Feminist TV: rot your brain in the best way possible


Have you, like me, spent the last twelve years mourning the loss of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

Fear not. For I’ve compiled a list of my favourite TV shows, carefully researched over many hours, that you can delve into to get that feminist kick. Some are new, some are old, some will make you laugh and some will make you cry, but all are guaranteed to make you feel much better than the average rape-tastic Game of Thrones episode.

1. Broad City

Most like: Spaced meets Girls.

This is the funniest and most refreshing TV show I have ever seen. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are the show’s creators and stars; they play two Jewish 20-something feminists who live in New York and have daily, bizarre misadventures.

Abbi and Ilana (they share the same names in the show as in real life) are complex characters who completely reject the female stereotypes usually seen in sitcoms. Ilana’s ability to perfectly balance being gross with being mad hot is particularly fun to watch – you’re unlikely to have seen a female character like her. The women share a relationship both strange and intense, and it’s easily my favourite portrayal of female friendship within any form of media ever. Let’s just say the love is deep. Broad City also doesn’t whitewash New York like most TV shows do, with both a relatively diverse cast and extras (rare). Themes of sexuality and race are explored without heavy handling, and the show looks at 20-something culture and the economic fall-out experienced by 20-somethings with a fresh and hilarious eye. It also stars Hannibal Buress as Lincoln.

You will like Lincoln.

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Amy Poehler is also one of Broad City’s executive producers, which brings me to…

2. Parks and Recreation

Most like: The Office meets Modern Family

Parks and Recreation is a mockumentary set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. It focuses on the Parks and Recreation department of its local government, with the main character being the ever-optimistic deputy director Leslie Knope, deputy director.

This show got me through Breaking Bad: only its cheery silliness could counter the come-down of watching Walt get too big for his boots again and erase Jesse’s sad self-destruction from my mind. It’s rare to find a show these days that so openly believes in a happy ending. While there’s enough sarcasm to cut through the sugar (Aubrey Plaza is on usual Daria form), its themes of friendship, loyalty and dedication are genuinely heart warming. There’s also a great comedic cast – Aziz Ansari as billionaire-wannabe and hopeless underachiever Tom Haverford, Nick Offerman as the director of the department who hates local government and is working to destroy it from the inside, and Chris Pratt as the most lovable dumbass on television, are three of my favourites.

Leslie’s ambition to make it in politics is inspirational to watch and there are so many high-achieving women celebrated by the show. One particularly great episode features the town’s local girls’ group, the Pawnee Goddesses. Their pledge? “I am a goddess, a glorious female warrior. Queen of all that I survey. Enemies of fairness and equality, hear my womanly roar. Yeah!” Their motto? “We’re freaking awesome!”

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3. The L Word

Most like: Queer as Folk meets The OC

If you like your shows female-centric, then you’re going to love The L Word. It may be super cheesy in the way that only an early-noughties show can be, but it hits the seriously hits the spot for when you’re sick of watching one token female in every TV show and it’s also excellent if you’re also craving gay, ethnic minority and transgender representation on your TV screen. Basically, it’s a breath of fresh air.

To summarise The L Word in three words: shagging, shagging, shagging. There is a lot of adult content in this show – I don’t recommend watching with your parents, and I recommend warning housemates before you watch it in your room (hint: it sounds like porn). It tends towards melodrama at times but there’s enough comedy to lighten the load, and it it’s easily one of the best explorations of sexuality and relationships I’ve ever seen. It’s also unique in the depth of its characters. Even smaller characters are developed with a complexity that you don’t usually see (particularly in women on television) and it’s very, very addictive.

The L Word still feels controversial and fresh when you watch it, in a way which other series dealing with sex (Sex and the City, I’m looking at your stale ass) don’t. It also has the worst/funniest theme song ever from series two, which you will hate at first and then love, like an arrogant co-worker in a rom-com. It’s all available on Netflix, so I recommend you start gorging now.

