I grew up watching TV shows like Full House, Lizzie McGuire and Zoey 101. I would race home from school, plop myself on the couch, and settle in for 23 minutes of family friendly entertainment.
In every single show I watched there were the aged archetypes of women. The clumsy-but-adorable teenage girl; the cold, bossy ‘bitch’; and the ‘strong’ female character that shows so little emotion she might as well be a robot.
At the age of eight years old, I was not critiquing television shows for perpetuating gender roles or failing to properly represent women. I was, however, devouring their message. I was learning that women who are dependent upon men are ‘cute’, girls who deviate from the norm become social outcasts, and girls who speak their mind are ‘bossy.’
I was being exposed to what it meant to be an appealing woman. I was absorbing tips and tricks on how to be an amicable cooperator, a beautiful flower to admire. I was learning how to be digestible for the average man; serving only the sweetest parts of myself in bite size portions.
Television has come a long way since then, especially in the last few years. We have greater representation of women, with a little more diversity, and female leads are becoming more common. There are hard working people out there, striving to provide us with proper feminist television. Among my favourites are Broad City, Orange Is The New Black, How To Get Away With Murder, Veronica Mars and Parks and Recreation. Veronica Mars (no longer in production) followed a self-assured teenage detective, who refused to conform to societal standards of desirability and tackling her own (and other peoples’) problems. The show Broad City may just be the best depiction of female friendship on television to date. These girls talk about real, relatable things: what is pegging? Where can we buy the best weed? What do I do when I take a huge poo when a guy is over and it won’t flush?
But of course, the shortcomings of television are not so short.
That’s the trouble with ‘feminist television’. Any show can crank out a female lead and proclaim it ‘feminist’. In the same vein as celebrities rushing to self-identify as feminist without understanding what that really means, Hollywood executives are using the brand of feminism without actually incorporating it into their shows.
Sex and the City is a perfect example of this. Yes, this show focused on the fierce friendship of four women who were all smart and independent, but they existed in a male-dominated cultural landscape. Let us not forget that the overarching theme of the show was searching for love and Carrie’s most important accomplishment, as depicted by the show, was finally landing Mr. Big. These four women, whenever they would meet for a cocktail, would inevitably discuss men. Furthermore, the characters were about as relatable as a seventy-year-old man finishing his last days on the dairy farm. How can the average female television viewer be expected to relate to a size 2 fashion designer with a closet the size of Russia or a gorgeous publicist with a stream of gentlemen callers?
Girls is the perfect example of ‘feminist television’, which has both helped and hurt the feminist movement. Unlike in Sex and the City, Hannah Horvath and her friends are much less likeable – they are insecure, self-obsessed and open about their shortcomings. As such, they are more relatable to many women.
Unfortunately, Girls is also a prime example of white feminism. It is not to say that the series doesn’t address real and important topics (abortion, mental illness, female sexuality, etc.) but these discussions cannot compensate for its lack of diversity. And that’s the exact issue with white feminism – the notion that depicting complex, educated white women is adequate. I’m not suggesting that all TV shows must perfectly reflect all facets of diversity, but they do more harm than good when they ignore the realities of the world or play into racial stereotypes.
Even the show Scandal, written from the oh-so-impressive Shonda Rhimes, has its shortcomings. On the surface, the drama seems progressive. Olivia Pope is a black woman, in a position of power, who is a strong, independent woman with a soft side and a breaking point. Furthermore, it’s rare to have such a diverse cast, fighting together for a collective cause on mainstream television. But although a woman of colour is allegedly at the center of the plot, the ingredients that comprise the show are the usual Hollywood suspects – sex, violence, violation and action. In fact, aside from the fact that Olivia Pope, a black woman, saves the day, there is virtually no shift from the normative patriarchal Hollywood recipe.
We are going in the right direction, but let’s not kid ourselves. We still have a long way to go. Feminist television has both helped and hindered the movement. The fact that such a label exists, people are talking about it, and shows are trying to debunk gender roles and better represent women are all good things. But feminist television has hurt us by becoming the trendy marketing label for producers to brand their shows. We do ourselves a disservice by proclaiming, “We have 17 feminist television shows airing this year!” when half of them are deeply flawed or fail to fully embrace feminist principles. This diminishes the movement and dilutes the message we seek to spread.
If teenagers grow up believing that Girls is a good representation of feminism, then we will be left with misinformed youth and an inadequate movement.
Am I splitting hairs here? Maybe. But there can be no ‘basically feminist’ individuals; there can be no ‘good enough’ feminism. To produce and applaud misguided feminist television is to suggest that only advocating for the rights of certain oppressed groups, or only fighting against the patriarchy when it is convenient, is OK, is acceptable, is good enough.
There is no perfect feminism, but there cannot be a halfhearted movement either. Feminism is a fight, and we must all give 100%.