Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 in Review: Erin’s Top 11 Feminist Moments in Television [Guest Poster: Erin]

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This year the small screen was filled with larger-than-life women. Audiences are demanding a better representation of the female population and the entertainment industry is starting to deliver. From BAMFs to Queens and everything in between, women’s voices could be heard and with that feminist issues were addressed. I love seeing sexism confronted, gender norms subverted, and the patriarchy challenged. My television viewing was not lacking in these enlightening and inspiring situations.

I wish I could watch all the shows. There are so many for which I, regrettably, just did not have the time. I know there is a surplus of strong, but flawed characters out there I have yet to meet. I did keep the company of some pretty cool chicks that faced an array of barriers and smashed through them this year. Of the fantastic shows I was able to keep up with here are some of my favorite standout feminist moments of 2016, in no particular order.

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1. “First Feminist City” (Portlandia)

Candace and Toni are two of my favorite characters on the sketch comedy Portlandia. This episode is entirely devoted to the Women and Women First bookstore owners. Portland is named the first feminist city and their quiet, non-for-profit shop becomes overrun with people who want to give them (gasp!) money for their products. Toni shouts, “We don’t want your money!” The attention, however, is tantalizing to Candace and she goes to the dark side of commodified feminism and becomes a “feminist celebrity.” She consults for Femimart, a new feminist superstore that “womanizes” all products from “blenders to blankets.” The employees wear pink shirts and and there are cute girls dancing in the commercial. This shows two extreme sides of feminism and neither of them are very helpful in fighting against the oppression of women. Portlandia glaringly and hilariously points out the problems of how feminism is perceived. It also shows the unfortunate divisiveness that exists surrounding the word when really it is completely and totally inclusive.

Toni storms in on one of Candace’s interviews and makes an impassioned plea for Candace to come to her senses. “You want to try feminism on? There’s nothing to try on. ‘Cause it’s in our blood! It’s our skin and bones! We are not for sale!” It works and Candace joins Toni and other feminists in infiltrating and dismantling Femimart. “The only thing that can destroy feminism is feminism itself.” They create confusion and chaos within the superstore. The logo becomes a pregnant vegan holding a cat. They succeed in destroying it and retreat back to their comfort zone where they sell nothing, work a 15-minute to an hour workday, and drink month-long steeped tea.

2. Scully’s takedown in heels (The X-Files)

Let me first say that the disappointment I felt in season ten of The X-Files was profound. At this year’s Festivus celebration, my Airing of Grievances were aimed heavily at Chris Carter. However, Dana Scully, one of my first fictional feminist heroes, had one of my favorite feminist moments. Mulder tells Scully that he doesn’t do stairs anymore and she reminds him that “back in the day” she used to do the stairs and in three inch heels (and got paid less, too). She had also just taken down a perp in said heels and a pencil skirt, all while grieving her recently deceased mother, by the way. Talk about a strong female character. You could argue that the major feminist moment is in the finale when it's revealed that Scully’s alien DNA is going to save all humankind, but I like this simple nod pointing out workplace inequality. You don't want to get me started on the mess that is “My Struggle, Pt. 2,” believe me.

It’s also worth noting that Gillian Anderson fought the unfair pay gap back in the 90s and had to fight it again when negotiating for her return to the iconic role. She was offered half (let that sink in — half) of what her male co-star was offered. Bringing attention to the disparity of wages in Hollywood is a step toward fighting it. Anderson told The Daily Beast that she was “surprised that more [interviewers] haven’t brought that up because it’s the truth. Especially in this climate of women talking about the reality of [unequal pay] in this business, I think it’s important that it gets heard and voiced. It was shocking to me, given all the hard work that I had done in the past to get us to be paid fairly. I worked really hard toward that and finally got somewhere with it.”

It goes to show that there is still so much work to be done in this area and we are so fortunate to have someone like Gillian leading the fight.

