Over the past four weeks, with Dollhouse getting very good, if not more and more disturbing, I have been flashing back to conversations about the shows beginnings and Joss’s claim that it “wasn’t a feminist show.” I started to wonder exactly what a feminist show would look like?
I watch a lot of shows out there that I wouldn’t call “feminist” but that definitely have strong messages in them. I often think of Buffy as the iconic feminist show, mostly because I love Buffy. It had strong female leads who where in power yet had serious flaws. it also dealt with males being emasculated by their stronger female counterparts. Giles with Gwendolyn Post & Prof. Walsh. Xander with pretty much all the females around him. Spike, with his chip and being in a wheelchair while Angel moves in on Drusilla. Is this a commentary on how fragile the male ego, or could Joss not understand a world where men did not have to be insulted by smarter and more capable females. Also, all of the males ended up winning. Post and Walsh were evil. Xander saves the world in Season 6 and Spike saves the world in season 7. These developments never bothered me because I was so attached to the characters and that outward displays of misogyny were always punished (Warren).
However, other shows have promise as well. ”How I met your Mother” with NPH playing Barney is definitely not a “feminist” show but the two main characters are pretty well rounded. Robin has no desire to get married or have kids and even when she falls in love with the lead character this does not change her mind and they break up over it. It is never hinted that she will change her mind and all the characters accept her statement that she wants to stay single as the truth. They also manage to show how hard it can be to stay single without ever making her look overly sad and despereate. Lily is a realist surrounded by men (Ted and Marshall particularly) that live in a rose colored world. She constantly must remind them of the truth of the situation and make hard decisions. She breaks up with her fiancee to chase her dream and even though she doesn’t like it they manage to make her and Marshall’s reunion not overly desperate (she does freak out about Marshall being on a date but Marshall has once traced her credit card accounts so it’s all equal footing.) Also, she keeps her name and even holds her footing when Marshall’s family is overly surprised by it and doesn’t let Marshall shy away from the uncomfortable situation.
House, for all of his sexist/racist/every other ist comments has a woman as the head of the hospital, who adopted a child on her own (even though that story was handled horrifically) as well as strong female characters in Cameron and Cut Throat Bitch (Amber). They also have had very interesting female patients from the dialog House had with a rape victim who wanted to keep her baby, the women who was willing to abort with no problem, the amazing Azura Sky as a woman who sees images of her dead mother.
The question becomes: is a show feminist because all of it’s messages are feminist or is it feminist because it accurately depicts life without sugar coating it. I ask this question because I believe that the reason the Dollhouse is getting better is not because it stopped showing lack of consent and sexual slavery. It is because it got honest about it, between the horrible path Sierra took both before and within the dollhouse, Victor being used to try and satisfy all of Adelles internal qualms about her job, and the clearer moral degradation of everyone involved, there is no hiding the truth from the viewers. Seeing Dominic being wiped and attempting to shoot himself in the head instead and Topher exiting the room holding the file that is what makes up a living human person hit a lot of people right in the gut, as it should.
Perhaps an ideal feminist show would have people never making inappropriate jokes, there would never be power dynamics and privilege but it wouldn’t be the truth. In my mind the Dollhouse or even How I met Your Mother could be a feminist show with just some minor tweaking. Things like never having jokes made about transgendered people or gays or lesbians or fat people would be awesome but right now I’d settle for the character who makes that comment to be somehow corrected on the air.
What are some things do you think a show much have to be feminist?