Television has never been what one might call a hotbed of feminism, although shows like Mad Men, The Good Wife, and even Supergirl have all had their big moments of female agency. It's not surprising that the election of a man who admitted to groping women without consent that spurred the record-breaking women's march this January would also inspire a rise in stories about strong, independent women, but many of the shows that became satisfying feminist fare in 2017 were already in the works. So it may have been a mere coincidence or perhaps it was eerie prescience that brought shows like The Handmaid's Tale, Big Little Lies, and The Bold Type to television at this particular moment in the nation's history. Still, there's no denying that from Netflix to Amazon to Freeform to the Oprah Winfrey Network these 10 shows helped make 2017 the year of feminist television.
Big Little Lies
Based on Liane Moriarty's novel of the same name and borne out of professional respect and a personal friendship, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman collaborated to bring Big Little Lies to the small screen and then cast their best female friends. A thoughtful study of privileged suburban antics, parenting, and female friendship that at its outset had the makings of a familiar, worn story of women shredding each other, Big Little Lies turns that tired trope on its head. Rather, the series offers a deeply satisfying denouement in which the women of Monterey including Witherspoon's Madeline, Kidman's Celeste, Shailene Woodley's Jane, Zoe Kravitz's Bonnie, and Laura Dern's Renata put aside any infighting and backstabbing that came before to band together against a common enemy. Not only was the show (directed by Wild's Jean-Marc Vallee) critically-acclaimed, its plot turns made for next-day water cooler conversation the likes of which are rare in the era of streaming.
Big Little Lies aired following Donald Trump's election in which 53% of white women pulled the lever for him and a full six months before #MeToo movement, making it both reflective of the culture and prophetic, and it was exactly the right show for 2017.
The Handmaid's Tale
From the moment Hulu's 10-episode series based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel dropped last spring, comparisons between the totalitarian government of the series and the Trump administration abounded, especially in terms of women's rights and protections.
In the short few months between his taking office and The Handmaid's Tale's premiere on Hulu, Trump had halted funding to international organizations that provide or advise on abortions, sought to gut funding for Planned Parenthood, and rolled back workplace protections aimed at shielding women from unequal pay and sexual harassment. Naturally, correlations between the novel, which imagines a totalitarian government in which women are valued based on the viability of their reproductive organs, and the political climate of any given era since it was written have been drawn for 32 years now. But the series, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, the narrator whose journey as a quietly resistant handmaid the story follows in a current alternate United States of America, intersected with and diverged from Atwood's original work in ways that frighteningly reflected life under Trump, and audiences and critics ate it up. The series earned four Emmy awards including one for best drama and one for Moss.
There was a bit of a dust-up following a press conference for the series in May in which Moss and costar Madeline Brewer eschewed calling the show a "feminist" series, but Atwood said it was indeed feminist and that one of the show's stars, Samira Wiley, who plays Offred's lesbian best friend Moira, would clear it up. And she did just that in an interview with The Advocate.
"This is no doubt a feminist work. It is a word that I don't want to be afraid of, and I think, point blank, there's no hiding it." Wiley said. "This is one of the most overtly feminist fictions in print. I'm proud that it is, and I'm proud to be part of it."
The somewhat misleading "welcome to no man's land" tagline promised so much more from Netflix's western Godless, about La Belle, N.M., a town populated primarily by women after most of the men were felled in a mining disaster. The series, which took the worn genre in a new direction, doesn't quite go far enough in focusing on women considering the inordinate amount of time it spends depicting the terror Jeff Daniels's sinister outlaw Frank Griffin imposes on the citizens of Godless's old west that culminates with a showdown in La Belle. Still, Michelle Dockery's rifle-toting widow Alice, whose weathered horse ranch stands on the outskirts of the town, and Merrit Wever's trousers-clad, unapologetic and queer Mary Agnes are female characters with grit and agency rarely ever depicted in a genre that has always lauded raw, unchallenged masculinity.
The Bold Type
"I'm a feminist, I'm political, and so is this magazine," Kat Edison, Scarlet magazine's social media director, says to Adena El-Amin, the lesbian Muslim photographer she courts for a feature spread in the Cosmopolitan-esque publication in the pilot for Freeform's breakout series The Bold Type. The two discuss politics and cultural mores as they peer through a window into the conference room where several of Scarlet's female employees pore over the latest vibrator samples that have been sent to the office for coverage. Kat explains that Scarlet editor-in-chief Jacqueline (Melora Hardin), a whip-smart fashionista boss with a heart of gold based on Cosmo's Joanna Coles subscribes to the theory of what she calls "stealth feminism," but The Bold Type is not the least bit stealthy. It wears its feminism and its intersectionality -- Kat is a biracial woman who is about to explore her sexuality with Adena, a lesbian Muslim from Iran -- on its statement-making sleeve, and it does it with humor, heart, and a political edge.
The series from Sarah Watson costars Faking It's Katie Stevens as Jane, Meghann Fahy as Sutton, and Aisha Dee as Kat, three best friends navigating the ups and downs of their first big job out of college while also falling in and out of love, discovering sexuality (in the case of Kat), changing the rules of the game for women in the workplace, and taking stands on political and social issues. The Bold Type is so of the current climate that it included a #MeToo episode months before it became an international movement.
