The ever-evolving landscape of television witnesses a notable and empowering shift every year when it comes to representation. It has been long underway—something that resonates with the voices of women, of all races, genders and sexualities and challenges traditional stereotypes, and champions equality. The surge of feminist TV shows in 2023 marks a significant departure from conventional narratives, offering viewers a fresh perspective on women’s societal roles and the complexities of their experiences.
Television has long been a mirror reflecting societal norms, values, and expectations. Over the years, the small screen has played a pivotal role in shaping cultural attitudes towards gender, often perpetuating stereotypes that limit the portrayal of women to narrowly defined roles. However, the past few decades have witnessed a remarkable transformation, with many TV shows actively engaging with feminist ideologies. 2023 was no different. This article delves into the landscape of feminist television, highlighting some of the groundbreaking shows that have paved the way for a more equitable representation of women and minorities on screen.
Bridgerton, the Regency-era drama that took the streaming world by storm, offered a rich tapestry of characters navigating the intricacies of high society in 19th-century London. Coming from the same world, Queen Charlotte stands as a significant predecessor, embodying both the grandeur and constraints of the time. Queen Charlotte’s intersectionality—her gender, race, and position in the aristocracy—adds layers to this show beyond your imagination. How does her identity as a woman of colour impact her experiences within a predominantly white, patriarchal society?
Exploring these intersections allows for a more nuanced understanding of her character, Shonda Rimes provides a stronger foundation to the Bridegerton world and their colourblind incorporation of people, simply for who they are.
Queen Charlotte’s relationships, especially her marriage, provide a lens through which to examine themes of independence and agency. Her portrayal as an independent woman within her marriage, her capable of making choices that align with her desires and ambitions, and the fact that she gets to decide her destiny is what makes this show a must-watch for your feminist gaze.
Saas Bahu Aur Flamingo
While the characters of this show as labelled as “Saas” and “Bahu,” these terms are decidedly misleading and this nomenclature tries to subvert the quintessential aas-Bahu tropes. This Saas-Bahu saga deviates significantly from the stereotypical daily soaps portraying the typical Indian kitchen politics between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. The show is about formidable women who adopt a shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach.
Operating from an unassuming rural town in India, they manage a complex and sophisticated (almost a turn-on kind of) drug cartel. Director Homi Adajania masterfully captivates the audience right from the start with a spine-chilling scene that sets the stage for intense confrontations and brutal encounters. The dimly lit corridors of Rani’s expansive haveli add an eerie atmosphere, ensuring there’s never a dull moment in a place where everyone harbours a secret, and the stakes are exceptionally high.
The actors and filmmakers involved, skillfully execute an action-packed screenplay, maintaining a constant air of tension and unpredictability throughout every minute. The characters are intricately developed, with compelling subplots that make it remarkably easy to follow the story despite its numerous twists and turns. An iconic aspect of the show is the way they deal with the sexualities of all women, older and younger, gay and straight, educated and self-taught, simply carrying their hearts in one hand and their guns in another.
Lessons in Chemistry
Brie Larson, aka Captain Marvel. takes on the lead role in the eight-part drama as Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist whose journey towards realising her full potential is consistently hindered by the deeply ingrained sexism of the late 1950s. Having been compelled to abandon her college education before completing her PhD, we encounter her in the role of a lab assistant — a position that includes not only scientific responsibilities but also the more traditional task of serving as the team’s coffee maker. This team of scientists, intellectually inferior to her, benefits primarily from their Y chromosome, highlighting the gender biases prevalent in that era.
The series closely adheres to the plot of the book, wherein Zott, who has always discreetly incorporated her scientific expertise into her cooking, unexpectedly transforms into a renowned TV chef. This transformation occurs following a serendipitous encounter with a TV executive while she seeks ways to sustain herself and her daughter. Despite facing continuous denial of her true capabilities from the patriarchal establishment, Zott is recognised for her apparent embodiment of all things domestic and feminine, embracing an all-American persona.
The show is for you if you want to see a woman walking into a room, knowing she possesses more IQ than any of the men in the room belittling her, and then walking out destroying them with simple glances and indifferences. She knows where she is welcome and she carves her road on her terms, whether it comes to life, marriage, children, friends, fascism or anything else.
Made in Heaven
This show needs no introduction, especially if you are an Indian viewer of this century. The much-awaited second season serves everything you could ask for, from over-the-top bridal grandeur to the angst and disappointment of women of all spheres. The standout element of this latest season lies in the exceptional performances. (While the costumes also merit attention, that discussion will be reserved for a separate essay.) Shobhita Dhulipala and Arjun Mathur exhibit remarkable on-screen chemistry. The ebb and flow of their relationship, transitioning from friends to business partners and now roommates due to Tara’s tumultuous divorce from Adil, undergoes challenging trials.
Despite the grim circumstances, both actors consistently bring out distinctive nuances of grace and sorrow in their scenes. Yet, the spotlight in this season is undeniably on Meher Chaudhary (played by Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju), the new head of production and a trans woman herself at MIH. Completely at ease in her role, Meher refuses to tolerate fools or disrespect from anyone. Her beauty is matched only by her steely resolve; she carries herself with confidence, never uttering a misplaced word, serving as a beacon of serenity amid chaos.
What sets her apart is her unwavering stance as a marginalised individual in an office that routinely grapples with privilege. Meher fearlessly confronts Tara’s biases, prompting everyone to reassess the extent of their evolution. Come through and watch it if you haven’t already.
You know and love Edith Wharton, if you know and love anything remotely feminist. Apple TV+’s interpretation of her unfinished, posthumously published novel, sharing the same title is exhilarating and fresh. The series features a diverse cast of young actors who, in my ageing perspective, seem to meld into a singular entity. They inhabit characters donned in various historically inaccurate costumes and find themselves in a myriad of adventures, all propelled forward by their collective youthful exuberance.
Occasionally, a bit of nonsense is permissible, and there’s nothing more delightfully rejuvenating than when it’s executed with the same finesse displayed here. This endeavour is an immense source of enjoyment, all while remaining relevant to contemporary issues. The expectations of young women concerning life, love, and the pursuit of both are still hindered in various ways.
Although there may be fewer dukes, instances of sexual assault persist. Importantly, The Buccaneers places female friendship at its core, allowing it to radiate warmth throughout the narrative. These women come from a postcolonial world to a predominantly English world still wanting to reap the benefits of their colonial endeavours with their high teas and promise of what they call proper society.
These shows go beyond mere entertainment; they serve as powerful vehicles for social commentary, challenging viewers to question ingrained beliefs and envision a world where women’s stories are as diverse and multi-faceted as the women themselves. From depicting strong, complex female characters to addressing issues like reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, and gender-based violence, feminist TV shows have become a force for change, fostering important conversations and a more inclusive narrative.
As we navigate through this exploration, it becomes evident that these shows not only entertain but also contribute to the ongoing dialogue surrounding gender equality, challenging societal norms and inspiring audiences to think critically about the world we live in. You can be a feminist, a womanist or any variation of the collective fight against the patriarchy and fascism, and enjoy these shows.
It is not just a black woman’s fight, a brown woman’s endurance, or a queer woman’ right that these shows argue for. It is all of that and the faith and patience of the other women and queer folx who came before us, suffered and fought for us; and made sure we had our foot in the door. It’s high time we started reminiscing and being grateful for them.