Which is the most feminist show on TV and why?
Feminism isn’t a competition, nor is it something that can be quantified within the complicated realm of entertainment. But with a huge crop of shows currently on television that boast feminist credentials and that critics and audiences applaud for exploring women’s issues and the fight for equality, it seems important to explore the idea deeper.
Many shows can appear to be feminist on the surface – boasting sentiments about “girl power” with all the hollow swagger of a Spice Girl, or preaching empowerment with all the intersectional nuance of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) drinking a 20 dollar Martini in Trump Towers.
Surface level feminism is easy. You simply throw in some women, have them stand up against “the man”, and have them slow-motion power walk to whatever feminist “anthem” is big that week to close the episode.
But dig deeper and such depictions are actually far from being feminist, the ideology of which should demand that “feminist” shows at least occasionally explore stories beyond a privileged perspective of being wealthy, white, able-bodied, young, beautiful, cisgender, and straight.
So we want to know, what’s the most feminist TV show currently airing and why? Here are our thirteen contenders with arguments as to why they could be the reigning champ. Be sure to let us know which show you think is the most feminist and why!
The Handmaid’s Tale
S2 of the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian yarn is arguably one of the most brutal seasons of any TV show seen in recent years. It’s also been one of the most timely – for some uncomfortably so.
The BBC argued that what was once speculative fiction has now become a prescient story, adding that the “major flashpoints” of the show feel chillingly possible under the current political US regime, making the show all the more vital.
“This all dovetailed with fears of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his vice president’s anti-gay and anti-abortion beliefs. Handmaid costumes even became common at protests of laws intended to limit women’s reproductive freedom.”
The show is so prescient, in fact, that S2 even managed to eerily foreshadow real life tragedies before they happened, making a bleak reflection of current sociopolitical issues while also serving up a stark warning.
As The New Yorker once argued in its case for The Handmaid’s Tale to be considered feminist, the show is “a story about the ways in which women are oppressed in a society run by men for their own benefit . . . and about how certain women take advantage of the situation to ally themselves with male power for personal gain.”
Furthermore, it suggested the show is “full of warnings about the danger that comes from failing to recognize that such oppression is categorical, and gendered.”
The Bold Type
If we can all put aside the fact that The Bold Type is probably one of the most inaccurate shows about young women in the (waning) magazine industry ever created (trust us on this, we’re young women in the industry), there are plenty of intersectional feminist examples that fans celebrate within the show.
For starters, The Bold Type features a diverse cast of strong female characters and the show also champions the idea that women should support other women.
According to TV Guide, “The importance of this support system that Jane (Katie Stevens), Kat (Aisha Dee), and Sutton (Meghann Fahy) have built for each other runs through every vein of the series . . . the courage they draw upon to face said struggles head-on is at least partially the sense of empowerment and security that they get from knowing their best friends will be by their side no matter what.”
There’s also something to be said for how The Bold Type explores female sexuality, providing a fascinating spin on sex positive representation with a bold queer narrative between Kat Edison (Aisha Dee) and girlfriend Adena El Amin (Nikohl Boosheri).
Within that narrative, The Bold Type delves into frank discussions concerning a woman afraid of going down on her girlfriend for the first time (“the last frontier” as Adena calls it) and also features a victoriously explicit sex scene at the end of it.
The Bold Type star Meghann Fahy praised the power of the scene to Refinery29: “It’s fucking awesome, because how many times have you seen a film (or TV show) where a girl is giving somebody a blow job? To see a woman between another woman’s legs in an act of love and affection and safety is spectacular.”
Orange is the New Black
The prison dramedy pushes back against many TV norms about what women should look and act like – including providing keen representation for a diverse set of LGBTQI characters.
OITNB star Kate Mulgrew suggested in an interview with The Guardian that the show is “liberating and scary and invigorating” to be a part of due to how unapologetic and authentic every female character is in the show.
She suggested that OITNB provides a subversion of the “perfect female form” pushed by the “big misogynist machine” of Hollywood and TV content. “These women are unapologetic for their flaws, for being in your face, for making mistakes and speaking their mind. TV has been afraid to show this side of women up till now.”
The show should also be praised for giving a voice to the experiences of female prison inmates and in doing so, reclaiming “marginalized people’s experience from the erasure that prison imposes.”
In doing so, the show tackles a lot of issues concerning the safety of female prisoners and the corrupt business models of private prisons that are otherwise rarely explored within female TV narratives.
In terms of solid female characters, there’s a lot to love about the way in which the Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa reimagining of the Archie Comics canon challenges some of the shortcomings of the books by adding a feminist spin to the tale.
All of the main female characters including Betty (Lili Reinhart), her mom Alice (Mädchen Amick), Veronica (Camila Mendes), and her mom Hermione (Marisol Nichols) are given their own complex character arcs and development. Crucially, the women of Riverdale exist beyond being little more than a narrative crutch for their male counterparts or a one-dimensional love interest.
W Magazine has argued that the show addresses the “misogynistic worldview” of the original comics in which Betty and Veronica were constantly pitted against each other for petty reasons.
