Over the past decade, we’ve been seeing a boom in television programming made by women, for women. During the 2019-2020 television season, women comprised 45% of major characters on broadcast, cable and streaming programs, while a historically high number of women have been credited as creators, directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and directors of photography on streaming programs in the United States. As a result, audiences have been seeing an uptick in television that centers the female experience. In short, feminist television is having a moment, and it’s certainly been a long time coming.
There is no one concrete definition of feminist television; rather, what defines a show as feminist can be attributed to several important factors. For example, most of today’s feminist television shows have several things in common – they have a female protagonist, pass the Bechdel test, have a majority of female writers and creators behind the scenes, and storylines focused on character growth and self-reflection rather than romance or serving the interests of male characters, to name a few. Essentially, feminist television shows tell stories that showcase any and all aspects of the female experience, unrestricted by how they might be viewed through the male gaze. The female experience as it is understood globally has also grown broader with the inclusion of trans and nonbinary experiences under the feminine umbrella as well, thus calling for more inclusion of not just cisgender women, but trans women and nonbinary people with female experiences on these writing and creative teams. This then translates into a wider variety of female characters and stories on screen, which allows for greater female representation.
Television has long been a vehicle for cultural criticism, with its early twenty-first century “golden age” centered around the archetype of the “problematic man.” Just as in real life, male television characters – such as Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Walter White of Breaking Bad, and Don Draper of Mad Men – were allowed to be complicated, morally gray, and deeply interesting on their own as they navigated topical themes such as mental health, toxic masculinity, power and corruption, and economic downfall. Female characters, on the other hand, were often written shallowly or one-sidedly, reduced to props or used to further progress the man’s hero journey. This pattern mirrors the tired (and misogynistic) idea that a woman has to just be one thing – a housewife, an accomplice, a sexual object, a sounding board, a mirror for the protagonist to use for his own gain. They were also often white, and conventionally attractive.
Thankfully, the tide has been shifting in recent years, most notably with the emergence of woman-centered stories with mixed gender or majority-female creative teams. Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black is one notable example, having received critical acclaim upon its release in 2013 for its honest and varied approach to telling the stories of black and brown incarcerated women, thereby highlighting the injustices within the American criminal justice system. When I first began watching OITNB on Netflix, I had no knowledge of what it might be like to be an incarcerated woman of color, and no vehicle for even beginning to understand that experience; the show functioned as a way for me to spark that interest and initiate that understanding.
Though my interest in feminism wasn’t spawned from watching television (rather, from 2013-era pro-choice Tumblr sites), watching television and identifying with feminist characters has deeply influenced my feminist identity, and broadened my horizons when it comes to seeing and understanding female stories. It began with Glee, my favorite show as a teenager – a 2009 coming-of-age musical dramedy that broke barriers on how stories of sexual, racial, and gender identities were told on television. I particularly identified with Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry, a relentless diva with dreams of a Broadway career. Rachel Berry was probably not a feminist – she cared more about herself and her individual struggles more than understanding anybody else’s – but her determination, drive, and fearlessness inspired me to chase my own dreams, regardless of what stood in my way. Like Rachel, I was a singer – but I had never taken my love for it seriously (ironically, I was a very practical child who always knew musical dreams were unreasonable). Watching Rachel star in her high-school Glee club inspired me to join my own school’s choir – which led to me pursuing choir in college and beyond. To this day, singing remains a hobby of mine that provides unparalleled joy – and I never would have pursued it if not for Rachel Berry’s influence on me.
Though a television show does not have to break barriers or make a grand declaration against oppression in order to be considered feminist (think lighthearted comedies like Tuca and Bertie and Broad City, for example), OITNB is a shining example of what feminist television often seeks to achieve: through telling these woman-centered stories, the writers are bringing light to larger issues relevant to the fight against intersectional oppression. Hand-in-hand with relatability goes representation. When we widen the amount of representation being shown on screen, a larger audience is able to relate, which makes certain shows more accessible and thereby more successful. According to a 2021 study performed by ViacomCBS that surveyed over 15,000 people, 85% of respondents agreed that representation has an impact on the real world by influencing people’s perceptions on complex identities, thereby leading to a better understanding of these identities. When it comes to specifically female representation, a 2017 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that 90% of women globally feel that women role models in television and film are important; while 61% found that female role models in the media have been influential in their lives.
For me, that role model was Dr. Callie Torres, played by Sara Ramirez, on Grey’s Anatomy – a Latina-Irish “Ortho Goddess.” I was the type of girl who felt invisible when it came to racial representation; as a child I would watch the Disney channel, where I, despite not being Middle Eastern, identified primarily with Princess Jasmine from Aladdin because she was the only princess with skin that didn’t look like the surface of a pearl. Seeing not just a Latina character on screen, but one that identified as half-Irish like me, was monumental. So, this isn’t just a niche thing, I thought to myself as I watched her bop around the OR, holding bone saws and scalpels and being a general badass, there are other people like me. It opened up a whole new sense of understanding myself and what I could be capable of. Looking back from a time where such representation is becoming more common, it almost feels ridiculous that such a simple thought could be so emotionally moving.
As I grew older, other characters in my favorite shows provided kinship and understanding of different female experiences– I watched Diane Nguyen (played controversially by Alison Brie) of BoJack Horseman, a feminist writer not unlike myself, struggle with independence and racial identity as she figured out her life. Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend highlighted the importance of seeking help for mental health issues and pursuing your passions regardless of outside expectations. And Aidy Bryant’s Annie in Shrill shone a light on searching for love, sex, and understanding as a plus-sized woman. Though I couldn’t identify exactly with all of these women, I could still take a small piece of their stories – Diane’s search for clarity in her racial identity and fraught path towards career success as a writer; Rebecca’s desire for love and understanding amongst the creation of her new life; Annie’s journey in learning to stand up for herself and what she deserves from her relationships – and relate it to my own journey as a woman. In addition, I understood and enjoyed the stories their characters lived through. And as a result, my horizons as a woman and a feminist were broadened.
I am a feminist. To me, that goes beyond simply believing in women’s equality as a response to male supremacy – that feels like too low of a bar – and further into understanding the equality of women across the spectrum of gender, sexuality, and race. There is no one universal female experience – rather, womanhood looks different for everybody, and no one person has the right to define what womanhood might mean for somebody else. All womanhoods are created equally and have the right to be showcased, publicly and joyfully – both in television and real life.
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Kerry-Anne holds a BA in English from Saint Mary's College of California and an MFA in Creative Writing: Nonfiction from Eastern Washington University. She lives in Spokane, Washington with her cat, Charlie. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kaloughman.