We’re about to close out another calendar year and, as much as we’d like to kid ourselves into thinking we fulfilled our 2018 New Year’s resolution to uphold our gym membership, let’s face it, we didn’t, we watched a LOT of TV.
Can you blame us? We’re still gloriously sailing through a golden age of television, and 2018 was one of the best yet. Crucially, it was also a banner year for brilliant, awful, flawed and fantastic women on screen. Which begs the question: just how feminist was 2018’s TV?
Let’s get the heavy-hitter out of the way first: Handmaid’s Tale season two. Cut this show open and it bleeds feminist, simmering with a righteous female fury that, finally, bubbled to the top this year as Offred found both her voice and her name.
It’s also a show that, accidentally, landed with alarming pertinence when it debuted last year. Would we have adored the show so much had it existed during a Hillary Clinton presidency? Or does part of its power lie in the terrifying mirror it holds up to the Trump administration? Political protests from Repeal the Eight in Ireland to the Women’s March on Washington saw women donning the handmaid’s iconic red robes to make a statement this year, and who can forget the split screen image that did the rounds on the internet during the Brett Kavanaugh hearing: asking you to spot the difference between a Gilead council meeting and the US Senate Judiciary Committee. Spoiler: there was none.
The Handmaid's Tale has been renewed for a third season
Closer to home, it was women doing everyday tasks that invoked a misogynist knee jerk reaction in BBC’S Bodyguard. Women working for the police, for bomb disposal squads, as the home secretary, even as suicide bombers- all prompted to explode with cries of incredulity. ‘Women? Running things? Bombing things? Disposing things?’ I’d love to give this show feminist credo for boldly showing women in a variety of governmental positions but its only about as feminist as actual real life, where these roles have been, and are, filled by women every day. Calm your shit, internet.
Where the BBC did break some boundaries was in surprising, yet rewarding ways. Toni Collette’s orgasm in the drama Wanderlust was initially announced as the first ever female orgasm on the BBC. Even though this claim was swiftly pointed out to be incorrect, the ease with which I believed it shows how rare the female orgasm has been on screen (How like life #burn) But Wanderlust, with its frank and often uncomfortably unflinching depiction of a middle aged relationship, did brim over with sex positivity – something rarely afforded women on TV. So feminism brownie points there.
People criticising BBC's Bodyguard for casting so many women in positions of power is a depressing reflection of our time
BBC’s other tentpole production was the powerful Black Earth Rising, grappling with the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide and starring the incomparable Michael Coel, proving her acting chops are as developed as her comedic timing. Was this the first black female lead the BBC has delivered? No, much like the female orgasm, it is not a first, but did it feel like one? Yes. Sadly, black women leading TV dramas are still a rarity outside of a Shonda Rhimes production. But milestones aside, Coel’s Kate Ashby was a powerhouse performance; presenting a complex, vulnerable, strong yet traumatised woman with nuance.
One first the BBC did deliver, however, was Dr Who. Jodie Whittaker currently plays the thirteenth Doctor and the first female incarnation of the role. Hurrah for progress, even if it is just in space.
Women were also proving their metal in other supernatural spheres this year thanks to Netflix’s most recent TV hit: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. A reboot that is decidedly scarier and decidedly more woke; correctly placing witches in their historic ‘down with the patriarchy’ mould. Badly behaved men are across the board in Sabrina; from the dastardly Father Blackwood to Harvey’s deadbeat dad and Sabrina’s ultimate choice– between the witch world and the human world- seems one between two societies dictated by awful men. That she chooses her own path at every turn (even if this ends somewhat bloodily) shows a female protagonist determined to define her own journey in life.
Jodie Whittaker is hailed 'amazing' by viewers as she makes her Doctor Who debut
Drama wasn’t the only propagator of feminism in 2018. It actually popped up in the most surprising of places: reality TV. Love Island served us unexpected feminist moments; from Laura Anderson’s stoicism and Dani Dyer’s fervent protecting of her female pals, to Megan Barton Hanson’s sex positivity and brave and blatant refusal to hide her past.
The latest season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians was also suddenly feminist (albeit briefly) with its compelling debate over work and motherhood. Kourtney’s falling out with her sisters over workload and priorities dissected some salient points about the value of the stay at home mum in our society. As Charlotte York once said in Sex and the City: “I choose my choice!”
But perhaps the best thing that 2018 TV did for feminism was dish out some truly flawed - and often downright terrible- women. Take Killing Eve, adapted by avowedly feminist scribe Phoebe Waller Bridge (even her droid in Solo was woke) who elicited empathy with an amoral serial killer, and gave erotic undertones to a dowdy MI5 worker with frizzy hair. Or Vanity Fair and Netflix’ final season of House of Cards, each showing Machiavellian cunning in its female protagonists; from Becky Sharp’s ruthless social climbing, to Claire Underwood’s brutal ascension to first female US president- you know, like if Hillary had murdered Bill. Then there was HBO’s Sharp Objects, which played with the small-town-murderer-kills-teen-girls trope and made the teen girls the murderers and the mothers the maniacs. Dark and twisted, sure, but how refreshing to see women in multi-faceted roles – not passive victims but with passionate – if murderous- agency.
Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer on how she put the sass into assassin
So, were we to run 2018 TV through the Bechdel Test, it would come out relatively well. Fewer women on TV this year were crying over men or getting murdered, raped or overshadowed. On the whole, they were too busy running countries, mothering dragons, disposing bombs, toppling patriarchies, spinning through time and yes, having orgasms.