Feminism and Television: All of the Credit, None of the Controversy

Anna and I had a conversation about The Good Wife and its depiction of feminism recently, when she was writing it up for a post at FWD. I haven’t actually seen the show, so I can’t speak to the depiction of feminism in it, but Anna and I were trying to think of main characters who explicitly identify as feminist on television. Not characters who are feminist, of which we could think of some examples, but characters who specifically say “I am a feminist,” or some variation thereof, on television.

I couldn’t think of any in the shows I watch/have watched. I know that there are some out there, at least allegedly, but it got me thinking about the depiction of feminism on television. And it brought me to an interesting conclusion. There are a lot of shows I watch which are considered feminist shows, by creators, critics, actors, and sometimes even me. Buffy is an obvious example, but Veronica Mars is pretty feminist in a lot of ways. So is True Blood to some extent, and I know that some people would argue that Grey’s Anatomy has some pretty strong feminist themes.

But these shows don’t actually have any main character who straight up says “I am a feminist.” In Veronica Mars, the feminists are actually depicted as laughable figures; they are straw feminists of the worst order, honestly. “Woman power” is used as a joke line on Buffy, and I don’t see Dr. Yang calling herself a feminist even though she’s kind of a personal feminist icon, for me. Where are all the feminists on these feminist shows?

I have a theory about this, which is that these shows want all of the credit and none of the controversy.

Feminist viewers are a pretty small demographic, but we can be a vociferous one. So, there’s good reason to at least subtly brand a show as feminist, and to discuss feminist issues when you’re in a space with feminist viewers. There’s even good reason to include what I guess I would call “feminist dog whistles,” coded phrases and actions which speak volumes to feminists while sliding over the heads of viewers, especially if you are a feminist and you want to integrate feminism into your creative work.

I think in some cases there’s also a genuine feminist intent on the part of the creators. In Grey’s Anatomy, for example, we see women and people of colour in senior positions and it is not questioned, nor is attention drawn to it. It’s depicted as entirely normal (which it should be), and that sends an embedded message of its own to viewers. The show even directly addresses issues like racism in hospital care; remember the episode where the white supremacist didn’t want Dr. Bailey treating him?

Joss Whedon has also spoken out on a number of occasions about wanting to make Buffy a feminist show, and in some cases it does live up to that claim. There are some strongly feminist moments on that show and it does turn some ideas about gender on their head, and I don’t just say that because the hero of the piece is a strong woman. Joss also carried that through in Angel, which also contains a lot of embedded feminist content and commentary.

But all of these shows are lacking an out and proud feminist character. And I suspect that one of the reasons for this is the fear of alienating the rest of the demographic. People can be tricked into watching a feminist show, as long as there aren’t any feminists in it. Meanwhile, creators get to have their cake and eat it too: They can argue that they are producing feminist work and contributing to the breaking down of barriers and stereotypes, without endangering their ratings and standing among viewers.

Of course, I don’t think that every show with feminist values needs a feminist in it. But I do think that in places where a feminist would be a good fit, it would be awfully nice to have one. Mac on Veronica Mars, for example, could have easily been made more explicitly feminist and the show would have improved.

Because, here’s the thing: I am all for breaking down barriers and stereotypes and I am glad for the feminist work which I see on television, but I wish that they could also break down the stereotypes about real world people who are trying to tear down the gender divide. I wish that I could see a feminist character who is taken seriously and who is honest because I think that would be a great thing for other viewers to experience.

When the only feminists on television are straw feminists who do and say horrific things, it doesn’t really speak well of feminism. And maybe that’s how creators view feminism. Maybe it’s not. But failing to include a positive depiction of feminism certainly doesn’t suggest that creators were very interesting in making actual feminists part of their feminist work.

“Oh, but it’s standalone, so you don’t need feminists in it,” some people might say. Or “the feminist intent of the work is more important than whether or not it includes a positive depiction of feminism.” But I disagree. Because here’s the thing: People are watching these shows. Some people are absorbing the embedded feminist messages and thinking “hey, yeah, misogyny sucks and rape is bad.” And that is awesome. But what these people don’t realize is that they are absorbing feminism and they could identify as feminist, if they wanted to.

Instead, these people continue to actively reject feminism because they’ve only seen the caricatured and extremist version. And they’re missing out on a whole movement they might actually really dig, if only they knew that it was a movement for them too.

5 Replies to “Feminism and Television: All of the Credit, None of the Controversy”

  1. Oh, that’s definitely one of the things I love (love love) about The Good Wife! Christine Baranski’s character identifies explicitly as feminist, is involved in feminist activism, and holds her own (against resistance) at the top of a law firm. And I love that Margulies’ character is very definitely feminist, and spends time exploring the nuance that involves, and exploring her mixed feelings about her difficult relationship with her husband. And she’s repeatedly pushing shit uphill (and often winning) getting people to treat her as a person and lawyer in her own right, not as a Wife.

    Say what you like about the show, but Rayyan Hamoudi on Little Mosque on the Prairie is an out and proud feminist.

    Does Peggy from Mad Men ever identify with the word? Or is it a bit too early in the movement (and risky in her work life) for that to come together for her?

    Would Addison (from Grey’s, now Private Practice) identify as a feminist, I wonder? She has certain spoken and acted loud and proud on women’s rights to choose – when it comes to abortion, that is. Suddenly when the fetus is full-term or near-term all that changes for her. Miranda Bailey is a far more compelling feminist character for me, but I’m not sure she’s ever said it out loud.

  2. Correction – a full-term, non-disabled fetus or newborn. If there’s a high chance of disability involved, Addison’s out.

  3. I know Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope are comedic characters, but they both call themselves feminists a lot (and are written and played by feminists too). Does Lorelai or Rory Gilmore ever call herself a feminist? I know I’ve heard them use the word, and Rory has a PP poster in her room and reads lots of books by women, but I haven’t seen a lot of the show so I don’t know.

    That’s still a pretty pathetic list though….disappointing.

  4. Ah, thank you! I should have mentioned in this post that I’m talking about shows I have seen, and I haven’t seen every single show on television (including 30 Rock, obviously!).

  5. You are absolutely right to observe that the media’s failure to feature strongly feminist characters who are actually sympathetic, noble, courageous, and likable, does a great deal of damage, not just to feminism in general, but to woman and men who watch these shows.

    I teach English and women’s studies at a large university in Pittsburgh, where many of my students, who are quite intelligent, have bizarre and extremely negative ideas about feminism. Many of them do not call themselves feminists, and are quite surprised to learn that the definition of a feminist is an advocate of the political, economic, and legal equality of women and men. They support that, but are reluctant to identify themselves as feminists because of the narrow and negative image that the media offers to them.

    Kimberly Latta, aka A Pittsburgh Feminist: http://pittsburghfeminists.blogspot.com/

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