For many years, feminists have been dismissed, mocked, and outright vilified onscreen. But more recent depictions of feminist characters on TV shows like Mrs. America, Downton Abbey, and Sex Education increasingly reflect that the “feminist” label is, at last, being claimed as aspirational, cool, and even necessary. Still, even this embrace of the cause for gender equality has brought new perils, like co-option and commodification. Here’s our Take on the feminist trope, and why it’s a no-brainer that we should all be feminists.
Few words provoke the same sense of unwarranted controversy as “feminist.” For many years, onscreen feminists have been dismissed, mocked, and outright vilified. If we look at Film & TV feminists, past and present, we can spot some patterns in this character: she’s intellectual, educated, and articulate, but her precise mind and sharp tongue have long been used against her — painted in many stories as a tendency to preach, overthink and see issues that don’t really exist. She’s passionate about her principles and non-mainstream interests, yet her intensity of feeling has often led her to be interpreted as always angry or too much — a radical, incapable of lighthearted fun. She’s also often been portrayed as unfeminine — not a “real” woman. But what this actually reflects is that male validation isn’t the primary metric by which she evaluates her life.
Ms. Perky: “People perceive you as somewhat—”
Ms. Perky: “Heinous bitch is the term used most often.” – 10 Things I Hate About You
Fundamentally, the feminist character is a skeptic who bravely questions established social conventions that others take for granted. This woman with high standards wants more out of life than she was taught to expect — and, crucially, she demands more for other women, too. Today’s depictions of feminist characters increasingly reflect that this once-dirty label is, at last, being widely claimed as aspirational, cool — even necessary. Yet even this closer-to-universal embrace of the gender equality cause has brought new perils, like co-option, commodification, and fake feminists. Here’s our take on the Feminist trope: its mythos, its journey from the margins to the mainstream, and why it’s a no-brainer that we should all be feminists.
Jo March: “And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.” – Little Women (2019)
Vilifying the Feminist
Feminism is simply believing women should have equal rights to those of men. Supporting this aim should sound like basic common sense in a country that’s 50% female, but has never seen a female president; where many states tax tampons but not Viagra; where women are paid less than men for the same work, and where all that American currency they should be making features only male faces. Yet the feminist trope has long existed in our cultural imagination first and foremost as a negative.
Frequently, onscreen feminists are painted as overreacting to non-issues. Many depictions reduce their concerns to silly trivialities, thus obscuring the very serious issues that the real feminist movement is concerned with. Just as prevalent is the stereotype that feminists are unattractive and unwomanly. They’re portrayed as bitter, jilted, essentially failed women who pretend to care about gender inequality as a consolation prize for not being popular with men. The miniseries Mrs. America disproves this assumption by documenting how Ms. Magazine co-founder and feminist icon Gloria Steinem caused a furor in the ‘70s precisely because she didn’t fit this stereotype. And her glamourous celebrity persona reframed decisions like not having kids as an actual choice — a valid one — instead of as evidence that one had not achieved womanly success.
“Everybody was so convinced that feminists could not possibly look okay, because if you could get a man, why do you need equal pay?” – Gloria Steinem
The most central presumption about feminists is that they hate men. The feminist stereotype’s over-the-top hatred of men is so insidious because it takes feminism’s central issue of the patriarchal society — one where women are an oppressed class — and flips it to imply that men are the real victims.
Bob Pinciotti: “This is Sharon. She’s part of your mom’s feminist group. She hates men, too.” – That ‘70s Show, 1x24
Many of these negative clichés are found in the straw feminist. This term describes a cardboard, exaggerated feminist character who’s designed to undercut feminist ideology by framing it as a joke, or by suggesting feminism’s gone too far. In 1964’s Mary Poppins, Mrs. Banks’ advocating for women’s suffrage is framed as frivolous fun, while the movie even suggests that she’s so busy congratulating herself that she neglects her own children. Saved By the Bell frames neurotic Jessie’s lecturing of her peers as annoying or, at best, a funny personality quirk. Jessie also dates the obnoxious, misogynistic Slater, and actually seems charmed by his macho posturing. So, the show suggests the right man will cause a woman to quickly abandon her professed feminist ideals. When Jessie campaigns for a girl who wants to join the wrestling team, she backtracks after she starts to suspect the girl has a crush on Slater.
Jessie: “Haven’t you ever heard of the Women’s Movement?”
Slater: “Well, sure. Put on something cute and move it into the kitchen.” – Saved By The Bell, 1x12
When she’s not a laughingstock, the straw feminist continues to be used as a darker cautionary tale of what happens when the ideology gets carried away. The idea that women are making a big deal out of nothing can be taken to a dark extreme in plots like the Veronica Mars storyline where a college feminist group fakes a rape to make a point, playing into the damaging myth that false accusations of sexual assault are commonplace. These anti-feminist biases even begin with our children’s shows. In true straw feminist fashion, Rugrats mom Betty dominates her emasculated husband Howard. In The Powerpuff Girls episode “Equal Fights,” when the feminist villain Femme Fatale plants seeds of doubt in the Powerpuff Girls’ minds about how equal their society really is, Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup lash out at males without justification. But Femme Fatale’s rallying cries are revealed to be little more than manipulative trickery.
Femme Fatale: “Sending me to jail will be a blow for all of womankind — including you.” [They let her go, and she gives an evil laugh] – The Powerpuff Girls, 3x12
Significantly, the straw feminist is often contrasted with a more aspirational female protagonist we’re supposed to relate to. We’re given the message that it’s cool to be an empowered woman like Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, who stands up to sexual harassment and sexist stereotyping but is never explicitly aligned with feminism. Yet you don’t want to be a whiny, uptight activist like Elle’s fellow law school student Enid Wexler. These representations perpetuate a narrative of individualism — endorsing being your best self, without connecting this to a broader push for equality.
