Without 1997, Feminist Television Wouldn't Exist Today
While the television landscape could be much better in terms of representations, we live in a world where feminist characters and plotlines are par for course. We have shows like Orange Is The New Black, Jane The Virgin, and even Girls, which all show women as deep, complex characters, and not just wives to schlubby-looking comedian husbands. We’re in a bit of a golden era of feminist TV, but the seeds of our current landscape were planted way back in the late-1990s.
By the time the Riot Grrrl movement started dissolving in the mid-90’s, feminism was definitely on the minds of people in the entertainment industry. And in 1997, a trio of feminist TV shows hit the airwaves. There must’ve been some sort of marketing survey showing that people responded well to strong female leads in 1996, because the next year prompted the premieres of Ally McBeal, Daria and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
While none of the main characters overtly declare themselves feminist, all three shows center around strong, young women, which was kind of a rarity at the time. The shows all touch on different parts of feminist identity, they’re still remarkably relevant now.
Daria centers around the eponymous nihilistic teenager navigating a world where everyone kinda sucks. The boys are–mostly–gross, the parents are annoying, and everyone is trying to be “popular.” In essence, Daria is dealing with what all of us deal with: the constant realization that things kinda suck, life goes on and you’ll have to get over it. While Daria’s experiences feel universal–dudes can understand what it’s like to be a misfit–she does display a distinctly feminist bent, constantly recognizing and calling out the hypocrisy of beauty standards and female popularity.
But the show was also so, so smart. It wasn’t content to just show Daria’s intelligence and everyone else’s stupidity. Daria lent depth to even the most shallow characters, like the deeply depressing insecurities of the popular girls in the Fashion Club. The show also displayed an early understanding of intersectionality, handling the life of its black lead, overachiever Jodie Landon, in a nuanced, delicate way, as is detailed in this excellent essay by “Blaria” (Black Daria) Phoebe Robinson. Daria exhibited that complex emotions and nihilistic attitudes aren’t just a thing for white dudes; they’re a thing for people.
Ally McBeal was decidedly lighter than Daria’s bleak outlook. While the show does focus on Ally’s quest for true love, the form of the show is what makes it truly feminist. Some of the episodes might not even be appropriate in today’s culture (i.e. the infamous dancing baby), because they’re sincerely and absurdly insulting, but the overall show is just an attempt to glimpse the inner-workings of a working women. And working women aren’t perfect.
While it prompted the Time cover “Is Feminism Dead?,” in hindsight, Ally shows us that feminism is a way of thinking, not simply progression to some endpoint. Was the show itself the best example of feminism? Not really. But man, it tried hard to capture the complexities of Ally’s life and career, and that’s a pretty feminist set-up for a show.
Daria’s ability to appeal to anyone and Ally McBeal’s attempt at understanding complex females are almost at two ends of the spectrum: the universal and the distinctly feminine. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, in many ways, the mid-point. Not as pointed as Daria but not as “sexy Murphy Brown” as Ally McBeal, Buffy was — and always will be, in our opinion — relevant.
Tackling the “girl in high school” narrative through the lens of saving the world and killing vampires is a way to make it accessible to no one, which in effect makes it accessible to everyone. Buffy worked because it was an action show, a comedy show rife with pop culture references, a show about making it through high school, and a show about growing up as a woman all at the same time: it was a little bit of something for everyone. And with the introduction of Willow and Tara — one of the first lesbian couples on TV — it was decidedly forward-thinking.
Although all the aforementioned shows have definite problems in terms of diversity, in 1997 they were incredibly progressive. All are watchable today, and Daria and Buffy certainly still hold up in terms of quality. But most importantly, these shows demonstrated that programs with offbeat female protagonists can make money, stay on TV, and garner a following. Without 1997, the media landscape we’ve become accustomed to wouldn’t exist, and feminism just wouldn’t be a mainstay in cable television. I think Buffy and Bradshaw would get along.
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