From transracial identities to shape-shifting lesbian space rocks, we watched some good TV in 2016

Issa Rae, Insecure
Issa Rae, Insecure

Disclaimer: We are not labeling these shows feminist, per se — rather, they are simply shows we enjoyed and thought were quality, as women and as feminists. We do our best to justify our picks, but please feel free and encouraged to disagree or add your own picks in the comments! Aaaand away we go:

Insecure

Issa Rae’s HBO comedy is like none other. While Issa’s (her character goes by the same name) relationship with her boyfriend is definitely part of the story line, but her focus on her relationship with her friend Molly takes priority, which is refreshing. We often don’t explore the complications and challenges of friendships on TV, and female characters are too-often represented as obsessed only with their relationships with men. But friendships are often just as challenging and heartbreaking.

Issa’s work functions as a way to critique white people’s ignorance and everyday racism. Rae pointedly mocks white do-gooders via her job at a non-profit called We Got Y’all, which exists to support black youth (though Issa is the only black person on staff). Her co-workers are embarrassingly clueless about black culture and expect her to answer all their “black” questions, like, “What’s on fleek?” The last episode killed me a little (I’ll try not to spoiler you too much here…), as Issa’s boyfriend turned out to be little more than an entitled male stereotype after all (he seemed so sweet!), but I’m hoping Rae spins that storyline into something interesting and critical next season. (Bonus: The soundtrack is killer.)

– Meghan

One Mississippi

Tig Notaro turns trauma into comedy gold in her heart-wrenching, semi-autobiographical One Mississippi. Notaro became instantly legendary after her 2012 standup routine, addressing recent tragedies in her life: breast cancer, intestinal disease, the death of her mother in a freak accident, and being dumped. We find our main character (also named Tig) dealing with the aftermath of these tragedies, leaving L.A. to return to her hometown in Mississippi, where she must come to terms with her familial past and present.

Notaro is inspiring as an open lesbian and regular-looking woman on TV, dealing with issues in her life. One Mississippi is refreshingly woman-centric and achieves a great balance in dealing with weighty issues such as family sexual abuse in a way that is neither gratuitously funny nor gratuitously dramatic.

Although the writing doesn’t quite live up to Notaro’s very particular genius, it is a fantastic series that I recommend to everyone. In the final episode, Notaro pays homage to her lesbian roots, attending a concert by legendary women’s music icon Ferron. In a quietly moving ending, Notaro unapologetically relays a message that says: This is where I come from. These are my people, and my life was made possible by the women who came before me.

– Susan

one mississippi tig notaro

Atlanta

Atlanta is, in my opinion, the best series of the year. Donald Glover plays Earn, who leaves his crappy job at the airport to manage his cousin Alfred’s (a.k.a. Paper Boi) rap career. Despite the fact that he is completely broke, separated (sort of) from the mother of his child (Van, played by Zazie Beetz), Earn is a totally dedicated, loving dad to his young daughter (and clearly doesn’t believe he deserves accolades for sharing the load). Atlanta offers original and poignant commentary on race in America as well as, surprisingly, the ridiculousness and irrelevancy of queer theory as far as the real world and people’s real lives go.

The best episode of the season, titled “B.A.N.,” shows Paper Boi as a guest on a fictional talk show called Montague, which airs on the also fictional Black American Network. Paper Boi is under fire after having tweeted that he didn’t “want to fuck” Caitlyn Jenner and is expected to explain his comments alongside guest number two, Dr. Deborah Holt of the Center for Trans-American Issues. Holt is clearly intended to satirize a prototypical elitist, out-of-touch gender studies professor, enmeshed in jargon that is wholly meaningless to marginalized people and their real, day-to-day lives. The host, Franklin Montague, introduces the discussion as one about “accepted sexualities,” and clearly expects Paper Boi to engage in superficial apologies for his comments (as if he has to want to have sex with transwomen in order to avoid being labelled “transphobic”). Paper Boi refuses to play, saying, “I just don’t have to have sex with Caitlyn Jenner because you say so.”

Nonetheless, Montague accuses Paper Boi of “not [liking] trans people” and Dr. Holt jumps in, saying, “I look at these statements as natural consequences of a culture of exclusion and power.” Paper Boi laughs out loud at this statement, shaking his head. Like, as if he has any more power in this world than Caitlyn Jenner. Holt proceeds to overanalyze Paper Boi’s lyrics, perfecting the show’s mockery of the Ivory Tower. As she tries to force “a layer of fluidity” onto his lyrics, Paper Boi repeatedly denies her attempts to theorize his own words into something they are not. “I’m just trying to get paid,” he says.

