The Most Feminist (Television) Show on Earth

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Shiri Appleby plays Rachel on Lifetime's UnREAL
Shiri Appleby plays Rachel on Lifetime's UnREAL
Shiri Appleby plays Rachel on Lifetime’s UnREAL

Several critics have spent the last few television seasons declaring first one show and then another the Most Feminist on Television, which can be a little baffling when you remember that not everyone in the viewing public considers the title “most feminist” to be an endorsement. (My own sister, after reading my bio for this website, was appalled to discover I had described myself as “definitely what a feminist looks like,” and observed that it didn’t sound like a compliment.)

And while criticisms of the way women are portrayed on television, particularly in prestige dramas, are now a predictable part of the cycle of blog posts and articles for each new show, the question of whether or not shows are actively feminist raises an interesting and not entirely inconsequential question: Exactly what counts as a feminist series anyway? The controversies over the depiction of rape and the treatment of female characters in the most recent seasons of Game of Thrones and Outlander reveal how uncertain the answer to that question is, with critics and viewers squabbling over which depictions of rape and attempted rape were feminist and which were gratuitous, while disagreeing over whether or not Outlander is the feminist Game of Thrones or Game of Thrones is already the feminist Game of Thrones.

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As someone who identifies as a feminist, the question of what makes a television show a feminist television show interests me deeply. But as someone who approaches television with the ethos “just try and watch everything,” wondering what really categorizes a TV show as such has made me ask myself what it means when I watch programs that I know aren’t feminist or that are inconsistent in their portrayals of women. How much of a problem is it to watch shows that are not only not feminist but sometimes deeply anti-feminist? And seriously, what do we mean when we call a television show “feminist”? If I’ve spent hours and hours reading about feminism, shouldn’t I just automatically know whether or not I think Game of Thrones is its apex or its opposite?

That these questions are not that easy to answer is not just a product of how uncertain some people are over what feminism actually is (equality for all women, in case you were wondering) but reflects a lot of the inherent features and limitations in how we experience television watching now. A couple of years ago, as someone without a Nielsen box, what did it matter if I balanced watching Mad Men with episodes of The Bachelorette? Despite the ways in which social media has turned solitary viewing into an optional communal event, it’s still possible to zone out in front of your television or laptop while watching a hundred episodes of a reality show or an old sitcom that you never would admit to viewing. No matter what my friends or family think, it’s really Netflix that knows all my secrets.

But now that I watch all of my television off of the Comcast website or through Netflix and Amazon Prime, I have to acknowledge that my program choices are being tallied and used to calculate viewer interest. Before Netflix and Amazon started making their own television shows, the primary determining factor of what I watched on their services was whether or not I liked it. Now I’ve started wondering if I should have Veronica Mars and The Comeback constantly playing on all my devices, just so that the Dramas with Strong Female Leads category might have some new additions.

Sophie Turner as poor Sansa Stark, on Game of Thrones
Sophie Turner as poor Sansa Stark, on Game of Thrones

But while it’s easy to see why it matters in a practical sense what exactly I’m watching, the question remains how to make good feminist viewing choices that I’ll actually enjoy. After all, is a show’s feminism located in the writing? The casting? The way it’s filmed? Television shows have so many moving parts that often they succeed in being feminist in one area while failing utterly in another, which, combined with our own personal whims, makes it very difficult to pick a list of shows just based on ideals and start watching.

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While some might argue that the number of women alone in a cast should count, volume does not ensure quality. Shows like Orange Is the New Black and American Horror Story may both have large, diverse casts of women, but American Horror Story is often a tedious mess of sexualized violence. Game of Thrones has some of the most interesting and best-written women characters on television, but the criticisms of the way the show films rape scenes, prioritizing the reactions of the men in the women’s lives, are valid and made watching this past season a frustrating and demoralizing experience. Outlander contains a spunky, sassy female protagonist who lives in a fantasy version of eighteenth-century Scotland, where saying whatever she wants only draws her closer to her sensitive and ahead-of-his-time Highlander husband — suggesting that all feminism needed was a lack of filter and some understanding men to push it along.

Neither is perfect, and they are joined by legions of shows with fascinating women trapped in skewed gender politics (The Walking Dead) or featuring only straight white women (Girls, Veep, pretty much every other show I’ve mentioned here except OITNB). Others decided not to develop their women characters until the second or third season (Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire, Hannibal) or were formerly solid but indulged in a troubling arc (Switched at Birth).

Kaitlyn Bristowe, the eponymous Bachelorette of the current season, holding one of those damn roses
Kaitlyn Bristowe, the eponymous Bachelorette of the current season, holding one of those damn roses

But none of them compares to the sort of questioning that comes with watching the truly anti-feminist, something like The Bachelor/ Bachelorette franchise. Why do smart, feminist-identified women watch these shows? Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay has herself admitted to being a fan, saying, “I mute my feminism,” in order to enjoy the televised fantasy of true (heterosexual) love. Enter Lifetime’s UnREAL, a show that takes up some of these questions I’ve been asking and tries to devise an answer. The main character, Shiri Appleby’s Rachel Goldberg is a freelance producer on a Bachelor stand-in called Everlasting, and in her first shot she appears wearing a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt. Rachel’s talent is manipulating contestants’ into the kind of emotional breakdowns that make exciting and dramatic television but reinforce sexist and racist stereotypes. A former Gender’s Studies major, Rachel is equally proud and ashamed of her ability to create “good television,” and she’s too broke to walk away from a job she doesn’t want to admit she loves and hates with equal measure. What the show consistently does well is to ask viewers why we want to watch women being shoved into little boxes, reduced to their meanest, basest parts. Not only are there real people behind the two-dimensional ones featured on the Bachelor, there are real people behind the cameras and editing the film, a metaphor for what women — messy, complex, interesting women — occasionally do to one another in real life. UnREAL asks whether or not watching anti-feminist television is bad, not for the future of television but for our souls.

The point is not to take my turn and crown UnREAL the “Most Feminist Show!” right now or to declare this a television column about feminist TV and nothing else. It’s also not to make an easy-to-follow checklist of elements that any feminist show has to include. One of the points of comparison between Outlander and Game of Thrones is their depictions of rape, but a show doesn’t have to include rape in order to be feminist. Parks and Recreation, one of the contenders, managed just fine without ever bringing up the topic. But in the same way that Rachel’s “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt doesn’t negate her contradictory and destructive actions, slapping the label of “feminist” or “not feminist” on a show shouldn’t stop the conversations they might inspire. Putting a label on something, just like reducing other people to stereotypes, is a quick, easy step that avoids actually asking ourselves what we consider important and why we let some issues slide. I consider my job here just to pay attention to the questions.