I binge watched Marvel’s Jessica Jones the day it was released and have been awed by it ever since. Never before have I seen a television series that was so positively and relateably female centric, featuring complex and intelligent female characters with independent agency and who experience the same problems every real world woman faces every day. I really don’t think anything else in television or film quite compares to it in its realness or how it conveys sexism and the female experience. I think it’s a groundbreaking show, not just for women but for the men who watch it also, but I think its also the result of a small, growing trend of feminist television in the last few years. Here are just a few of the ensemble and feminist shows to pass the Bechdel test and grace our screens.
Orange is the New Black
This Netflix original series takes place in a women’s prison and features a diverse range of women from various races, backgrounds, and sexualities. In someone else’s hands – say, a man’s rather than creator and showrunner Jenji Kohan – the premise has the potential to turn into a trite, over dramatic, gratuitous, or sexist prison melodrama. In Kohan’s hands, though, these women’s flaws and strengths are prominently displayed, their personal struggles conveyed, their pasts explored, and their relationships and characters strongly developed. And being in a women’s prison doesn’t exempt them from the usual sexism or dangers that women face, making most of their lives and experiences inside the prison still highly relateable to the average viewer.
Marvel’s Agent Carter
Marvel is really stepping up its game when it comes to its female characters. I want to say that it may, in small part, be due to Joss Whedon’s contribution to the Marvel cinematic universe and perhaps the massive success of Nicole Perlman’s Guardians of the Galaxy screenplay. Either way, in addition to Jessica Jones and the upcoming Captain Marvel movie, we have this fun and stylish period spy action series featuring Hayley Atwell as the clever, competent, and adventurous Peggy Carter. The series takes place after WWII and the disappearance of Captain America. While Peggy was a trusted teammate and brilliant scientist at war, in peacetime she is considered little more than a secretary by her male peers. She uses her invisibility to her advantage when she secretly takes on the case to clear Howard Stark’s name when he is accused of treason and plans to use her eventual triumph to gain the respect of her male co-workers. Season one was meant to be a one-off adventure, but against the odds a second season emerged and is set to air January 19.
Parks and Recreation
Amy Poehler is an incredible role model for strong and funny women, especially starring as Leslie Knope in this quirky political comedy. Leslie is a passionate, intelligent, and determined character, dedicated to her career and the people she represents, and inspiring the admiration and respect of her peers with her unflappable optimism and drive. And while she’s certainly not the only female character to display complexity, she is a huge source of inspiration and strength for the other women in the show. Something that is often missing from relationships between women on other shows is a sense of camaraderie and care – where often women are set against each other, in Parks and Recreation the women encourage each other to succeed in reaching their true potential.
I have written about how much I love Mireille Enos, how wonderfully genuine and powerful her acting is and how compelling she is to watch. Detective Sarah Linden is perhaps one of the most complex, flawed, and strong female characters on television that I can think of and she is heartbreaking and beautiful to watch. She may be a mess of a person, but the kind of boring female perfection we see in average television is not only unrealistic but frankly uninteresting. Linden’s messy emotional life combined with her obsessive drive make her a unique and incredibly watchable character. While the show does focus exclusively on the violent murder of women, its presented more as a statement about the violence of men against women than as a judgement of the female gender. And while the show at times can be messy, it is always compelling and Enos is always worth the watch.
This is another female lead police drama, this time featuring feminist pioneer Gillian Anderson as the cool, competent, uber educated, highly skilled Detective Stella Gibson. She is called in to consult on a serial murder case – a fetishist who stalks and strangles women – and uses her unique skills to interview victims of rape and profile the killer. She is extremely intelligent – in many cases more so than her male peers – and completely in charge of herself. There is a wonderful scene in which she is confronted by a gang of posturing men blocking her from her car. She takes a sudden and violent feign forward, startling the men and shriveling their manly facade. She enters her car unimpeded and drives away untouched. At the same time, and despite her achievements and best efforts, she has to contend with the same obstructions and sexism that every woman experiences – unwanted sexual advances or conversely judgements based on her chosen sexual encounters, underestimation of her capabilities, and plain brutish hatred.
My love of Hannibal knows no bounds and its feminist-conscious writing and casting is one among a multitude of reasons for that love. Bryan Fuller, in addition to his highly creative and intelligent writing, is also extremely sensitive to the proper representation of women in his work. In his reimagining of the Thomas Harris novels, Fuller gender-swapped several characters to balance out the gender scales, ensuring sufficient female representation and adding more female energy to what would have been an almost entirely male cast. Characters like Dr. Alana Bloom, Freddie Lounds, Abigail Hobbes, Bedelia Du Maurier, and Beverly Katz are essential, powerful, and charismatic characters – and are all treated as equals by their male peers, whether in admiration or in hate. Will Graham would not dislike Freddie Lounds any less if she were a man or respect Alana Bloom any more if she were Alan Bloom instead. It is a refreshingly gender-balanced show.