Current Responses to Post-Feminist Television
A show like the Second and the City depicts successful white upper middle class women from their mid 30s onward living in New York City. They are all for the most part in successful jobs- Carrie’s a sex columnist, Charlotte’s a gallery coordinator/curator of some sort, Samantha’s a high power celebrity publicist, Miranda, the least desirable and hardest working and most educated, is a lawyer. Throughout the show we see these women have some problems with work, but we hardly ever question the gendered dynamics of their jobs or how they got to where they are. Besides Miranda, these jobs are also mostly women-dominated. Miranda navigates through a male-dominated law company as she wants to get partner. She seems to give up a lot of her feminine wiles because of this position. But these women are still instantly in high powered, high paying positions, we do not see their struggle to get to that job, which is part of the post-feminist assumption that feminism’s work is done, that equality has been achieved because society at large has become a meritocracy and gender is no longer an issue holding women back from their careers.
We see this in a show like Ally McBeal, the other most popularly written about show in terms of post-feminism, in which again the white upper middle class protagonist already has that Harvard Law degree, and she’s in her new job, and her ex college boyfriend and his new girlfriend are now both their colleague!
Having it all was not a term coined by feminists, but by the backlash of feminism that urged women that they could never be fulfilled with a career because they had no time to become mothers. It’s kind of like the bra burning stereotype, when feminists actually didn’t get the fire permit and no bra bruning was done. No feminist ever said women can have it all, but that they should be entitled to equality to men to have what they choose to want. The Betty Friedan Feminine Mystique Second Wave and the Anne Marie Slaughter Sheryl Sandberg Lean In brand of corporate feminism is problematic because it is only relatable to college educated, upper middle class, white women who can have the choice to work or raise a family, etc. Friedan and Sandberg now fail to acknowledge women of lower income in America who HAD to work to sustain their families, who could not think about leaning in or these kinds of gender dynamics that also deal with race, ethnicity, class, and so on. This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of global feminism, but since our focus is on Anglo-American TV as well.
Post-feminist TV attributes to me are all about female protagonists who revert to preoccupying themselves with traditional gender expectations, that successful careers can be easily achieved but are not a main preoccupation, with situations and scenarios that disregard the albeit limited success of post-second wave feminism and beyond. A series like Mad Men for me was in some ways a feminist critique on post-feminist society’s forgetfulness of the struggles of feminism, showing how the characters of Betty and Joan often struggle with their roles in society based on ther femininity and traditional gender expectations while Peggy is a rare career-oriented loner navigating through a male-dominated field.
Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, and Mad Men are all about the Unberable Whiteness of Being too, and in many ways, Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy picked up from the popularity of Sex and the City and ER’s popularity too, of that good looking ensemble medical cast. Rhimes incorporated blindcasting to reveal a diverse cast, although the central protagonists were white, which would change with the historic black female protagonist Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal. In some ways, Rhimes’ series play out like a feminist fantasy in which women get their high level positions based on their merit, and they are less concerned, if not downright frightened, of settling down to a home and family, unlike their male counterparts.
Over the break I finally started watching Being Mary Jane, created and showrunned by Mara Brock Akil. I binge watched Season 1 on Netflix and luckily had the hindsight to begin recording Season 2 on my DVR. In many ways, BMJ is a response to many of these series of the past. It shows a career-driven successful late 30s black woman with a beautiful house, luxury car. We see her exercising, eating right, working late, having bad dates, break ups, family problems. She is single because she states she has been so career-driven. As a broadcast journalist for a fictional CNN competitor in Atlanta, she addresses race-related issues with strident passion, as Akil does when she shows the disparity between her protagonist, a single and successful career woman, and her 19-year old niece who has two children with two different fathers and no career or education.
McRobbie (2009) argues—and Foucault would surely agree—that postfemi- nism becoming so widespread at this socio-historical moment is not a coinci- dence; rather, it is precisely because women are now required to participate in the labor market and the public sphere that postfeminism emerges to re-secure the gender (and racial) order (67). In other words, as women come forward in education and employment and gender equality is allegedly achieved, and as women of color become increasingly visible in the academy and the public sphere, contemporary discourses must adapt in order to reinforce gender and racial hierarchies and ensure that the systems of compulsory heterosexuality and white privilege remain intact.
We are in a really fascinating era of television now in which popular press is writing about television’s relationship with race and gender in a very real way, both in terms of representations behind and in front of the camera. When Tina Fey’s 30 Rock first premiered in the early 2000s, very few folks were outwardly talking about the show’s relationship to feminism, race issues, the workplace and so on.
With Fey’s latest venture Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Netflix premiere in early March, cultural critics delved into Fey’s newfound more overt feminism but still carefully criticized her problematic take on race and ethnicity, especially in her female characters, but also with the supporting male Asian character, and a truly strange Native American flashback plot. Interestingly enough, the show was first a lot more darker and smarter from what I heard, it toned down for NBC, NBC still wasn't keen on it, so what we see on Netflix is more of an appeasement for NBC when its original conception could have been more apt.
We can reach a Todd Gitlin kind of conclusion based on representations of women in popular TV programming, but we can also see how increased visibility on the importance of women in TV and conveying feminist attitudes, and the recent proliferation of what scholars like Sarah Banet-Weiser are calling “popular feminism,” can change things for future generations.
It’s a lot like what Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat recently said in an interview about her character, career and the show’s significance, despite its clear imperfection:
“Usually I’ll be auditioning for the third lead and there will be Latina actresses, Indian actresses, African American actresses because it will be like, ‘let’s check off this box. We have our lead white girl, and we need an ethnic slot.’ And I've actually been told, ‘We've decided the guy’s best friend is going to be Asian so we needed the girl’s best friend to be black because we couldn't have two Asians. They want to check off their boxes, which in its own way is a kind of perverted gesture.”