There was a time when Western TV was unashamedly, unabashedly white, with maybe a token sassy black woman thrown into the mix for comic relief. This was also the time when a show like F.R.I.E.N.D.S. was lauded by activists just for the fact that it featured a lesbian wedding, and mentioned transgender folk in the subtext (regardless of how transphobic and bigoted the treatment of said transgender folk was, but that’s a rant for another day).
This, however, is the Golden Age of Television, and that means plenty of TV shows that not only feature brilliant dialogues and plots and stellar acting, but also diversity, representation and blatant badassery, as never seen before.
As an ardent sitcom maven/couch potato, these are the TV shows that have truly struck a chord with me, and made the feminist in me not want to gouge her eyes out (I am looking at you, the Big Bang Theory). With the summer holidays nigh, and the advent of Netflix in India, there is no time like the present to treat yourself to some first-class TV.
1. Orange is the New Black
This one was a no-brainer. If you haven’t watched Jenji Kohan’s adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, you are truly missing out. Set in Litchfield Women’s Prison, OITNB has a cast of the most wonderfully diverse women. From the many LGBTQ+ characters (it is incidentally the show that gave the world the incredible human being that is Laverne Cox) to its handling of tabooed issues like rape, mental health issues and generally the hitherto not talked about female sexuality. It is really no surprise, then, that every single episode of OITNB passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.
2. Parks and Recreation
Okay, so a show about government and politics may not scream ‘feminist’ at first, but I’ll tell you what: it nails many, many aspects of womanhood right on the head. Amy Poehler plays the kind-hearted, bumbling government bureaucrat Leslie Knope in the fictitious city of Pawnee, Indiana, and her antics will immediately warm your heart. It’s not all fun and games, though for in her position of power, Leslie encounters much unbridled sexism and misogyny, which she rips to smithereens with the utmost ease. Most important, however, is its portrayal of female friendships. Leslie and Ann’s camaraderie and unconditional support for each other tears through the belief that women are naturally competitive and jealous and cannot sustain friendships with other women.
3. How to Get Away With Murder
Blood. Gore. Violence. Vengeance. Feminist as hell. HTGAWM features the inimitable Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, a brilliant lawyer, and her entourage of students. Beside its searing portrayal of black womanhood, homosexual sex, bisexual erasure and white male entitlement (hello, Asher Millstone), the show is also a nail-biting watch that will please the mystery lover in you. This show made history when Davis became the first black woman to be nominated for an Emmy. Davis’ acceptance speech referenced Harriet Tubman, and spoke of representation of Women of Colour in television: “Let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
4. Marvel’s Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones is a super hero, but she is also much more than that- a potty-mouthed alcoholic with PTSD and a dark childhood secret. Raped as a child by Kilgrave (David Tennant’s portrayal is eerie and chill-inducing) who gets away with it sans any legal repercussions, the show follows Krysten Ritter as the eponymous Jones in her adulthood and her attempts to lead a normal life, despite Kilgrave looming large again. The show is rich with feminist overtones, down to its empowering and positive depictions of sex.
Written by Lilly and Lana Wachowski of the Matrix fame, Sense8 (a play on the word Sensate) is a story about eight people around the world who are telepathically linked. The Wachowskis also helmed the lesbian espionage drama Bound in 1996, and have proven again with Sense8 that they are indeed a dab hand at destroying the stereotypes that surround race, gender and sexuality. Half of the cast is Asians (played by actual Asians and not white people in derogatory makeup! Gasp!), and has a trans character actually played by a trans person. Genderfluidity is portrayed honestly and authentically, something that mainstream media hasn’t bothered with yet. This show is truly an underrated gem, and easily one of Netflix’s finest.
6. Call the Midwife
This British drama about a bunch of midwives in post- WW II London cuts through the miasma of what it is like to be a nurse and the many degrading stereotypes surrounding midwifery. Dealing with issues like child neglect, abortions, single motherhood, a nun renouncing her life to get married, and much more, Call the Midwife shines through as a memorable watch, despite having an entirely Caucasian cast.
7. Jane the Virgin
Jane the Virgin has breakout star Gina Rodriguez playing the titular character Jane, who becomes pregnant after being accidentally artificially inseminated. The show is one of the few to portray a Hispanic woman in mainstream media, and happens to be fiercely feminist. Jane, despite being so young, is extremely independent, and has no qualms about raising a child alone. Beside her mother and grandmother (both kickass, independent ladies, btw), the show features an impressive cast of women who are unashamedly career-oriented and ambitious. Lastly, it celebrates the essence of female sexuality- Jane’s mom is sexually active, and proudly so. Louisa and Rose, two women, also engage in a brief romance. The show gives women the sexual agency they have been denied for so long.
Produced by Amazon and written by Jill Soloway, Transparent is about, well, a trans parent. The story follows the lives of the Pfefferman family after their dad comes out to them as a trans-woman. Soloway was inspired to pen a TV show after her own father came out as trans, and she has said that her show is an attempt to demystify the narrative surrounding the trans* community. Well, all we can say is that she has done a commendable job.
Honorable mention: Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Empire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Golden Girls, the Mindy Project. This list is no way exhaustive, tell me your favourite feminist TV shows in the comments section.