designation also lets it be marketed as such — often without sufficient attention paid to its aesthetic values. Most troubling is how the rush to crown shows feminist (or not) flattens criticism of the shows themselves and alludes to how a political movement has become a marketing tactic in mainstream circles.

When a series is described as "feminist," it’s as if it earns a gold star signifying its importance.

It’s easy to believe that this recent trend is a sign that this generation is more open about political discourse and of how audiences are able to speak directly to the people making the shows they love. It’s also easy to believe that each generation and the art it consumes is more progressive than the one that came before it. But this is a comforting lie. Television’s relationship with feminism has ebbed and flowed since its beginnings. In a 1972 poll in Redbook magazine that Zeisler mentions in We Were Feminists Once, a portion of women agreed that "the media degrades women as mindless dolls." Books like From Reverence to Rape by critic Molly Haskell and the “Original Six,” a group of female directors who sued the major studios in Hollywood in the 1980s for gender discrimination, prove the conversations we’re having today aren’t new. The language may have changed, but the sentiment remains the same: Women have always wanted to see (and create) complex representations of ourselves onscreen.

Maude, Norman Lear’s All in the Family spinoff, premiered in 1972 and remains relevant today primarily because we’re still having many conversations around the issues its titular character dealt with. Led with a sharp performance by Bea Arthur, Maude went places its peers didn’t. Maude was a middle-aged, staunchly liberal woman living with her fourth husband in suburban New York. The feminism of the show wasn’t covertly hidden by softball platitudes about empowerment. Maude addressed how its protagonist’s beliefs in gender and racial equality caused ripples in her life. Two months before Roe v. Wade passed, an episode aired in which Maude had an abortion. This still feels radical today. The current obsession to qualify shows like Orange Is the New Black and Luke Cage as feminist ignores how a series can engage in feminist ideas without living up to feminist ideals. Maude succeeds at both.

Television didn’t build on the success of feminist-minded ’70s sitcoms. This isn’t a coincidence. When any sort of progress is made subsequent years seem to roll it back for a number of reasons: These kinds of stories were no longer considered profitable, people felt progress was made, older ideals became en vogue, and white men felt threatened. And isn’t this exactly what we’re experiencing in the wake of our latest presidential election?

With a few exceptions, like Roseanne, the 1980s were a dead zone for television that engaged with feminism in any sort of meaningful way. The 1990s brought pop feminism to the forefront — an approachable, girl-power-oriented version of the movement snaked its way through pop culture in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Daria to the music of Lil’ Kim and the Spice Girls.

Buffy and Xena: The Warrior Princess spawned leather-clad female characters who argued that they could do anything that men could do, which in this case meant throwing a punch and saving the world. This trend can be seen in shows like Alias, Dark Angel, the Bionic Woman reboot, the failed 2011 Wonder Woman pilot, Charmed and Dollhouse. It’s hard to ignore how many of these series confuse kicking ass and violence for empowerment or character growth. What’s telling is that this trend was defined by genre television in which demons, vampires, government conspiracies, and androids act as metaphors letting showrunners off the hook from delving into dealing with the feminist conversations around rape culture, sexuality, and violence in a more direct way. Many of these shows have their pleasures, and some even occasionally cut a bit deeper in regards to gender politics. But far too many demonstrated a watered-down version of feminism full of "girl power" ethos and a simplistic understanding of modern womanhood.

Lucy Lawless stars as Xena and Renee O'Connor stars as Gabrielle in 'Xena Warrior Princess.'

Lucy Lawless stars as Xena and Renee O'Connor stars as Gabrielle in 'Xena Warrior Princess.'

Ultimately, in deeming any series as feminist — especially earlier in its run — we are limiting the show’s ability to let its female characters be unburdened by respectability politics. This doesn’t mean that the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s didn’t have their feminist pleasures on television. These decades saw the creation of pop culture icons like C.J. Cregg of The West Wing, the women of The Golden Girls and Living Single, and Dana Scully, who has proven so vital she’s credited with the increase of women in the fields of science, law enforcement, and medicine. In the last decade we’ve seen series that put the so-called unlikeable aspects of women under a microscope (Girls), explorations of how we treat female ambition disguised as a sunny sitcom (Parks and Recreation), and a reclamation of the scorned political wife archetype by turning her into a hardened antihero (The Good Wife). But as feminism has evolved as a political movement so have the desires of a television audience that needs more than giving a female character some goals and clever rhetoric.