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3. Blanca’s stand (Orange is the New Black)

Orange is the New Black is known for tackling topical, hot button issues regarding race, LGBTQ concerns, addiction, mental disorders, etc. Misogyny and sexism are confronted in practically every episode, but Blanca’s stand was especially powerful. As a result of some prison politics, the guards are targeting the Dominicans to search for contraband. The male officers are taking advantage of the situation to grope and assault the inmates. Blanca has had enough and she finds that if she smells bad they give her a pass. She becomes “the Che Guevara of hallway frisking.” They get on her to bathe and she refuses as an act of civil disobedience. One guard — not really knowing how to handle it — makes her stand on a table in the cafeteria until she stops.

Blanca endures two days standing on the table. Chapman sneaks her a granola bar, gets caught, and is given the same treatment. They get a reprieve when the prison goes on lockdown, but the act of standing against the abuse doesn’t go unnoticed by the women. It mobilizes the inmates, and the idea of a peaceful protest starts to get around. Alas, the groups are too polarizing to get along long enough to organize. An incident in the cafeteria incites Blanca to stand again. She defiantly steps up to the table and the rest of the room joins her. They make it clear that it is a peaceful protest, but the officers use force and it ends with one of the saddest (and dare I say, unnecessary) character deaths on television this year.

This season of Orange is the New Black was very dark, but so is our reality. It’s just more visible now and society is more vocal about injustices. It’s difficult to stomach, but we can’t shy away or change the channel. When women are treated inhumanely — whether they are criminals or not — we need to stand up to the patriarchy, just like Blanca.


4. God save the Queen (The Crown)

The Crown is a rich tapestry chronicling a young woman’s struggle to maintain an identity under the heavy burden of other people’s expectations. While most women can’t relate to the difficulties of being the Queen of England, they can relate to that particular struggle. When her father King George VI dies, Elizabeth's grandmother sends her a letter telling her she will have to grieve for herself along with him. “And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else. Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she is now replaced by another person — Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will be frequently in conflict with one another. The fact is the crown must win.” A lot of women struggle with these different selves. Being under the scrutiny of her family, the Cabinet, the country, and the world makes it even more difficult. How devastating to suffer the loss of a parent and then face the inevitable loss of one’s self.

Elizabeth rises to the occasion with strength and grace even as she feels her own identity is dying inside. She makes her husband, Prince Philip, the head of her coronation preparations. He gives a fervent speech to the planning committee saying that the coronation needs to reflect the changes and advances of the world, “the wind of change that [a young woman] represents.” He pushes for it to be “modern and forward thinking.” But, he’s mostly speaking in regard to using technology to televise the event. There is nothing “forward thinking” in his view of man and wife when he tells the Prime Minister that he doesn’t intend to kneel before Elizabeth. He’s afraid of how a husband kneeling down to his wife will look. Philip asks why Elizabeth doesn’t kneel to honor the monarchy. “Because I’m already flattened by the weight of this thing,” she responds.

Rather than empathize with her on how challenging this transition is, he only sees how it affects himself. He petulantly argues, hoping she’ll acquiesce. Claire Foy superbly portrays the inner conflict during this exchange. He’s guilting her into bending to his will, but she stands firm. When he asks if she is his queen or his wife, she brilliantly answers, “I am both. And a strong man would be able to kneel to both.” YAS QUEEN! (Literally.)

Suffice it to say, the dude kneels.

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5. Awkward black girl (Insecure)

Women are underrepresented on screen as it is, and women of color even more so. There has been some progress made, but not nearly enough. Women do not experience sexism the same way and for feminism to be intersectional — as it should — we need to hear all voices. Issa Rae’s voice can be heard in the new HBO show, Insecure. Awkward as she is, her voice is strong. I find this especially appealing being aggressively awkward myself. In the first episode, she gets up at an open mic and raps. She may be insecure and have to give herself pep talks in the mirror, but she’s going to get her voice out there.

Insecure is breaking ground in many ways. Rae is the first black female lead to star in an HBO series. The production focuses on hiring a diverse behind-the-scenes crew, not just including people of color, but women. There are females in all of the above-the-line positions: producer, writer, director. There are women in the technical departments like camera, sound, and editorial. Today’s television landscape is grossly lacking representation of black female friendships and Insecure puts that at its core. Girlfriends and Living Single focused on black female girl squads, but those have been off the air for almost 10 and 20 years, respectively. There have been countless series that center on white groups of female friends on our TVs since. Being insecure and awkward is rough — it’s nice to have friends to get you through. And it’s nice to see it on the screen.

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6. Madam President (Veep)

Women make up half of the world's population, so why would Hollywood portray anything less? But Hollywood has been doing just that since the advent of motion pictures. Although advances are made, we are still so far from a suitable representation when it comes to depicting equality in the workplace. And even more disparaging is the under-representation of females holding positions of political power. This year, real life showed us how difficult it is for a woman to break that highest glass ceiling. Veep was doubly progressive than reality in season five with not one, but two women serving as POTUS. Selina Meyer assumed the presidency and then fought tooth and nail to keep the position, as well as any scrap of respect. A recount and then a Senate vote resulted in Laura Montez swearing in as Commander in Chief in the season finale. The fact that neither of them were elected by the people is another example of what needs to change, but the fact that they were sworn in at all was a step in the right direction.

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7. Mic drop (Grace and Frankie)

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin show us through Grace and Frankie that feminist fierceness does not diminish with age. These two women combat both sexism and ageism thrown at them by their own family. Throughout the final episode, they are both being “managed” by their families. They treat Frankie like she’s a little old lady who’s losing her mind and Grace is being looked past and dismissed. “I am being treated the way I was for forty years and I’m not going to settle for it anymore,” she says. Nor should she.

The reaction by their ex-husbands and children when they find out Grace and Frankie are going into business together for some more... adult items, is dismissive and disgusted. The pair, however, respond to the family's mocking skepticism with unabashed truthfulness. They don’t want to be looked at as asexual automatons with one foot in the grave. They want to be known for the passionate, full of life women that they are. And Grace tells them that they are sick and tired of being dismissed by them. Frankie mimics a mic drop and they bounce. The camera turns to slow-mo speed as they walk out on the party leaving their shocked family behind in the wake of their truth bomb. It was a thing of beauty.

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8. Rogue nun (The Exorcist)

As the demon in Casey Rance gets more powerful, Father Marcus starts to lose faith in himself and his abilities as an exorcist. He is guided in the direction of Sister Bernadette. She leads a group of nuns that perform exorcisms. Exorcism is a man’s game. Only specially appointed bishops and priests can perform the sacramental ritual, and it requires express permission from the diocese. These nuns are operating against the law of the church, but they feel they are doing the Lord’s work nonetheless. Marcus’ visit with Sister Bernadette gives him a fresh perspective. She invites him to participate in the exorcism of a possessed man. The nuns approach the ritual in a gentler way than is traditional. He is successful using their tactics and gains the confidence he needs to continue with Casey.

A female point of view can be of great value. In this story of two men fighting against evil, on the verge of giving up, it is a woman’s strength and compassion that motivates the plot. The scene of the exorcism with the group of nuns is powerful. All we know of exorcisms is male priests attempting to exorcise the demons. The Exorcist shows us a group of women facing evil head on with benevolent kindness.


9. Stellaaaaaaaa! (The Fall)

Let me think, a feminist moment on season three of The Fall? Hmm. How about every time Stella Gibson was on screen and every time she opened her mouth? All the moments. ALL. THE. MOMENTS. Seriously, this fictional character should be used in women’s studies classes to teach flawless executions of feminist rhetoric. Whether she’s reminding someone to not blame the victim or trying to help a young woman learn to find worth in herself, she is teaching the audience to fight misogyny and to support our fellow woman. I will gladly take feminist lessons from Stella Gibson and the woman that plays her any day.

Actually, next year, Gillian Anderson has a book that she co-authored with Jennifer Nadel coming out that is just that. We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere aims to mentor women of all ages to overcome feelings of low self-esteem and to find empowerment within. In a very dark and intense show about a serial killer, The Fall was able to instill this message with everything that is the brilliant Stella Gibson.


10. A cold and broken hallelujah (Saturday Night Live)

The days following the election filled me with hopelessness and despair. I cried a lot. It was like grieving the loss of a loved one, but it was worse than that. With death comes an understanding — you know what happened, because someone has died. How do you begin to comprehend the death of something like your faith in humanity? The majority (yeah, that’s right, I said majority) of the country was in mourning. The threats against women’s rights increased drastically. The biggest display of sexism was on the world’s stage for all to see. It was disheartening and tragic.

Saturday Night Live, like so many other late night shows, was a balm to my anxious soul leading up to election night. Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump made me laugh at the absurdity of it all. And when that absurdity turned into a horrific reality, McKinnon was there again to comfort and console. The cold open of the episode that aired four days after the election was McKinnon as Hillary donning a white pantsuit and playing the piano. She sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” This choice of song was perfect with its lyrics and emotional, soulful melody. With Cohen’s passing just a day before the election, the selection of it made it even more powerful. My steady flow of tears turned into a deluge.

Some of the words that are from Cohen’s original and alternate lyrics struck a deep chord particularly in relation to the exhibition of misogyny by the Trump campaign. “Baby, I’ve been here before. I know this room. I’ve walked this floor.” Women have been here before. We have fought these battles. We’ve seen rampant sexism try to hold us back. It is nothing new. “And even though it all went wrong. I’ll stand before the lord of song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.” Even though we get knocked down, we get back up and keep fighting. McKinnon ends with that exact sentiment: “I’m not giving up and neither should you.”

Knowing that McKinnon must've felt the same sorrow that so many were feeling she mustered the strength to give us hope. It was moving in much the same way Hillary’s concession speech was. This loss was painful and difficult, but “love is not a victory march. It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah.”


11. Eleven's existence (Stranger Things)

One of the year’s fiercest characters came in the package of a young girl named Eleven. Imprisoned and abused, she breaks free and befriends a group of boys and aids them in the search for their missing friend. Eleven learns the meaning of friendship from them and then asks it of them in return, holding them to the high standards they had taught her — “Friends don’t lie.” She escapes the oppression of her father figure and flees the only life she’s known. She finds out that she’s being used for something sinister and she fights to bring it down. It takes bravery, courage, and conviction.

Eleven is a complex being that doesn’t know much of human interaction, but she innately feels human compassion and expresses moral fortitude. Millie Bobby Brown is the breakout star of Stranger Things that plays this incredible character with amazing depth. She is a true superhero, but unlike what we are used to. And that is refreshing.

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Bonus: The reality show Alone

This is a show my husband and I watch with my son. I was so annoyed that the first season didn’t have any women competing in the survival competition. Thankfully, the second season had three female contestants. It’s important to me that my son sees that women can do anything a man can do. Women still weren’t equally represented with only three out of the ten, but it is an improvement. Nicole Apelian made it 57 days in the wilderness and came in fourth place. The winner was crowned just nine days later. She physically could have made it a lot longer, but she wanted to get home to see her kids. That outweighed the desire to win. In one episode, David (the man who went on to win), is having trouble catching fish. They intercut that with Nicole catching an abundance of fish. So much, in fact, that she released some back into the water. She had such an upbeat and positive attitude the whole time, while a few of the men in the same position experienced bouts of depression and despair. She was always smiling and thanking Mother Earth for its bounty. She was the opposite of the rugged mountain man you expect to see on a survival show, and that made her even more of an inspiration.

What were some of the best feminist moments on television for you in 2016? Sound off in the comments below!


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