Features Muse

New Year, New Feminism

Malu Rocha and Stella Newing discuss recent feminist milestones in contemporary television series

Image: BBC

The discussion of feminism on screen has been an ongoing topic of conversation among the stars of the cinema and television industry and audiences alike. 2018 has taught us that it is not a simple matter of the number of women we see on-screen, as much as it is about the roles they play. Giving audiences women who are truly flawed, multi-faceted and three-dimensional is refreshing and has paid off. To widen this discussion, Nouse has interviewed Kristyn Gorton, a Lecturer and Professor in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television here at the University. Her area of research began with thinking about feminism and television, and her first published work on television was a feminist analysis of the television series, Ally McBeal. Kristyn wrote about her appearance on the 1998 front cover of Time (alongside Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem) with the caption: ‘Is Feminism Dead?’. 20 years later, the question still stands.

One of the greatest breakthroughs towards a fairer representation of women on screen in not-so-recent years has been the creation of the Bechdel Test. The test was established and named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel in the 1980s. A film passes the test if it features at least two women talking about something other than men. Seems easy right? How hard could it be to squeeze in a two- or three-minute scene of women talking to each other in a ninety or even one hundred and twenty minute feature? You would be surprised by the number of blockbusters and critically acclaimed films that fall short, by miles. For such a simple test, it does create a lot of dialogue.

Kristyn explains that even though the test doesn’t directly assess the quality of a piece, it monitors how women are portrayed in film and how gender is represented. She believes that on a deeper level, “the test reflects the fact that there is still a lack of strong, female characters who are empowered by things other than their relationships with men.”  The test helped put the spotlight on Hollywood’s blind spots around representation, becoming one of the primary milestones for a fairer portrayal of gender equality on screen. The test was never set out to measure feminism on a the micro scale, and it is not an explicit way to evaluate a film as feminist, instead it was created as more of a cultural barometer, which in many ways says more about our society than we care to admit.

The original Bechdel Test has served as a fundamental basis for the creation of more elaborate tests that build on its basic premise. Lena Waite, writer of the Emmy award winning episode “Thanksgiving” on Master of None declared that a film passes the test for her if it contains a black woman in a position of power and in a healthy relationship. Following that strand, Naomi Ko, actress in Dear White People states that she deems a film’s representation of gender good if it features a non-white female-identifying person that speaks in at least five scenes. These tests were initially created to assess films in the big screen, but the same concept can undoubtedly be applied to television programmes.

There is still a long way to go, but 2018 has been a great year for television. If we judge some of the most successful series of the past year against the original Bechdel Test, the result would be surprisingly positive. First and foremost, the release of Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale influenced political protests across the globe. From Repeal the Eight in Ireland to the Women’s March in Washington, women were seen wearing the iconic red robes as a statement of power. Other shows, such as BBC’s Bodyguard also made their mark, featuring women in a broad range of compelling roles, all the way from Home Secretary to suicide bombers. The BBC has scored high marks once again with one of its latest releases, Clique.

BBC3 drama Clique is part of the expanding genre of TV to take on the theme of feminism with fresh and nuanced eyes. It’s no mean feat in this day and age- the term is becoming ever broader, ever more loaded and subject to scrutiny, but Skins writer Jess Brittain certainly does not shy away from breaking taboos and opening up more delicate and controversial conversations.


Series 2 was back with a bang this autumn, complete with even more uncomfortable questions about feminism. Rape culture, toxic masculinity, the snowflake generation, far right politics all feature within the six-part series, still available on BBC iPlayer, and this time the eponymous clique is a group of males, not females. Holly’s house mate and member of feminist society, Rayna, accuses fellow student and potential love interest for Holly, Jack, of sexual assault. What follows is the battle to find out the truth, between Holly, members of the increasingly vocal feminist society, the press, and Jack’s group of friends, all of whom are journalists for the website Twitcher.

It was a bold move, to address the topic of false rape allegations. Situating Rayna as a potential liar could have been a disastrous plot choice. Jack’s mother, a feminist MP, declares to the press: “Women don’t lie about this sort of thing”. And yet, Clique managed to simultaneously present the catastrophic repercussions of false allegations and the horror of life as a rape survivor. The depiction of the anger of the white middle class young male was a particular stroke of genius, piquing in the scene that sees a group of men take to the streets of Edinburgh in a protest march, only to be stopped in their tracks by a tearful Rayna.

Clique has proven that, if done well, the topic of feminism can and should be tackled in bolder, more interesting ways. For all its glamour and seduction, the series is gritty and unflinching in its presentation of life as young woman. It is raw and honest, from the intoxicating nature of female friendships that can cause more pain than any breakup, to the confusing, fraught expectations of what it means to be a feminist today, to the way that you engage in sexual relations whilst still considering yourself a champion of female rights.

Shows such as Orange is the New Black, Killing Eve, Grace and Frankie, GLOW, Fleabag are among others to show strong female characters and, more importantly, to show life as a woman a little more realistically. What Clique has introduced is the notion that, in doing so, it is also possible to engage with the more uncomfortable questions around feminism, and to address how masculinity fits into the whole thing. Long may it continue.

By now, we are all (hopefully) well aware of the issue around female representation and consequently of the steps that are being taken to broaden its audience reach and awareness. As Aaron Sorkin once wrote, “the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.” Mission accomplished. But what is the second step? And the third? It’s great seeing a broader and more realistic depiction of gender equality on screen, but what about what the camera doesn’t capture, what about the countless writers, showrunners, directors, and producers that constantly get out-shadowed and out-numbered by their male counterparts? Kristyn brings our attention to Kim Akass and Lyndsay Duthie who so rightly argue: “Changing the portrayal of women in film means getting more women behind the lens”. How do we deal with that issue in practical terms? Kristyn suggests that we need more women playing roles in ‘above the line’ positions, such as directors and producers. Kristyn thinks that the key to closing the gender gap in film and television industries is ensuring that more women are in decision-making positions.

As it so happens, awards season has begun, which is a great starting point to start a conversation about this. It wasn’t until the 82nd Academy awards in 2009 that a female director, Kathryn Bigelow won the ‘Best Director’ award for her film, The Hurt Locker. Yes, it took 82 years for a woman to be recognized as Best Director. Eighty-two years. However, since then, some major names in Hollywood have helped with the cause. Steps have been taken such as the #AskHerMore representation campaign where reporters are encouraged to ask female celebrities more elaborate questions than just about what they’re wearing. As author of Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards, Bronwyn Cosgrave said, this is (once again) not the year to talk about fashion.

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