Warning: Spoilers and NSFW videos ahead
In my last post, we talked about the Bechdel Test and the dangers of certain tropes in the representation of women in media. So many films and TV shows fail the Bechdel Test and are marred by terrible media tropes–but I’ve got some recommendations here for some that don’t.
I think television is doing more interesting things with women than movies, by far. With the exception of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (which has a difficult time passing the reverse Bechdel Test), I haven’t been starstruck by any major films recently. Just look at the Academy Awards this year. Enough said. But TV is a different story. Here is a list of TV shows that eat the Bechdel Test for breakfast:
1. Orange is the New Black
Who’s surprised I brought this one up? No one? Yeah. It’s probably one of the most watched shows of the past two years, and for good reason. While its ideas about what living in a women’s prison is actually like is questionable*, its realistic depiction of women makes its popularity well-deserved. The women on the show are complex: they’re funny, loveable, despicable. Most importantly, they are that ever-trendy word: relatable. It’s a show that talks about sex in a meaningful, interesting way that is so very familiar, yet so rare in popular media.
Warning: Kinda sorta NSFW
The above is a scene where the show demonstrates just how little people are taught about their own bodies in our culture. Several women are debating the functions of the vagina, and one character in particular is very confused about where urine comes from. Fortunately, the wonderful Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset steps in to tell them what’s what. I love a show that’s not afraid to discuss the nitty gritty details of sex, gender, sexuality, and more.
The show gets bonus points for awesome LGBTQ representation, and great diversity in its cast (in particular in Season 2 where Piper Chapman is less of a central character).
Orange is the New Black is available to watch on Netflix. But you probably already knew that.
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra
The Last Airbender has some extremely well-crafted female characters, as does The Legend of Korra (especially moving forward into Seasons 3 and 4). Women fight alongside the boys, rail against male characters for being sexist and discriminatory, and they are generally given agency and power over their own stories. They serve as teachers, warriors, friends, girlfriends, mothers, grandmothers, healers, counselors, generals, creators–the list goes on. The creators of Korra have said that Nickelodeon’s initial reaction to the idea of a female lead was hesitation. They were worried that boys might not watch the show. But in test screenings, young male viewers said that they “didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.” I love it that a show geared for kids has created so many great role models for young girls, and proves that young boys are interested in watching a show with a female protagonist–as long as she is an interesting protagonist.
Both shows also do a great job of representing people of color and people with disabilities, not to mention at least one (warning: even the URL is a spoiler!) canonically queer couple (and strong hints at others). Two out of three of the initial main characters on TLA are people of color, and many minor characters have a diverse range of ethnic identities. Korra herself is dark-skinned, coming from a tribe that appears to have some Inuit inspirations. Avatar also features one main character with a significant physical disability (Toph is blind). Not only is she blind, but Avatar plays this off as a strength, and Toph is arguably one of the most physically strong characters on the show. Toph is not an anomaly on the show, either. TLA also features a main character with a pretty serious facial disfigurement,** and there is one minor recurring character in a wheelchair. This is not a show that shies away from minority representation, and I love it.
Some episodes of Korra are available on Nick.com, and all episodes of TLA and Korra are available through Amazon Prime.**
An oldie, but a goodie. Zoey, River, and Inara are great characters, but it’s Kaylee that I want to talk about here. Kaylee Frye is one of my favorite feminist characters in all of television. She has a strong personality, great relationships with other women (ie, not catty or unnecessarily competitive), she loves sex, and her profession defies gender norms. One of my favorite things about Kaylee though, is that she isn’t a victim of Trinity Syndrome. She’s not a badass like Zoey or River. She’s terrified of guns, and while she’s great with machinery, she’s not portrayed as the smartest member of the crew. Kaylee proves that a female character doesn’t have to be Wonder Woman in order to be something other than a sexy lamp character.
It’s important to note that I have not read the book that the show is based on, though I did attempt it. I just couldn’t get into the writing. I think the show has great writers and the actors were extremely well cast…it’s just Diana Gabaldon’s writing that I can’t seem to get into. Maybe I’ll try again when I’ve finished Season 1.
Anyway. Outlander actually struggles with the Bechdel test. There is only one main female character so far, and while some episodes pass the test swimmingly, most don’t make it past rule #1. However, Claire is a very interesting character with a unique perspective, and Outlander is reshaping sex in television in a way that I hoped Masters of Sex would (but ultimately, hasn’t really, in my opinion). Not much more the say here. Including Outlander in this list was basically just an excuse to get you to read that article that I linked to up there. So, yeah. Go read that.
Outlander‘s first season hasn’t finished yet, but its first half is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Oh, network television. Not usually something I would recommend for great lady characters. With a very few exceptions, one of which is Castle. Something that I love about the show is that while I suspect it could survive without its titular character (much though it saddens me to think of losing Nathan Fillion), it could not survive without Kate Beckett. Virtually all of the best episodes of Castle are Beckett focused episodes, and she arguably experiences more interesting character growth than Castle over the course of the show. It has a rocky first few seasons, but ultimately fleshes out some very interesting women, including Castle’s mother and daughter, and Beckett’s female colleagues.
Sadly, ABC is being weird with Castle–it’s not available for streaming on any popular sites, as far as I can tell.
6. Shonda Shows
All Shonda Rhimes TV is good TV. It can get extremely soapy, but Rhimes knows how to write women (and the men’s stories are just as melodramatic as the women’s, if not more so). All of her shows have excellent diversity in casting, in particular Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, both of which have African American female leads. Few other shows feature such ambitious, Actually Strong Female Characters. I may recommend Murder and Grey’s Anatomy over Scandal, though–even though Kerry Washington is amazing (and in 2013 was the first African American woman to be nominated for an Emmy in the Lead Actress category since 1995).
My beef with Scandal is that much of the main plot focuses on a relationship that is, in my opinion, among the most unhealthy on television. I stopped watching the show because I wasn’t sure how the viewers were supposed to read the relationship–were we supposed to ship it? Was it supposed to show how damaging obsessive relationships can be? Jury’s still out. However, many other female characters on the show are great (in particular POTUS’ wife Millie). Just…watch at your own risk.
Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal are available to watch on Netflix (up until their current seasons). How To Get Away With Murder is ongoing, but episodes are available on Hulu Plus.
Bonus Shows: Girls, Orphan Black, Masters of Sex, Agent Carter****
Disagree with my choices? Have any of your own shows to recommend? I love discovering new TV, so let me know in the comments!
*Although it’s pretty different from the show, I would definitely recommend reading the memoir of the real-life Piper Kerman (who is also a producer on the show). Especially if you’re interested in reading a more accurate account of what living in a minimum security women’s prison is like.
**Admittedly, the power of animation is that the stakes are lower when creating a character with a massive facial scar.
***If you have an account, all episodes of TLA are free, but seasons 3-4 of Korra are currently $1.99 per episode.
****I haven’t actually seen the show, but I’ve seen clips and it looks damn good. I intend to watch soon.