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 4. 30 Rock

Most like: Saturday Night Live meets Arrested Development

Much like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock is what it is because of an amazing protagonist – in this case, the fabulous Liz Lemon. Liz Lemon is a huge dork (not adorkable, just a dork) who also happens to be head writer of The Girly Show, a thinly-veiled version of Saturday Night Live. Tina Fey, who plays Liz Lemon, based 30 Rock on her experience as head writer of SNL and you’d think this would add a sense of realism to the show. Instead, it’s one of the most surreal shows on American television. This is a very good thing.

30 Rock, like SNL (and The Girly Show – layers upon layers, man) is both sharply satirical and absurd. Tracey Jordan plays a send-up of himself (Tracey Morgan, his character, is an obnoxious comedian with too much money and a love of getting his belly out) and infamous left-winger Alec Baldwin plays his exact opposite as the epitome of all-American capitalism, Jack Donaghy. Guest stars flock to it like a Kardashian to a mirror, with Matt Damon, Carrie Fisher, Julianne Moore, fricken’ Oprah (Oprah!), etc all featuring in the series. It constantly mocks the power dynamics in society and television’s unfair representation of minority groups and women, and in Liz Lemon you get a female protagonist the likes of which have never before been seen. Highly awkward, highly un-sexual, very funny, sometimes over-driven and usually a terrible person, I could watch her all day.

30 Rock becomes increasingly strange as the it goes on, so I strongly recommend watching the whole thing in order, rather than dipping in and out. The progression is part of its charm.

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5. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Most like: New Girl meets 30 Rock

Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt could all fall under a new genre of comedy I would like to call Fey-Ler Surri-Com (I never said I was good at coming up with names). The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is another Tina Fey creation and centres around a young woman, Kimmy, who is kidnapped by a cult leader and kept in an underground bunker for fifteen years.

It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (fans really need to come up with a nickname for the show) is a surprisingly light and very funny story of female survival. For a taste of its feminist message, I recommend watching the theme song. Be warned, however, that it will get stuck in your head FOR ALL OF TIME if you watch the show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfuFo0Rr3FQ

The humour is classically Poehler-Fey in that it’s silly surrealism undercut with political commentary, but I’d say it’s less weird than 30 Rock and darker than Parks and Recreation (Kimmy has Botox to remove her ‘scream lines’ in one episode). It also stars the criminally underrated Jane Krakowski on top form – a big plus for me.

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6. Firefly

Most like: Buffy meets Battlestar Galactica

Buffy creator Joss Whedon only made one season of Firefly before it was cancelled, but fans loved it so much they managed to get a film commissioned in order to tie up loose ends. That’s the sign of a great show.

Centred around one super-powered female and her merry band of companions, the show has obvious parallels with Buffy but also plays with genre in a pretty special way. It’s set in the far future, after humans have migrated to other planets and America and China have come together to form an all-powerful Alliance. A group of lawless ex-revolutionaries travel across the galaxy in their faithful ship Firefly, smuggling goods and making money wherever they can – despite its sci-fi setting, the tone is strongly that of a Western. People dress like cowboys and seem to spend a lot of time having tavern brawls, shoot-outs and duels.

Firefly bears Whedon’s stamp not only in its strong, female characters who resist stereotype (the ship’s engineer is the ever-sweet Kaylee, its second-in-command is Zoe, who leaves her husband on board while she goes to fight, and its most dangerous passenger is River, a teenage girl with super strength and martial arts skills) but also in its handling of complex feminist issues such as prostitution. One of the main characters is the wise and compassionate Inara, who works as a Companion – the 26th century equivalent of an escort. The show presents opinions of her role both as empowering and demeaning, leaving you to make your own decision on the subject of sex work.

If Buffy was your number 1 TV show, and you haven’t yet seen Firefly, then you’re missing out. Get on it.