Ultimately, our culture devotes so much energy to smearing feminists because they pose a danger to the status quo: if feminists are seen as inherently unappealing, no one will want to be one. Yet, as Mrs. America‘s depiction of the real-life militant anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly reveals, distancing yourself from this movement will not protect you from the hard reality of deeply entrenched sexism.
Schlafly: “Now our superiority in MIRVs does not compensate for the Russian superiority in ICBMs, SS-9s…”
Man: “Hey, listen, could you take notes for us, you know, so that we have an unofficial record?” – Mrs. America, 1x01
The Feminist Awakening
After all these years of slandering the feminist, today’s onscreen depictions increasingly reflect that our culture is in the midst of a feminist awakening. Modern stories introduce us to characters who aren’t meant to represent feminism as a whole, but who see the world through this lens — or incorporate it into a multi-faceted world outlook — thus making it feel accessible and normal. Recent stories also increasingly show us why a feminist mindset is necessary. As David Foster Wallace explored in his memorable analogy about fish who don’t know they’re swimming in water, “And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’” we often struggle to even wake up to the status quo. So, these modern narratives illustrate how the process of becoming a feminist is learning to see the misogynistic “water” all around us.
In I May Destroy You, the protagonist Arabella’s two separate experiences with assault bring her to recognize just how essential a feminist awareness is after she’s spent most of her life thinking it was enough to be a strong individual.
Arabella: “Prior to being raped, I never took much notice of being a woman. I was busy being black and poor. Am I too late to serve this tribe called women?” – I May Destroy You, 1x07
In Sex Education, a group of high school girls tasked with finding something that unites them come to the disturbing realization that what they have in common is sexual harassment. Feminists in period pieces can make these structures even more obvious, as we have the benefit of hindsight while we watch characters struggle to explain why they want more out of life to their confused peers.
In today’s world, where everyday sexism is often more subtle than ever, it’s especially important to have a language and framework for confronting the hypocrisies that often go unchallenged in our society. Most of all, we need feminism because it represents freedom. In 1941, the psychologist William Moulton Marston invented the feminist icon Wonder Woman, the manifestation of a woman’s sheer power. “Frankly,” Marston wrote, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”
The “Bad” Feminist
So what about the rest of us real women, who fall somewhere between the straw feminists and Wonder Womans of the world? Today’s woman may consider herself a “bad feminist” — a term coined by the writer Roxane Gay to describe a perceived clash between feminism’s ideals and some of women’s feelings or behaviors.
“There are many ways in which I’m doing feminism wrong. I watch The Bachelor and romantic comedies, and I have absurd fantasies about fairytales coming true.” – Roxane Gay, Confessions of a Bad Feminist
The idea of the Bad Feminist rejects the false narrative that feminism means divorcing yourself from femininity, or that it rigidly dictates you can no longer wear makeup and heels, listen to music with misogynistic lyrics, or obsess over guys. Complex feminist characters onscreen reflect that it can be complicated to reconcile our various principles and desires, which may sometimes be at odds. Just look at Bojack Horseman’s Diane, who despite being an avowed feminist is best friends with a guy who embodies toxic masculinity.
Diane: “And I hate you. But you’re my best friend, and you need me.” – Bojack Horseman, 5x12
Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You and Maeve in Sex Education both show aversion to traditional romance. But in the end, they’re both totally charmed by their love interests’ grand gestures — and that’s okay. Often, hewing too dogmatically to the role-model or straw feminist pole is a sign that a character isn’t being authentic. The Bad Feminist’s story onscreen is about letting go of rigid preconceived notions about who you’re supposed to be and becoming an empowered, full human being through embracing one’s own truths and incongruities.
Ultimately, the only way to really be a bad feminist is by advocating disingenuously, with ulterior motives, or by excluding perspectives from your definition of who deserves equal rights. Representations of women’s issues have long tended to focus narrowly on straight, middle-class “white feminism.”
White woman: “Not while we’re all living through the worst thing to ever happen to women in this country.”
Rainbow: “But it’s not the worst thing to ever happen in our history… Because black women were slaves.”
White women: “Ohhhh…” – Black-ish, 6x03
Today’s stories about feminism — especially those made by women of color — increasingly underscore the need for intersectionality, which takes into account the ways different forms of prejudice converge. Mrs. America explores how the feminist movement has frequently failed to do justice to LGBTQ rights, and illustrates how, even when Ms. Magazine tries to be inclusive, its emphasis on female solidarity can lead to insensitivity and overlooking the complex experiences of women of color. It’s also only recently that some onscreen depictions are starting to center the experiences of trans women, who’ve historically been excluded from conversations about feminism.
Angel: “Everything I can’t have in this world is because of… that thing down there. If you wanna see who I am, that’s the last place you should look.” – Pose, 1x06
Another version of the truly bad feminist that’s increasingly central in pop culture is the hypocritical or fake feminist — often embodied in the trope of the Girlboss, who only really cares about furthering her personal brand. The (often white) Girlboss embodies a commercialization of feminism and a fundamental misunderstanding (or misuse) of feminist values. As writer Toni Morrison famously put it, “If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
Annie: “Part of WAHAM’s mission statement is lifting up every woman, but can you really do that if the price point is so inaccessible?” – Shrill, 2x06
Feminism represents opening our eyes, when we’ve been living with them shut. While it may feel easier to stay in the dark, the feminist foresees the possibility of a better world. She reminds us that it’s only once we let the light in that we get to enjoy the view.
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