The representation of women has come a long way in this mediated culture as female characters have broken free from the glass ceiling of underrepresentation, of being positioned as peripheral characters or merely visual objects of male gaze and desire. Having said that, we still have a long way to go for diversity and inclusion of women from all walks of life. During this time, when we honour the triumphs and challenges of the lived female experience, when all genders come together to raise awareness about women’s empowerment, gender equality and parity, autonomy and freedom, let’s look at some of the best women-centric shows about women trailblazers who fought against the crushing effects of patriarchy. This rounded-up list of eight feminist TV shows is uplifting and comprise of groundbreaking narratives of womanhood featuring strong and memorable female protagonists who defied gender norms, expectations and conformity.
1. Sex Education
When the whole world shout at the top of one’s lungs that sex is taboo and resorts to the inaccurate and deceptive portrayals of porn for their unanswered questions and curiosity, Netflix’s teen dramedy series Sex Education, premiered in 2019, subversively discusses the awkward and contentious aspects of human sexuality. This deep-rooted intersectional feminist show that taps into the arena of adolescent sexuality reminds us that sexuality is fluid and gender is a huge spectrum, and people can identify just how they choose.
The series is centered on Otis, a 16-year-old teen living with his divorced mother Jean, who runs her sex therapy practice out of their home. Otis, oddly knowledgeable about sex and relationships, along with the intelligent and confident raging feminist Maeve, begins to provide under-the-table sex therapy to his fellow students in high school and embarks on a journey to create a sex-positive and non-heteronormative space for adolescents. This educational and entertaining show thrives on diversity and inclusivity and showcases the unique lived experiences of a wide range of characters representing the LGBTQIA+ community.
It also addresses the varied experiences of masturbation, female pleasure, gay sex, bisexuality, asexuality, pansexuality, and fetishes and tackles a spectrum of issues such as consent, peer pressure, body image, abortion, bullying, homophobia, mental health, parental pressure, and sexual blackmail. This show is feminist in its very essence as it offers rather a true understanding of all sexual orientations and gender identities, along with an awareness of sexual harassment, assault and abuse.
The Netflix true crime miniseries Unbelievable, created by Susannah Grant, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative report “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Amstrong. This heart-rending and gripping show, that fuse the detective and crime genre with a nuanced feminist perspective, dramatises two narratives in 8 episodes — one follows 18-year-old Marie Adler, a victim of sexual abuse, being re-victimised by detectives who accuses her of fabricating her harrowing story, and the other dives into the investigation carried out by detectives Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen to track down a serial rapist. The show portrays the grim realities surrounding rape cases, the response to trauma and trauma-informed care, the miscarriage of the justice system in helping women, and the challenges encountered by women when they try to speak up about their assault. This unique blend of intimate character study and compelling police procedural also illustrates the difference women make when they occupy traditionally masculine spaces. The cop show that deliberates on the gender-based power imbalance and sexual trauma is an essential watch in the #MeToo era.
The Netflix original miniseries Unorthodox (2020), based on Deborah Feldman’s autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, follows the coming-of-age story of a Jewish woman, trapped in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage, escape from a deeply orthodox community that she finds suffocating and unsustainable. This character-driven four-part Yiddish drama closely navigates the life of 19-year-old Esther Shapiro, belonging to an insular Hasidic community in Brooklyn, who escapes to Berlin with the hope of starting a secular life with more freedom.
The series showcases the diverse range of voices of women who have their identities erased due to strict conservative religious doctrines and constraints imposed by the rigid community. This powerful and moving tale explores subjects relating to identity, sex, faith, religion, duty, and freedom, and show how women are coerced to comply with conservative beliefs that treat them incompetently as baby-making machines.
Created and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the Emmy-winning Fleabag, premiered back in 2016, is an outspoken and unfiltered account of a dysfunctional yet nonchalant woman struggling with real-life issues and real-life insecurities who defines herself as “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” This dark comedy, set in contemporary London, speaks the mind of a free-spirited and sexually liberated modern woman who owns her narrative. The show depicts, through a feminist lens, how the eponymous protagonist moves through the vicious circle of her meaningless sexual relationships, mental health issues, dysfunctional passive-aggressive family, almost-dead business, and hard-hitting grief and traumatic memories. And her sole defense mechanism against the absurdity of her experiences is her sarcastic and dry-witted humour.
The series breaks away from the narrative of the supposedly ‘ideal’ woman and portrays in all its glory, the messy, clumsy, and emotional story of a single woman going through the multitudinous emotions of anger, confusion, sadness, and frustration with refreshing candour and directness. She often breaks the fourth wall to provide monologues to the audience revealing the innermost thoughts, secrets and desires. This realistic female-centric show, which defies the male gaze and the oppressive patriarchal structures and its ideology, negotiates the exploits of ‘every woman’ in a male-controlled world.