The irony of this well-off white academic trying to pretend as though disempowered black men, trying to get by in America, need oppression explained to them, is made hilarious and acute in episode seven. After Holt appears perturbed that Paper Boi calls Jenner “he,” Montague asks him whether he is “afraid to speak [his] mind on this subject, to which he responds, “Actually… Yep… You can’t say real shit anymore without somebody making sure you never make money forever.”

“It’s hard for me to care about this when nobody cares about me as a black, human man,” he adds. “Caitlyn Jenner is just doing what rich white men have been doing since the dawn of time, which is: whatever the hell he want.”

Material reality be damned — gender studies academics have declared the identities of the privileged few more real than anything else, including slavery, colonization, poverty, and patriarchy.

The discussion is interrupted by “special report” titled “TRANS-RACIAL” that follows a black teenager named Antoine Smalls who identifies as Harrison Booth, a 35-year-old white man from Colorado. Harrison claims a “transracial identity” and is shown playing golf and walking through farmer’s markets. When asked how he knew he was really a white man on the inside, Smalls responds that he “always felt different” and that he would “go to the store and movies” and would think to himself, “Why am I not getting the respect I deserve?” Skewering trans identity perfectly, the host interviews Smalls’ mother, asking her “Do you believe that he is a white man?” She responds, incredulous, “I mean, he isn’t… Shit, I’d love to wake up one day and say, ‘Hey everybody! I’m Rihanna!’ But I ain’t.” Smalls explains that his family “just doesn’t get it” because “they grew up having labels and I’m just not like that.” Montague asks, “How do you embrace your identity,” to which Smalls replies, “I dress a certain way — I wear Patagonia and a thick brown leather belt.” The segment was very clearly pointed, though I’m not sure all of Atlanta’s “woke” fans are ready to admit that the show was explicitly mocking gender identity politics.

While every episode is genius, “B.A.N.” was particularly perfect. Watch the whole thing — Glover has really done something great here. (The soundtrack on this one is excellent, too.)

– Meghan

 

Veep

Julia-Louis Dreyfus is the funniest woman on television, in my opinion, making Veep a must-see, every season. This time around, we see Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus) get so close to her dream of being the first elected female president in America it’s painful (sound familiar?), eventually losing the race after a torturous tie. Teased with a taste of power during the 12 months she spent in the Oval Office (unelected), the loss feels particularly humiliating.

After Selina swallows her pride and accepts an offer to be Tom James’ Vice President, should he win the presidency (which would put her back in the same powerless position she’d already suffered through for years), she is betrayed and loses the thing she didn’t even really want but would have allowed her to cling to something. The finale shows Selina out of the White House, entirely dejected, leaving the audience wondering where the hell the show will go in the sixth season.

For a character who might otherwise be a portrayed as a powerful female role model, Selina is original in that she isn’t in any way inspiring… Mean, selfish, two-faced, single-minded, and a bad mother to boot, Selina refuses to be a likable female character, which makes us love her all the more.

Consistently unemotional, Selina finally breaks down while giving her mother’s eulogy as a pivotal recount is going on…  But not for the reasons she is supposed to: “I’ve lost so much,” she sobs. “It’s not fair.” Selina isn’t mourning her mother here, but the one thing she’s worked for her whole life: the presidency. Imagine! A show about a driven, ambitious woman who doesn’t put anyone else first, yet her audience still roots for her. Surely this must be a first? (Perhaps a second, considering the sociopathy of Louis-Dreyfus’ first great character, Elaine.) While Louis-Dreyfus is the star of the show, the entire cast is hilarious. Catch season seven in 2017!

– Meghan

Fleabag

Fleabag follows a young woman living in London. She’s gorgeous, mobile, and unattached; but her misadventures are far from glamorous… This series offers a blunt depiction of what it’s like to be just kinda winging it while constantly on the brink of a breakdown. Fleabag’s (whose nickname is never explained) life is a mess, making the show a very dark comedy — but funny nonetheless. This sleek six-episode series is perfect for binge-watching (especially when hungover). And although it, at many times, blurs the line between being critical of the horrors of female life and normalizing said horrors, it’s still undeniably entertaining and complex in its depiction of “messy” women just trying to keep their heads above water while dealing with things like objectification and mental health issues, all the while struggling to cope with relationships with friends, family, and lovers.

