You — the five people who read our introduction article — asked for it, you got it.
Yes, the bitches are back to talk about TV shows, yet again, in our second installment of the Evolving Inclusivity series.
This week’s topic will revolve around the realm of female leads and feminism — white feminism. While this trend in television is extremely problematic and must be challenged on a daily basis, it did allow there to be more fluidity and freedom to break out of stifling norms and oppressive systems.
Similar to the feminist movement, there are countless waves and subcategories that have benefits but also problems. It’s important to recognize that these were stepping stones to get us to where we are now. Inclusivity and representation are constantly evolving in television, film, literature and so on. I can’t stress this enough that nothing is static.
Before there could be intersectional representation, women of color leads or people of color beyond secondary tropes, there were white, female leads.
This was a necessary step where television was male-dominated or catered to their needs. In an ideal world, we should have been able to have inclusive, intersectional depictions in TV shows but the evolving waves within television are gradual and heavily influenced by society. The first wave of feminism helped set up the subsequent waves but it was extremely white and middle-class when it came to fighting for women’s rights. It was exclusionary and problematic, to say the least.
Normally, I’m against giving a platform and attention to topics that can be harmful but it should be called out more often to recognize the issues within it so we can learn from it and be better. Just because something makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean you should remain ignorant.
As a womxn of color, I recognize the significance that came from white, female-identifying leads on television because it enabled there to be more representation in the future. It was definitely harmful and frustrating to never see myself depicted or acknowledged when I was growing up but I learned from what I saw, especially when it was a female character. We shouldn’t be afraid to mention white feminism or shy away from calling it out because then nothing changes. But we also should be able to recognize the good that it did do for some people.
I’m tired of being the POC who calls out how this can be problematic in television, more people need to step up and have these conversations. It’s important to remember everyone’s experience and background are different along with what they have seen and learned from television. There isn’t one right way to have representation that is why it evolves.
I, Robyn, am white. I normalized these tv shows because I did see myself represented on screen. I believed work was getting done — women were on-screen and portrayed with simultaneous strength AND vulnerability. Yay, television is woke — the work is done. My ignorance prohibited me from understanding the stagnation of white, middle-class women deemed successful only in relation to a man as representative of femininity. It is necessary for white folks, like myself, to use their voices to uplift, not write in place of or tokenize people of color on and off-screen.
In the first season, “Suits” makes something very clear: Donna Paulson would not exist without Harvey Specter. Yet, she is treated as a novelty — a gentleman’s dream. She likes her scotch. She plays along with Harvey’s flirtatious banter. And she doesn’t have a lot of friends, or relationships, outside of the office.
She is welcomed as “one of the guys,” yet sequestered into the role as the assistant. Her embodiment of femininity — her hair, nails, skin and outfit never breaking the historic white and female expression of propriety. Yes, Donna’s ability to be “put together” and challenge Harvey is inspiring, yet perhaps the inspiration of strength is only possible because she is successful, but not enough to match Harvey.
It’s not until the final two seasons of the show Donna is promoted to CFO of the law firm, allowing her to have a tangible vote in the decisions they collectively make as a firm. Suddenly, Donna is represented as an equal to Harvey — both in the workplace and as a romantic partner in life.
This decision to make Donna integral to show was perhaps intentional from the start and learned how to go with the changing tide of feminist expectations in television, yet it did not challenge it. Her relationships with Rachel Zane and Jessica Pearson were pushed to the background, her personal life was kept hidden, she was seen as a success because of Harvey, not despite him.
This is not the same for the other leading female, Jessica, who was a name partner for a majority of the series. While Jessica is not a white character in the show, she is a different example of how women in power can be portrayed. She is seen as cold-hearted and ruthless, and not given the rightful development that she deserves. Her character does start out as the strong Black woman boss trope but manages to evolve into something in terms of proving her white, male counterparts wrong. She’s an unapologetic woman paving the way in this male-dominated field, which resulted in a spin-off show called “Pearson.”
But it was canceled after one season.
Truly shocking that a series with an Afro-Latinx female lead was not seen as successful as its predecessor.
Yet, often white leads, like Peggy Carter, are given the opportunity to carry a TV show — and are uplifted for it.
Peggy is a powerful lead on her own in “Agent Carter,” her strength is heroic in the face of sexism in her workplace and beating the shit out of the bad guys. However, this representation lacks a reflection of humanity. She is emotional — but only when alone, lacks female friendships and shoves down her feelings to “get the job done.” Yes, she is a memorable icon for women, but this show would fail the Bechdel test.
Yes, Peggy is a wonderful figure of female empowerment, but her lack of feeling is a weakness, not a strength.
Although she develops a friendship with Angie, the character is not written into season two, while her relationships with Edward Jarvis, Howard Stark and Daniel Sousa are centered at the forefront. While that hinders female friendship, it also provided a look into changing how masculine identities can be portrayed on screen as more open and honest with the people in their life.
The show was slowly pulling on the emotional tethers of audiences’ heartstrings. Yet, the show’s life was cut short, as it ended with its second and final season — a loss we will never forget or forgive.
“Peggy Carter” and “Suits” bring out the nostalgic memories of high school tv viewing. And while we would still find ourselves watching them today, those representations were lacking — women as feminist, collaborative and vulnerable can be seen on tv, despite perpetual problems of whiteness.
“Derry Girls” branches away from a single character-driven plot and focuses more on an ensemble cast. It explores the various dynamics of familial and friend relationships that celebrate love and feminism. The crew is made up of four girls and one wee British fella, focusing on kinship that is beyond the typical gender binary.
The canon of strong female leads is expanding and showing the complexity of female representation. The cast and show itself is still predominantly white and could be more conscious of the intersectional identities, but it has evolved much more from the traditional female characters in a male-led show. It explores 90s adolescence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
It’s cringeworthy, comedic nostalgia allows for there to be various character storylines instead of falling into classic tropes or relying on romance to be the plot. This is a prime example of a current TV show passing the Bechdel test that isn’t one dimensional or in the service of men. While this show could still be classified in the realm of white feminism, it works to tackle heavy topics and incorporate intersectionality into its work.
It isn’t perfect, but it’s progress.
And that’s all we’re asking for — there’s no such thing as the perfect show. And while we shouldn’t settle, we should appreciate the work that has been done to pave way for shows like “Pose” and “Schitt’s Creek” to be aired. There always will be space for television to evolve, but there is value in how these shows empower women, no matter how white they are.
To read part one of the 'Evolving Inclusivity series' by Robyn Cawley and Lauren Souza, press here.