There has been a discussion at a number of websites recently about what feminist TV looks like. What do we want from our female characters? What do we want from the world in which our feminist characters live? In many respects, this comes under the much bigger question of what do we want from the world as feminists? What changes do we want to happen, and what does a post-patriarchal future look like? So, in many respects, this is a horribly difficult question, and one that I don’t have an answer for. Today however, I would like to address one part of this question, which is the tension between real women’s experience and the behaviour of feminist characters on TV.
One of the frustrations that many women have with the TV characters they watch, especially those characters who are feminist or proto-feminist women, is that they don’t behave in feminist ways all of the time. Saranga at Paiwing, for example, expresses frustration that despite Buffy the Vampire Slayer retaliating against the man who tried to sexually assault her, she does not challenge him or disagree when later told her clothing provoked the attack. Buffy’s response suggests that she buys into this mythology. Now, how is the viewer meant to read this scene: should we be annoyed that Buffy failed to follow through on her feminist credentials? Or, do we say, well that’s how a real woman, perhaps caught off guard, may respond in this situation?
What about a less clear cut story plot such as in Lipstick Jungle? Top female exec (beautiful, mega successful women in a man’s world), who loves her husband, but isn’t getting any sex, has an affair with the young hawt male. At first I think this is a bit ‘ew’, but why hold her to a different standard from men. Then, she wants it to be only about sex; then she thinks she is falling for him, guilt about husband etc. Cop out or just one of those things? What is the feminist action in this story plot: to remain faithful to her husband and never have an affair??
The problem with demanding feminist TV is that some of the time the feminist decision, in a patriarchal world, doesn’t exist. Instead, you have female characters making a myriad of decisions, some right, some wrong, in circumstances that they can’t control. (In many respects, exactly like the real world). And, the thing is, this doesn’t mean that such television isn’t ‘feminist’. One of the longest-running aims of the feminist movement has been to get women’s experience recognised; to destroy a world where the white, middle class male’s experience is considered normal and proper. Television that shows women’s experience in all its ugly and imperfect detail legitimises the experience of women, by bringing it into the public sphere. It allows other women to recognise that their experiences are not unique; that they are not alone in the inequalities and problems they face.
So, perhaps, when looking for feminist TV, we should not ask ‘did she do the feminist thing’, but instead, ‘did she behave like a real woman would’? Does her character have depth and complexity and does her behaviour feel real, remembering that different women have different experiences? Does she have a central role within the show, or is she a sounding board or prop for the male characters? Is she human?