Susan

Fleabag
Fleabag

Search Party

The worst thing about Search Party is all the annoying, self-obsessed millennials… Luckily, that turns out to be the whole point. The entire show is aimed at mocking young, privileged 20-something hipsters who believe that everything they think, feel, and do should be applauded and validated. When bad things happen — for example, when a female classmate disappears — it is just another opportunity to showboat. Empathy only matters if you can tweet about it; the trauma and hardship of others is a means to gain attention, upvotes, to develop one’s “brand,” or to profit. The idea that one would take action to help another without posting about it on social media is unfathomable.

Dory (Alia Shawkat), the lead character, seems to be the only one trying to take real action to find her old college acquaintance. Meanwhile, her friend Elliott (John Early) barely even reacts at the news, but instantly posts about it on Twitter, faking concern in a way many of us are likely familiar with. Dory’s boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), refuses to even go downstairs to check on a woman who sounds like she is in an abusive relationship. It all sounds rather dark, but is a hilariously pointed look at our culture of narcissism and what appears to be a growing mass sociopathy.

– Meghan

 

O.J.: Made in America

This five-part documentary miniseries directed by Ezra Edelman about O.J. Simpson’s rise to fame and 1994 murder trial delves into everything from race relations and police violence in America, to O.J. Simpson’s history of violence against women, to the danger of celebrity worship. The politics and the results of the trial were heavily influenced by all these factors, as Simpson was on trial for killing a white woman; was a very wealthy, widely-adored celebrity; and because his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, spun the allegations as racially-motivated.

The documentary suffers from a lack of female voices (Hunter Harris at Refinery29 found that of “more than 60 interviews, only eight of [the] speakers are women”), but Edelman clearly did an incredible amount of research for the project and really highlights the ongoing abusive behaviour and violence O.J. inflicted on Nicole. The case against Simpson is made glaringly clear: He was one of those men whose red flags were as bright as could be, but that authorities and those around O.J. refused to take seriously until it was too late. Nonetheless, Simpson’s violence is not treated as systemic — unlike racial violence, male violence against women remains an individual tragedy in O.J.: Made in America. In the end, the documentary is a critique of American culture — maddening in every possible way, including in its failure to see patriarchy as the destructive force it is.

– Meghan

Broad City

Like many, I can’t get enough of BFFs Abbi and Ilana in their exaggerated but oh-so-accurate version of New York City. Maybe it’s because my own life is a steamy hot mess of go-nowhere, but I love comedy about women who have ridiculously pathetic lives that are full of adventure nonetheless — Broad City has perfected this.

In the third season, Ilana’s character is further developed as the rug gets pulled out from under her through multiple upheavals in her life. Full disclosure: I’m the Ilana portion of my BFF duo. And while we easy-going, always-resourceful types can handle a lot of setbacks, it was nice to see even the colourful cartoon version of this personality falter from her usual unflappability, making her grow as a person.

Overall, the season brought more of what we love, staying true to its central focus on the friendship and fun between our two protagonists.

– Susan

broad city

Westworld

When I first began watching this season, I thought, “Oh great — another Game of Thrones.” That is to say, it looked like yet another show glorifying sexualization, objectification, and male violence. As the show progressed, it quickly became clear that Westworld was more complex than that. Male and female “hosts” (robots, essentially) seem equally vulnerable and objectified, the result being a critique of objectification rather than a celebration of one. We are shown that when human figures are objectified (even when the “humans” are robots), abuse becomes acceptable and harmless. The oppressed, raped, prostituted female hosts who I imagined would simply serve as jack-off material for male viewers rise up and fight back against the men who use and abuse them, turning the story into one of rebellion rather than subordination.

– Meghan

dolores

Steven Universe

A matriarchal alien civilization seeks to colonize Earth in order to strip-mine it into oblivion, but a small group of militant, lesbian, shape-shifting space rocks rebel against them and thwart their plans. The series begins when the first alien-human hybrid, a boy named Steven Universe, joins the fight to defend the planet from hyper-industrialization. (Yes, this is the actual plot of this adorable animated series).

I was reluctant to start watching Steven Universe after first seeing its goofy young male protagonist, but am so glad I gave it a chance. This colourful, fresh series crackles with originality, featuring an almost entirely female cast, depicting stories about female friendship, love, and resistance. The songs are amazing, to boot!

– Susan

steven universe

 

Honourable mentions: Lady Dynamite, Last Chance U, Unreal, Stranger Things, The Fall, Girls, Black Mirror, Transparent.

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