She's Gotta Have It
Thirty-plus years after Spike Lee's debut feature wowed independent film audiences and critics, he retooled She's Gotta Have Itas 10-episode series on Netflix. The story features the fierce, intelligent, enigmatic Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a Brooklyn artist who refuses to be defined by her gender or by the men and women she dates. Refreshing in its depiction of bisexuality and polyamory, the series follows Nola as she juggles dating three men and one woman with all of their various demands and jealousies. But despite her busy, occasionally complicated love life, Nola is above all true to herself and to her group of female friends.
If there were any question if She's Gotta Have It would tackle thorny issues, the pilot begins with a startling montage of the people who've catcalled and harassed Nola just for being a woman walking down the street in the city and ends with its lead character, following a particularly scary encounter with a harasser, launching a poster campaign to put sexual harassers and abusers on blast.
Wildly entertaining and full of heart, Netflix's Glow, based on the real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling who powerslammed into infamy, stars Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin as best friends turned rivals who, at the end of the day, band together to make a home for the disparate women who've donned lycra to make a living for themselves while entertaining the masses. The series from Liz Flahive (Homeland) and Carly Mensch (Nurse Jackie) eschews the pitfalls of female mean girl rivalries to depict a group of colleagues and friends who ultimately have each other's backs when they're not in the ring piledriving each other.
Just a few years ago when male-led fare like Mad Men and Breaking Bad heralded the renaissance of TV it would have been impossible to conceive of a world in which two of feminist literary doyen Margaret Atwood's novels would captivate small-screen audiences, but that's exactly what happened this year when Netflix's Alias Grace premiered this fall on the heels of The Handmaid's Tale success.
Atwood's 1996 novel Alias Grace, culled from the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, tells the story of Grace Marks, who was imprisoned for life for the murders. Or rather, Grace (Sarah Gadon in the series), tells the story of her conviction to a fictional psychologist. An unreliable narrator, Grace, bound by bars and a system that works against impoverished people (especially women) like her, relates a story to the doctor that she believes he wants to hear. She pieces together a tale for the doctor while busying herself with the trappings of domesticity of the time like needlepoint and quilt work. The estimable Sarah Polley wrote all of the episodes while Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho) directed.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The creator of the Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino, delivers the most delightful romp of a TV series of the year with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Beyond the lush period costumes, set design, soundtrack, and crackerjack dialogue is a heartfelt story of a woman navigating her place in the world while brushing up against the strictures set up for an Upper West Side Jewish divorcing mother of two who has dreams of her own beyond motherhood and marriage circa the late '50s.
Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards, Manhattan) is a revelation as the titular character Midge Maisel, a good girl who gets a taste for stand-up comedy at a club in the Village while on a bender after her husband has announced he's leaving her for his secretary. There she catches the eye of the club's manager, the no-nonsense Suzie (Alex Borstein) who dresses and curses like a longshoreman and who insists on managing Midge's comedy career. Over time and many fights, the two develop a loving, abiding friendship. And although it wasn't overt in the first season, it's highly likely that Suzie, who telegraphs queerness, is also a bit in love with Midge.
Outstanding in their roles, Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle play Midge's neurotic parents with whom she lives after the split from her husband. The series is singular in its gentle investigation of a mid-century woman discovering how to satisfy her own needs amid the pressures of motherhood and marriage.
It is a shame that Queen Sugar's second season came and went with nary a blip on the awards circuit. Arguably one of the best written and directed series on television today, Ava DuVernay's sweeping but also intimate drama is based on Natalie Baszile's novel about the Bordelon siblings Nova (Rutina Wesley), Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) navigating their personal and professional lives after they're thrust into running their father's Louisiana sugar cane after his sudden death.
If DuVernay at the helm of the series that Oprah Winfrey produces and that features strong women like Nova, Charley (who seeks to become the first black moment to own a mill in Louisana), and their Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford) isn't enough of a sell as feminist television every episode of the show's two seasons is directed by a woman at the top of her game including DuVernay (Selma), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman), Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned), and the legendary Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).
I Love Dick
Likely the most purposeful "feminist" TV of 2017, Transparent creator Jill Soloway brought I Love Dick, based on Chris Kraus's bold 1997 confessional novel of the same name, to Amazon in all of its uncomfortable longing, raw sexuality, and experimental sequences.
The beloved Kathryn Hahn (Transparent) plays Chris, a frustrated filmmaker who crashes her husband's Sylvere's (Griffin Dunne) research fellowship at an artists' colony in Marfa, Texas. There she meets and becomes obsessed with Dick (Kevin Bacon), the community's de facto genius and leader.
The novel was heralded for its depiction of unfettered female desire, which Soloway carries over to the series and Hahn pushes to its edges. The series is directed by some of the greats of the past few years like Andrea Arnold, Kimberly Peirce, and Soloway and boasts nods and homages to feminist filmmaker icons including Sally Potter, Chantal Akerman, Jane Campion, Carolee Schneemann, and Marina Abramovic.