There seems to be a misconception about what feminism is and how the addition of women makes a television show feminist in nature. This could not be further from the truth. The show might have strong women on it, but that doesn’t make it a celebration of feminism. First, we need to consider what feminism is. For those not in the know, feminism is defined (in the actual dictionary) as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” That does not mean that women are better off, put to a higher standing, or stronger than men. It simply means that we get a shot at being equal. With that in mind, making men look weak, criminally libelous, or insignificant doesn’t make women shine.
As a feminist, I admit I love seeing a bad-ass female character. I love Sarah, Cosima, Helena, and especially Allison on Orphan Black. I love Cat Grant on Supergirl. I love Wendy and Lara on Billions, Bea and Franky on Wentworth, Claire on Outlander, Jessica Jones on Jessica Jones, Lagertha on Vikings, and Carol on The Walking Dead. I especially love Carol because her outward and inward feminism has evolved over the course of the show. She, like many people, went from being someone that clearly was not a feminist, or even someone sure of themselves, to becoming a feminist bad-ass, which is how many of us evolved into our own feminist beliefs.
If a show has strong, interesting, addictive female characters that puts it ahead of the fold where many shows are concerned. It doesn’t make the show feminist though. Furthermore, if a show lifts up women while denigrating men, it certainly doesn’t make it feminist. It also weakens said show equally as much as all of those shows that lift men up by squashing women characters.
Take, for example, Orange is the New Black. Full disclosure, I have not and likely will not watch the latest season, so these are my observations based on the first three. On the surface, you’d think this might qualify as a shining example of feminism. Many of the women are strongly written and somewhat self-reliant. These women, if for no other reason than they are in prison, rely on one another and form bonds of sisterhood that we don’t often see on television. But, let’s consider the men for a moment. The main men on OitNB are Sam, Joe, and Pornstache. Yes, there have been other men on the show, but these three are (at least until the fourth season) the most notable men on the show. They are also the biggest caricatures of men on television. If I was a man and these men were used to advertise manhood, I’d be embarrassed. In fact, I’d be equally as embarrassed as I am as a female when poor female characters are brought to fruition with no regard for women.
All of these men work or have worked at the prison. Ultimately, it is their job to help the women at the prison become rehabilitated. Naturally, as with any job, some people, these three included, aren’t really there for that. Sam is a weak, racist, intolerant bully with a thin-skin, and no game. He bought his wife off a website and isn’t smart enough to realize that she probably wants more from life than a wimp that knows how to Google, “mail-order bride.” He tries to be helpful so that he can say he is helpful. He’s easily one of the most deplorable characters on TV. Joe also has his fair share of issues, usually somehow related to women or other people that make him feel weak as a result of his lack of emotional prowess. And then there is Pornstache. Without spoilers, I will say he is not only the biggest caricature of a douche bag male on television, I’ll also say he’s the biggest embarrassment as a character. His portrayal of the douch-y guard who thinks he’s a love master transcends gender because no one of any gender could possibly be this ridiculous. All the men on this show lack strength and that’s just not realistic to real life. If you had Sam and Pornstache, but Joe was a stand-up decent portrayal of the male species, then you’d have a situation where that made more sense. Not all people on shows need to be powerhouses. Not all of them need to be strong, or beautiful, or perfect. There does need to be variety though. When all of your men are disappointing it begins to look like it’s been done on purpose.
Feminism doesn’t mean you have to reduce the stature of a man to make me (or any other female) look better as a woman. I’m perfectly fine rising up on my own with no help from anyone else. Given the chance, most other women (and female characters) are, too.