5. I May Destroy You
Created, written and co-directed by Michaela Coel, the British limited series I May Destroy You (2020) is a frank and brutal exploration of trauma and essentially addresses the question of sexual consent. Set in London with a predominantly Black British cast, it follows Arabella, a young Twitter celebrity-turned-author in her late twenties who is forced to challenge her ideas of sexual consent after being drugged and sexually assaulted on a night-out with friends in London. As she struggles to remember exactly what happened, she is forced to question everything in her life, and ultimately passes through the different phases of confronting her trauma, from denial to grief to anger and all the way to acceptance. Inspired by Coel’s own experience of sexual assault while she was making the Channel 4 sitcom Chewing Gum, this series is a daring, discomforting and unapologetic take on the trauma of the sexual assault and the long journey of self-care.
Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Coel also uses dark comedy and deadpan humour to lay bare and untangle herself from the personal terror of assault. This nuanced Black feminist narrative captures the depth and accuracy of Coel’s own traumatic moments and the terrifying way in which the victim relives their trauma repeatedly.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale
Based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian-drama series created by Bruce Miller revolving around the subjugation of women in a sexist totalitarian society that subjects fertile women to child-bearing slavery. Set in The Republic of Gilead, a centrally-planned religious and patriarchal society, where the fertility rate has dropped due to widespread pollution, fertile women of childbearing age called “handmaids” are conscripted into serving the ruling aristocracy comprising of Commanders and their barren wives. Beaten, humiliated and mentally tortured, “the handmaids”, led by June (Offred), decide to turn the tables on their “leaders” by hatching a deadly and daring plan for escape.
Even though the show commences with the systematic oppression of women who are objectified and reduced to their wombs, soon enough they start rebelling against their tyrannical captors challenging the monstrous and repressive patriarchal horrors. The show that discusses pertinent issues relating to gender, sexuality, race and class, displays the many acts of cruelty against women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and marginalised sections of society. The show also challenges the imposition of extreme binary gender roles, the compulsion of heterosexuality, and forced reproduction and stresses upon the themes of loss of identity, freedom of choice, and reproductive freedom. It puts great emphasis on the strength and spirit of women in triumphing against manipulative and oppressive forces that tend to impose silence on them.
7. The Queen’s Gambit
Based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name, Scott Frank’s miniseries The Queen’s Gambit (2020) is a gripping and mesmerising coming-of-age tale of a stoic orphan and chess prodigy Beth Harmon who fights tooth and nail to reach the zenith of what was perceived as “man’s game” in “a man’s world”. Set in the cold war period, it follows the story of an 8-year-old girl who ends up in an orphanage after her mother dies in a car accident and subsequently stumbles upon the janitor playing chess in the basement. She feels safe in “an entire world of just 64 squares” which she can control and dominate and there begins the journey of her obsessive perfectionism.
The series serves as an antithesis to the conventional representation of women as it portrays a strong and independent who challenges the social construct of femininity as well as the stereotypical gender roles of patriarchal society. With her insatiable spirit of winning, Beth also falls down the pit of the self-destructive tendency of substance abuse and emotional problems reasoned with her traumatic past. She takes over the public space dominated by men and redefines femininity as “you go on ahead and do just what the hell you feel like.”
8. Mare of Easttown
Brad Ingelsby’s crime drama series Mare of Easttown starring Kate Winslet gains relevance in feminist discourse as it offers a refreshing take on the depiction of a realistic female detective who is the latest in the lineage of fictional women sleuths who is humanised without constraining to embody perfection and art of disguise exhibited by the male counterparts. Set in a bleak winter of a working-class Philadelphia suburb, the titular Mare Sheehan, the local detective of Easttown, is trying to solve two shocking crimes against young women while trying to keep herself together. A competent and dedicated investigator on the professional front and fulfilling the responsibilities of a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother in the familial setting, she transcends the rigid characterisation of the whodunnit genre.
Mare is portrayed as a real woman, not a stereotypical trope as she turns around the gender stereotypes with finesse. We witness her as a tough-talking detective wearing baggy clothes with her vape pipe in hand who has the baggage to match her rough and hardened exterior. With her feminine rage and maternal bond, she is a contradiction of sorts from the normalised gender behaviour and representation. The series also excels in representing mental illness and in normalising non-binary sexual orientations. Mare’s characterisation is rooted in realism as it refrains from the conventional or generalised representation of masculinised or feminised behaviour and strikes a balance in physical, emotional and intellectual dimensions.
The aforementioned TV shows that capture our attention with their distinctive and dynamic women characters put on view what the supposedly “weaker sex” is capable of. With a refreshing and vocal take on feminism and intersectionality, these representations attempt to forge a gender-equal world where the personal experiences of women will be validated in a political context. And the creation of such a gender-equal world is only possible through validating the experiences of women from all social, cultural, economic and political backgrounds as well as by surrounding yourself with women who inspire you.
Anju Devadas is a researcher pursuing PhD in English at Mar Ivanios College, University of Kerala. She is an unapologetic feminist and vocal critic of sexism, patriarchy, and injustices against women. Her main areas of interest include feminist theory, film studies, gender studies, psychoanalytical theory. She is fascinated by the world of cinema and the female gaze in contemporary cinema. She is an art enthusiast and enjoys reading, writing, and exploring newer areas of knowledge. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
This list is not exhaustive and suggestions are welcome in the comments box below.