AMC's Mad Men has always been known for its thoughtful depiction of the struggles women faced in the workplace during the late '50s/early '60s. It has often been called one of the most feminist shows on TV, and after the most recent episode (Season 5, Episode 11: “The Other Woman”), the internet is abuzz once again. One of the show’s most beloved female characters, Joan, was induced by her male co-workers to have sex with a client to clinch a deal: her price for prostituting herself was a promotion. The episode forcefully raises the question: What do we — we the internet, that is — mean when we call a show feminist? What should we mean?
Singling out Mad Men makes the statement that "feminist TV" should explore, realistically, the oppression and discrimination that women have faced (and still face) at the workplace and in the bedroom. It's also important that Joan and Peggy — and to a lesser extent Megan and Betty, though they are more inconsistently drawn — are fully realized characters with their own strengths and flaws: no passive victims here. Unquestionably, it tackles feminist themes.
But I take issue with singling it out as “the most feminist show on TV” as some fans and critics have. Not because I have another choice in mind, but because no single show should wear that mantle. This rating game defines too narrowly what it means for TV to be feminist.
When it comes to exploring gendered power dynamics, Mad Men is arguably unparalleled at the moment. It also has very few rivals when it comes to deeply realistic and nuanced female characters, in large part because its writing is truly outstanding (hey, it’s won all those Emmys for a reason).
Still, Mad Men has its limits. Joan and Peggy are terrific characters, but Don Draper is still the protagonist. The show does not neglect female relationships altogether, but its women spend most of their time preoccupied with men as lovers, husbands, and bosses; female friendships are generally undervalued. The flip side of Mad Men’s bleak realism is that the female characters by definition can rarely have positions of real power. And, of course, the show's perspective on gender fails the diversity test: the point of view of non-white women is almost entirely missing.
A show that pops to mind as feminist, but in almost the exact opposite way, is Grey’s Anatomy. True, it's the very definition of a prime time soap opera. If you want realism, look elsewhere. Where Mad Men is subtle, Grey's features absurd medical cases and melodramatic emotional arcs. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes intentionally doesn’t focus on how race and gender affect her characters. Instead, she constructs a world where oppression normally just doesn’t factor in.
But unlike Mad Men, Grey's does have a front-and-center female protagonist. Oh, and a diverse cast that is about fifty percent women. Despite its reputation as a show that is All About Romance, it also highlights female relationships: Cristina (Sandra Oh) and Meredith's (Ellen Pompeo) friendship has consistently been the most complicated and beautiful relationships across all of the show's seasons. The world of Grey's is one where women can easily be as good, or better, than their professional male counterparts. Women on this show enjoy sex. They make autonomous choices about their bodies (in Season 8 Cristina had an abortion just because she did not want a child, and she was not demonized for it), their careers, and their lives.
Sure, Grey's has problems, whether you're evaluating it through a feminist lens or an artistic one. The point is, it provides a very different template for thinking about what it means to make feminist TV. And there are so many other shows I could point to. Half the reason I fell for another ABC soap, Revenge, during its freshman season is that it allows its female anti-hero protagonist to be as nasty and broken and brutally competent as so many male anti-heroes (hi there, Don Draper). And, of course, there's also the world of female-centered comedies. (Indeed, if I had to choose our single favorite feminist hero on TV these days, it would be Parks and Recreation's passionate, competent, hilarious Leslie Knope.)
In the end, I don't want to see people arguing about what the most feminist show on TV is. There is no single way to tell a feminist story. We need all of it. We need media that shows us how difficult things were and are, but we also need stories that model more egalitarian worlds. We need to show that the playing field is unequal, but we also need to say that little girls of all races can grow up to be super surgeons.