Posted by: mzbitca | April 14, 2009

What makes a feminist TV show?

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?



  1. Well thought out.

    I see a lot of strong feminist ideals in Grey’s Anatomy, as well as enjoying their diverse cast. There seems to be no ability based on gender (even though the highest ranking “hotshot” surgeons are men). A black woman is the most respected surgeon (arguably) in the cast. I haven’t felt that Callie’s romances were portrayed exploitatively (but I am not gay, so I can’t truly be a definitive voice on that one).

    I like Bones for the same reason (although I just read that Brennan suddenly wants a baby…I dunno…), diverse cast, powerful women in high profile rolls. Single, child free women w/ successful careers (including the head of the lab being a woman of color). I was critical of the episode involving the transwoman, but I think that more showed how people can be, and how they should be.

    I guess I look for well rounded characters and cast members w/o it feeling like it is simply throwing a bone to people who want those things (which I felt on House when he hired the new staff, and Cuddy told him point blank that he HAD to keep at least one woman). I feel like the absence of Women of Color alienates me, as if we are invisible and don’t exist to the world.

    Having not been able to see Dollhouse yet and having read Joss’ comments about it not being feminist, I feel may just be trying to get people to stop criticizing it b/f it has a chance to develop (both feminists and non). I don’t know if that makes sense to even me…

    Wev. Great post.

  2. 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 think probably the latter. But, really, I think there is a difference between a “feminist show” and a “feminist friendly” show. There is probably a lot of grey area between the two, and I would put “Buffy” closest to “femist show” out of any that you mentioned. But none of the shows you mentioned were perfect. I think feminst friendly shows have to make real efforts to show women as complicated characters. I think “Buffy” does that with all the female characters. At the same time, it doesn’t just flip the scales so that women are always the dominate force. Xander saves the world and Spike does too- but not single handly and not as often as Buffy, for example. In that respect, evil women characters are needed, too.

    I think you’re right, in that there are ways to make good shows (HIMYM, for example) MORE feminist and aware. But I sort of doubt there can be an ideal feminst show, because there’s no such thing as an ideal feminist. Not to mention I think there is still a need for TV shows to portray characters like Barney, because there are guys out there walking around like that. And I’d rather have a show make just as many efforts toward truth as much as anything else.

  3. Wow… sorry for all the typos! FEMINIST 😉

  4. To me a feminist show would be one where the female characters always had agency, or if they didn’t, that fact would be openly addressed. It would be one where perhaps trans/homophobic, sexist, racist jokes might happen, but they would be immediately put down by main characters. It would be one that engaged in the struggles and decisions and compromises we all make in life, and do so openly. The main thing is that for me, a show is not entirely feminist if it’s still displaying in an unacknowledged way all the things that create inequalities in the world.

  5. I agree with whatsername for the most part, but I’m not sure those jokes need to be put down by the main characters necessarily if it’s made clear that the main characters are not people to be admired.

  6. I second the Bones endorsement especially because there are three strong women, two of color, and two of whom have “unfeminine” talents/professions. (and if Bones does want a baby, it’s something they’ve been building up to quietly over 3 or so episodes I can think of 🙂

    I also agree with the above re: Agency. I think a feminist show/movie is one that represents where women are all over the spectrum, that doesn’t pigeonhole them into one (stereotypical/traditional) area and let the menfolk have all the adventures. Like “Enchanted.” You had fluttery (but strong) Amy Adams, you had practical Idina Menzel, and you had evil Susan Sarandon (who was strong but not Good). To me that gives a young girl three possible points of identification, one of whom is lovingly telling her she can be anything she wants to be and who grows up into a real woman before her eyes. AND rescues the prince.

    Your reading of Buffy was spot-on, I think, except that the show was also about Good and Evil, not just Men and Women. Xander and Giles triumph because they are Good, even though they may not be (physically) strong.

    I just rewatched “Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day” which /might/ be considered feminist because the two leads are interesting and well-played and are working within their existing framework to their own ends (i.e. manipulating the men)…but on the other hand, it’s a period piece where the ingenue (Amy Adams) gets shaken around by her true love and manhandled by her other beaux. For it to be made today seems like a feminist accomplishment, but the story itself doesn’t re-enforce any feminist ideals or values.

  7. victim feminists….man hating feminists…female breadwinners….stay at home dads…part time working fathers…poor men who are man-whores…straight acting gay guys

    more characters the better…

  8. Hi, I was reading up on HIMYM and I came across your post. I don’t know if you’ll still see comments two years later, but … Joss never said Dollhouse wasn’t a feminist show. That’s a misquote from io9. I wrote about it on the blog Echidne of the Snakes.
    What he said was that it wasn’t a “feminist screed.” I listened to the entire speech, and I was a longtime journalism before becoming disabled. (I’m just saying this in case anyone wonders about my ability to transcribe something.)

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