Pop culture made me a feminist. As a suburban girl in the early 90s, I picked up my beliefs about equality from some books at the library and a copy of Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusal.” After no one at my elementary school opted to join my “Gender Equality Club,” I looked back to pop culture to find others of my kind—and I found the most feminists were on network TV.
I savored every character who called herself a feminist during that “T.G.I.F” era, even though these characters were rarely depicted as being reasonable. I knew that characters like Saved by the Bell’s Jessie Spano were supposed to be the butt of the joke. But they were speaking my truth, even if they were just speaking it as a set up for Zack Morris to waggle his mirrored Ray-Bans and break the fourth wall.
A lot has changed since Saved by the Bell went off the air in 1993. The internet now allows young feminists to connect with each other in a way far beyond my wildest pre-teenage dreams.
And yet, the characters on TV who choose to call themselves feminists still matter. More TV shows embody feminist values than ever before, it seems—but there’s still a lag between shows that embrace feminist ideals, and shows where the characters actually come out and call themselves feminists.
So where are the self-identified feminists on TV? Where they’ve always been: Mostly on network comedies.
The first explicitly feminist TV sitcom characters popped up on network comedies in the early 70’s, just as the second wave of American feminism was cresting. Two of these earliest characters—Gloria Bunker Stivic on All in the Family, and Maude of Maude—were the creations of Norman Lear, the TV super-producer also responsible for shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times.
Norman Lear once said, “If anybody thought he was going to erase prejudice with a situation comedy, he’d have to be an asshole.” But Lear’s characters succeeded in bringing progressive ideals onto TV, even if the characters explaining them were being played for laughs. In episode like All in the Family’s “Gloria Discovers Women’s Lib“(1971), or “Maude’s Dilemma” (1972), Lear dramatized the real discussions (and disputes) that the the women’s movement was bringing into American homes.
Gloria and Maude were far from perfect—but hey, everyone is part of the joke in a comedy. And the joke wasn’t that they were feminists. Rather, the joke was that some of the qualities associated with feminism—like outspokenness and commitment to a very specific vision of life—made them excellent comedic characters.
But as time went on, sitcom feminists fell to the periphery as supporting characters, and developed into two major categories: the “flake” and the “ball-buster.”
“The Flake”: think Friends’ Phoebe Buffay, Dharma and Greg’s Dharma, That 70’s Show’s Midge Pinciotti, or Community’s Britta Perry. The flake is out of step with her world—though still neurotic enough to understand that everyone is laughing at her and her latest vegan bake sale.
“The Ball-Buster”: the ball-buster’s greatest period of cultural traction was the late 80s through the 90s, an era which gave us Married…with Children’s Marcy D’Arcy, Living Single’s Max Shaw, Step by Step’s Dana Foster, and Sex and the City’s Miranda Hobbes. The ball-buster is independent, smart and successful… God, if only she weren’t so cold! If only there was a man who could help her loosen up, a man who knew that she really wanted to be treated like a woman (Meaning: not taken seriously.)
For both archetypes, the character’s explicit feminism is a major part of the joke. For these characters, feminism was a way to show that they were out of touch with the reality of the women around them: that women were now so liberated, it was charmingly antiquated to believe that we still need a feminist movement.
It’s also impossible to ignore the race and class issues at work in these feminist characters. Though Roseanne focused on a working class main character who wove a gender and class analysis through the fabric of the series (and played Bikini Kill lyrics on network TV!), in most of these shows, feminism is depicted as a wealthy woman’s issue, and primarily a white woman’s issue.
And yet, there was a value to these characters. In the often politically reactionary landscape of network comedies, the feminists brought some pretty radical opinions into our homes, even if they were being played for laughs. In their best scenarios, they opened my mind, and made me feel a little less alone—the highest callings of comedy.
I won’t say we’re going through a golden era of feminists on television right now. The self-identified feminists on sitcoms are still overwhelmingly white and wealthy, and don’t convey the diversity, energy, or priorities of the modern feminist movements.
But things have changed, at least incrementally. Deborah A. Macy, in her essay “Ancient Archetypes in Modern Media,” called the ball-buster “the iron maiden,” and claimed that “without an iron maiden archetype, a feminist message cannot be maintained within a series.” This is no longer true. Sitcoms are broadening their ideas of what kind of woman a feminist can be, and I think we have more feminists as sitcom protagonists than we ever have before.
Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope, for example, is neither a flake nor a ball-buster; she’s a smart, optimistic, policy-loving dork who gets jazzed about things like efficient meeting structures. The joke central to Leslie’s character is that she embraces her passions with an over-abundance of enthusiasm, not that she thinks women’s history or female friendships are important. She’s a main character unlike any we’ve seen on a network sitcom before.
Though New Girl’s Jess Day sometimes seems to fit in the “flake” mold, and though the show sometimes takes pot-shots at progressive culture (see their recent parody of Antioch College-style sexual consent in the episode “Virgins”), “New Girl”–particularly in the show’s second season–has been interested in portraying Day as a complex, complicated, flawed-but-not-failed human being who is funny with her feminism (“I hope you like feminist rants because that’s kind of my thing”), not because of it.
Even 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, a character with a complicated-at-best relationship to other women and institutionalized sexism, depicts a world where being a feminist is just part of the package—even for those of us who are confused, far from perfect, and keep getting back together with the Beeper King.
Parks and Rec Galentine’s Day card by Natalie Nourigat.