These iconic female characters “are now complex beyond those good girl / bad girl stereotypes,” with Riverdale showcasing young women now working together “to navigate the pervasive sexism that thrives in any American high school.”
Occasionally, these young women also work together to take down the local serial killer – bow and arrow and all, if you’re Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch). Which is a sharp subversion of many shows with crime leanings that prefer to explore their young female characters through the beautiful dead girl trope.
Without a doubt, Broad City showcases two of the funniest female characters on TV – and the most sexually empowered. In their celebration of the show’s refreshing approach to sex, Uproxx highlighted how Broad City never tries to “sexualise its lead characters.”
Instead, Broad City “is determined to paint a picture of the down and dirty as just that – dirty, weird, sometimes magical, other times terribly disappointing.” That means that creators, writers, and stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer provide singular (and LGBTQI-friendly) explorations of female pleasure and sexuality.
The rawness at work in Broad City’s warts and all examination of what it’s like to be young and female in modern America is also absolutely radical in many ways. Real life issues blend with the absurd to serve up a hilarious overview of the complexity of female identity.
It could be something as small and universal as the fear of unplanned pregnancy or something as quietly and disgustingly relatable as having an unexpected used condom fall out of you and into the toilet.
Either way, Broad City isn’t afraid to tackle aspects of womanhood that often go unacknowledged in small (and big) screen comedies.
The supernatural young adult show features a wealth of diverse LGBTQI representation that the fandom has openly voiced as being vital for their well-being and ability to self-identify their own gender and sexuality.
One Twitter user reached out to us to explain that the fandom has given them “a safe place, like a family” and helped for them to find “the courage to come out” to their family. Shadowhunters incorporates previously marginalized sexualities, gender, and races without tokenization.
Certainly not your average teen show, Shadowhunters subverts tired tropes concerning femininity and masculinity. There are plenty of strong female friendships in the show and women are frequently depicted as supporting each other rather than being catty and dramatic for no good reason.
As outlined by Twitter user @spacemisha, the friendship between Izzy (Emeraude Toubia) and Clary (Katherine McNamara) is a great example of one that’s been solid from the start.
It’s also worth noting the show actively challenges macho expectations of male characters within genre narratives. The men of Shadowhunters aren’t all grunts and rippling abs – they’re given the space to be sensitive and emotional without it undermining their strength or power.
In this way, Shadowhunters thwarts some of the issues of other teen shows of its kind, providing a powerful spectrum of gender identity refreshingly absent of stereotypes.
Offering a timely hero that intuitively preceded the #MeToo movement with a storyline focused around a rape survivor narrative, Jessica Jones is a powerslam of feminism that positions the titular hero (played by the phenomenal Krysten Ritter) as “both victim and hero.”
In its praise for the Netflix Originals Marvel series, The Guardian highlighted there’s power to be found in how “we repeatedly see examples of Jones’s weaknesses against Kilgrave and a backstory that reveals rape and forced murder,” but that she’s “not the damsel in distress but the knight.”
Unlike many other traditional depictions of a female superhero, Jones is also never sexualized (though she’s depicted as being sexual on her own terms) and is refreshingly imperfect.
“Gone is the traditionally sexy costume” of other female superheroes, argues Stylist, “instead Jessica has chosen a baggy hoody, jeans, and trainers as her uniform . . . Jess isn’t out to impress anyone.”
The character’s open dependency on alcohol also highlights that great strength can also abound alongside deep flaws and vulnerability without ever undermining her power.
Add to that strong and complex supporting characters in the form of Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Jessica Jones is almost a homerun in terms of feminism.
Creator, writer, and star Frankie Shaw once pointed out to Vanity Fair that the unusual title of the drama is meant as “an ironic thing, because MILF is a term that men use to categorize women.”
As she further points out, the show actively subverts the male gaze and reclaims a label coined by men. “This woman is nothing like the stereotype of that term that men put on women.”
Honestly, it’s a bit of an understatement. Bridgette is messy, impulsive, and still figuring out life, but her shortcomings aren’t underlined as being detrimental, ruinous flaws. They’re highlighted as part of being human.
As Shaw told Interview Magazine about the character, “Maybe I don’t fit into whatever fantasy idea you have of what a mom should be, but this is just real life and this is my perspective and it’s human.”
What originates from that idea is a character who is emerging from trauma but isn’t defined by it, who’s sexual without being sexualized, and who isn’t the typical “mom” we regularly see on TV.
SMILF doesn’t explore the dimensions or dynamics of what being a “modern woman” is – it burrows into the very nature of humanity and the fucked up ways we define people as “good” or “bad”.
Grace and Frankie
Never has a TV comedy so competently given hope to women of all ages that maybe getting older isn’t anywhere near as bad as the beauty industry or media would have us believe.
As a show centered around two golden era women (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin), the show gives voice to characters who are often scrubbed from narratives. As Grace once poignantly put it in the show, “I refuse to be irrelevant.”