The Netflix drama Luke Cage, which premiered this fall, has been praised for its feminism, thanks to having several pivotal black female characters, many of whom are dark skinned. But these characters are often sidelined. Scandal, which cemented Shonda Rhimes’ place as a marquee showrunner when it debuted in 2012, featured the first black woman as lead in a network drama in 40 years; we’ve seen Olivia Pope evolve into a complex antiheroine. But we’ve also seen the show unable to meaningfully process her deeper emotional issues. Neftlix’s breakout hit, Orange Is the New Black, was praised for using its white female lead as a Trojan horse to tell the underexplored stories of black, Latina, elderly, and trans women; although it’s been criticized for storylines that make mental illness a punchline.

This isn’t to disparage the progress we’ve made. In episode six of the new HBO comedy Insecure, Molly (Yvonne Orji) dumps a guy she really likes because he had mentioned that he had fooled around with a man once in his early twenties. The rest of the episode puts her own homophobia, hypocrisy (since she had mentioned to him her own same-sex experience), and the limited identities black men can move within into focus. Insecure’s greatest strength is its specificity. It isn’t trying to speak to all (black) women or even position itself as a feminist series, even though its worldview is evident.

But other showrunners and actors take the opposite approach placing their series within the political movement. In a Rolling Stone interview last year, Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg said, "When can we show women as human beings like anyone else? But that's the history of television: Women are wives or the sassy cop — they're the Madonna or the whore. Pick one, that's all you get. But that's been changing over the last few years." This is a simplistic reading of television’s history. You can find women existing beyond these identities and wrestling with themes that run the course of real women’s lives on shows like The Twilight Zone, Girlfriends, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and of course, Maude.

In deeming any series as feminist — especially earlier in its run — we are limiting the show’s ability to let its female characters be unburdened by respectability politics.

In many ways, Jessica Jones, which premiered in November 2015 on Netflix, is the modern series that best exemplifies the issues with how we discuss feminism on television. When it was confirmed by Rosenberg this year that all 13 episodes of Season 2 would be directed by women, the announcement was praised as another sign of the show’s feminist bonafides. The series follows the titular superhero (Krysten Ritter) turned private detective trying to take down Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man who has the ability to control minds and uses his power to abuse women. He’s pretty much the living embodiment of toxic masculinity. It’s easy to see why the show has been praised, since it deftly explores consent and rape culture within the male-dominated superhero genre. Unfortunately, in our joy over such a series existing, we lost sight of the ways it failed everyone beyond white women.

Jessica Jones takes one of the most noxious tropes in comic history and applies it to a black woman. In the show, the titular character’s backstory is altered from her comic’s origin so that she kills a black woman, Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz Henley), under the influence of Kilgrave. Jessica’s guilt is a defining factor for the character. It’s also murdering Reva that breaks Kilgrave’s hold on her. The fact that Jessica stalks and then sleeps with Reva’s widow, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), only makes matters worse. As I watched Jessica Jones gain praise for its feminist credentials by critics and audiences, it was hard to ignore how few chose to discuss Reva’s fate. The show has been discussed as proudly feminist by its creator and the cast. But if the series can’t imagine the humanity of women of color or even recognize the racial underpinnings in how it constructed Jessica’s arc, how feminist is it, really?

In modern narratives, there’s a trope referred to as "women in refrigerators." It originated in Green Lantern #54, when hero Kyle Rayner came home to find his girlfriend killed and stuffed in his fridge by a supervillain. “Women in refrigerators” grew to describe female characters killed in film, TV, and comics to push forward the plot and give male characters angst. Critics aren’t shy about outlining the issues of this trope as Emily Nussbaum’s critique of the first season of True Detective in The New Yorker notes the pain women endure is “purely decorative.” But Jessica Jones racialized the trope and put a feminist mask over it.

Not every show should be an informative, faultless afterschool special. But shows need to be more than dramas with self-destructive antiheroines to be considered feminist. All art is political. And if all art is political, how we engage with it is too. The stories we turn to, as critic Inkoo Kang writes, are "our most reliable paths toward empathy," since they allow us a different way to view the world. We’re living in times in which simplistic readings aren’t just intellectually dishonest, they’re dangerous. We need art to challenge us and for us to challenge what we see even in the art we love more than ever before. The progress made in television in recent years is vital, but if we don’t question what we see — either in praising when TV exceeds expectations or holding it accountable when it fails with some nuance — then we won’t go much further at all.

Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago.