What do We Need from Our Feminist Media?
Since the premiere of this season of The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of feminist TV and feminist media generally. To be fair, I don’t really ever stop thinking about the concept of feminist media, but as there has been a clear influx over the past few years, the conversations surrounding it are becoming more and more pointed.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a clear example of what is widely considered feminist media, but it’s not the only example. Its tone and sense of hopelessness have led me to think a lot about what is useful to feminists about feminist media. Many people think of The Handmaid’s Tale as a story that can open the eyes of those who don’t themselves suffer at the hands of heteropatriarchy to our plight. But as feminists whose eyes are already opened, what do we need from our media?
Let’s take, for example, Big Little Lies. By all counts—from its production to its subject matter—it ought to be an exemplar of feminist TV. But for me, it falls flat. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies does confront the kind of oppressive realities many women face, if to a less extreme extent. However, it doesn’t really devote screen time to solutions. Instead, we get scene after scene of women feeling trapped within the same patriarchal social structures that are already so ubiquitous in our own lives.
For some, the representation offered in Big Little Lies is crucial. Survivors of deeply oppressive systems need to know they’re not alone—another theme the show shares with The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s undeniably heartening to imagine that women with the faces of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are also surviving creepy, controlling, abusive husbands and lovers. I am not here to claim that we’re altogether past the point of needing these stories to give our truths a cultural presence.But I also need more. I’m in my early twenties. I’m currently in the process of building my adult life. I need stories about women—women I can identify with—whose lives are about more than barely surviving the confines of patriarchy. We, all of us, need something more than stories that are only feminist enough to capitalize on our desire to be socially conscious, stories that aren’t just feminist in that they depict and satirize the real horrors feminism works to dismantle. We don’t need to be alerted to this reality—we live it. Merely consuming #feminist content can no longer suffice as our feminist action. We must demand our media give us the tools we need to do better: stories that provide blueprints for enacting our feminist values throughout our lives and relationships.
Of the so-called feminist TV shows that have come into the mainstream recently, Harlots (which is, like The Handmaid’s Tale, a Hulu original and has a second season slotted to premiere on July 11!) is one that does deliver in this respect. It’s not perfect; it’s white and Eurocentric in ways we definitely cannot dismiss. However, it’s also the story of a community of women who construct a feminist microcosm within and separate from the distinctly unfeminist society surrounding them. It’s a world where women take care of each other in consistent and nontransactional ways. Where sex work is legitimized. Where rapists are publicly condemned by survivors before being killed by sisters and mothers. Where women actually hold each other accountable to the very values we’re supposed to be perpetuating in our own world. It’s not a reflection of real life—it’s better. It’s a conceptualization of what could be. And the more we normalize what could be—first in our stories, then in our lives—the more what could be becomes what is.