In this manner, the show takes a lighthearted approach to tackling ageism, but also to highlighting some of the further concerns of ageing. As Woman Brave pointed out about the depiction of mature sexuality in the show, Grace and Frankie disrupts the way society discounts the mature experience.
“Many people think men and women become instantly senile and asexual as soon as they reach a certain age, (whereas) Grace and Frankie experience desire, masurbation, sex, and pleasure.”
There’s an argument to be made that Grace and Frankie offers a luminous and comforting fantasy of what ageing could look like and that there’s power in such a cheerful depiction of “growing old”.
It could be argued that some of the captivating power of UnReal is that scripted series about the behind the scenes chaos of a reality show addresses the chasm between simply presenting as a feminist and acting like one.
Both Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) are extraordinarily flawed and about as morally despicable as any other antihero seen on TV in recent years. However, they’re both also endearingly complex and their respective depth elevates each character far beyond being a one-dimensional horror.
The two characters share a complex relationship that can be bitter and dangerous, but also grounded within the “unshakeable respect” the two have for each other, supporting the other through moments of strength and vulnerability.
Furthermore, UnReal drills deep into the rotten core of reality TV to interrogate a diverse range of feminist issues. What’s revealed is a smart and insightful set of stories that often intersect with arguments concerning the representations of race, sexuality, and class within media productions and society itself.
In providing a scripted comedic reimagining of the real life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the Netflix Originals comedy does right by refusing to rewrite or refocus some of the problematic parts of the original show.
As Vulture pointed out about some of the Reagan-era stereotypes women of color are forced to adopt for their wrestling personas, “It’s a show that routinely trafficks in racial stereotypes that engage with its audience’s nastiest assumptions, and yet it also provides a stage for those same marginalized voices to be seen at all.”
The result is a show that has carefully tackled the issue slowly and over time, with S2 more directly addressing the exploitation of racial stereotypes in serving an ignorant white audience.
Particularly in the narrative of Tammé a.k.a. Welfare Queen, who is forced to reckon with the possibility her character is racist when her son watches her with a look of rage and devastation as the crowd chants “Get a job!” at his mom.
GLOW also perfectly explores the dangers of sexualizing women in the media, with a S2 narrative that leaned on the #MeToo movement in depicting a network executive thinking Ruth (Alison Brie) had to sleep with him to keep the show on the air.
GLOW can be frothy, light, and fun, providing a stage for women to be strong and even machismo.
However, where it really succeeds is in providing a feminist support system for women who have failed to find inclusion within society for various reasons. GLOW tears through ideas of American heroism and villainy to expose the old societal prejudices that are sadly still prevalent today.
The Starz dramedy is currently in the middle of its second season and we’re still unable to find a single flaw with it. Focusing on a diverse gang of nail technicians who decide to break bad in pursuit of a better life, Claws offers one of the freshest narratives currently on TV.
Claws develops a mix of marginalized, working class (and underclass) female characters without ever leaning on stereotypes or using their respective plights for a punchline. If you watch any TV shows, you’ll understand how rare that is.
The result is a set of complex characters who showcase strength, vulnerability, hardship, and ambition and who support each other without question.
Claws can be lighthearted and frivolous (mostly thanks to the always extraordinary Niecy Nash and Carrie Preston), but it isn’t afraid to go deep in examining the everyday experiences of working class women.
The show preceded the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements by tackling a powerful sexual assault and domestic abuse narrative almost immediately and as The Daily Beast suggested, Claws also interrogates the everyday need for feminist ideology in the pursuit of self-actualization.
The show “balances a feminist fantasy of taking power back with the harsh realities of daily life under the patriarchy.” Speaking of how rare complicated female characters are on TV, the development of which we “see all the time with men”, Preston astutely summed up the power of Claws’s female characters to the website.
“You have these complicated men who are doing morally questionable things and our women are supposed to be perfect, and we’re supposed to just be their arm candy and we’re supposed to be these pillars of morality. So it’s nice to flip the script on that.”
Much has been said about the importance of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s 80s-set drama that explores the New York LGBTQI ball scene, and rightly so.
As well as featuring the largest transgender cast ever assembled, the show also features a wealth of LGBTQI talent behind the scenes. This isn’t just token representation either – it comes through in the authenticity of the many stories Pose explores and the women of color at the heart of them.
As Pose writer Janet Mock discussed with Paper Magazine, “I hope (Pose) feels like a love letter where my people in my community can see each other and themselves, and that they don’t need to feel so alone in the world. That they have something that encompasses their own reality and their own struggles.”
What makes Pose such a feminist show (as well as a mighty LGBTQI one) is in the thoughtful manner with which trans women are depicted. Pose never defines characters like Elektra (Dominique Jackson) and Angel (Indya Moore) as being anything other than “real” women.
That presents a vital and rarely seen perspective on TV that flips the script on the manner in which transgender women have often been fetishized on screen.
In dealing with the sometimes oppressive desires of cisgender men, the struggle to maintain agency over your own body, and the fight to define and surgically reassign your gender however you please, Pose offers some of the boldest feminist statements ever seen on TV.