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7. Orange is the New Black

Most like: Bad Girls meets The L Word

Orange is the New Black is the stuff Tumblr’s dreams are made of. The comedy-drama is based on the true experiences of Piper Kerman, who lived the charmed life of a wealthy, white New Yorker, happily living with her fiance Larry, until she was sent to prison for a crime she committed years before – smuggling drug money for her international drug dealer girlfriend. Once in prison, she is re-united with her ex-girlfriend and, as you can image, hijinks occur.

Orange is the New Black is one of the most diverse shows on mainstream television. Unfortunately, this is arguably because it’s set in prison, and in America (and the UK and uh, the planet) BME women are more likely to be convicted of a crime than white women. The show does an excellent job of presenting these women and their stories, however – every character is complex, and the reasons behind their crimes are as varied as they are. OITNB has also been lauded for being one of the first mainstream TV shows to cast a transgender woman (the wonderful Laverne Cox), and features the most lesbian and bisexual characters since The L Word (again, this is arguably due to its prison setting). It doesn’t shy away from graphic sex scenes but also doesn’t present them in the same eroticised way that something like Game of Thrones does. Another tale of female survival, there is no way to watch the show and believe that women are incapable of anything. In the words of Tina Fey, “Bitches get shit done.”

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8. The Mindy Project

Most like: Ally McBeal meets New Girl

Mindy Lahiri is the most shallow, self-absorbed and kind of racist woman you will ever love. The show’s creator, Mindy Kaling (can you tell I’ve got a thing for female-created projects where they’re mega lazy with character names?), has managed to straddle the fine line between narcissism and confidence with her character, making Mindy very watchable and oddly adorable. As a successful obstetrician/gynecologist, she makes the case that it’s possible to be obsessed with fashion, reality TV and boiz, and also incredibly intelligent, ambitious and focused on women’s reproductive rights and health. While in the UK we take access to contraception, for example, for granted, it’s nowhere near as clear cut in America and The Mindy Project often looks at issues surrounding women’s bodies. This is also apparent when the topic of Mindy’s body comes up – I can’t tell you how good it feels to watch a woman so proud of her boombastic curves, especially as the main character on a hit TV show. It’s also refreshing to see an Indian woman take the lead (even if she does seem to exclusively white guys, a fact that it regularly acknowledged in the show). I can’t think of a single other mainstream show that does the same.

If you started to watch New Girl but Zooey Deschanel was too much for you (a common feeling, friend) then try The Mindy Project.

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And that’s it! There are others I could have included, with some exclusions more obvious than others: Battlestar Galactica, a futuristic sci-fi which always comes up whenever the topic of feminist TV shows arises; How to Get Away with Murder, which has an exceptional cast of strong female characters lead by Viola Davis; Veep, a political comedy starring a female President of the United States; Scandal; a political thriller starring Kerry Washington as former White House Communications Director for the President; Orphan Black, a sci-fi series with a wide cast of complex characters all played by the same woman; and Masters of Sex, which takes a look at female sexual empowerment. These are all missing from the list as… I haven’t seen them yet. Trust me, I’m looking to rectify this.

Also missing is Girls. This is partly because I’m sick of seeing it recommended in every list of this nature and partly because it’s considered problematic in terms of race and consent. While it’s done a lot for women in terms of body image, has a cast of refreshingly unlikeable female characters and has a young woman (the infamous Lena Dunham) at the helm, writing, directing and starring in the show, I’d just rather not include it here. It is very entertaining though, so I advise watching it once you’re done with the above.

We always need more female (feminist – we have enough reality TV shows about housewives, thanks) representation on our television screens, particularly BME female representation. I’m not stupid – I can see that every single show mentioned in this post (apart from How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal and The Mindy Project) is headed by a white woman, with Orange is the New Black and The L Word starring more diverse casts but still white leads. Better representation is something we can aim for in the present and the future, and a good way to encourage better representation is to support the shows that do make an effort. With a selection as high quality as these, it’s hardly difficult.

Happy watching, everyone!

–  Jade Slaughter is editor of The Jar Belles and has written for The F Word, Parallel and Litro magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @msjadeslaughter.