Television always has been a medium that actively seeks out a female audience, and in fact has crafted programming specifically for and about women. Now, that being said, you couldn’t really call the old radio and TV game show Queen for a Day (1945-1964) feminist material. But having watched a fair amount of soap operas in my time, that type of daytime programming—while admittedly often pretty awful—did deal with a lot of issues that women faced in their daily lives. Okay, amnesia maybe wasn’t one of those problems, but certainly abortion, sexual harassment, marriage, and family relationships certainly were, and are. In fact, a significant amount of feminist scholarship has been devoted to the study of soap operas from the 1960s and 70s.
In the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, the soap opera went primetime: Dallas (1978-1991), Dynasty (1981-1989), Falcon Crest (1981-1990), Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000), and Melrose Place (1992-1999). All of these had significantly higher production, but were stuffed with the usual melodramatic scenarios and preposterous goings-on. Added bonus: lots of guilty pleasure fun in watching them.
In the late 1990s, however, a new kind of show emerged that was genuinely about women and women’s lives. All of them had deeply feminist sensibilities in their own way. Now I am not saying these are all great shows, but they did take television’s portrayal of women in new directions. In all of these shows, the lead characters were women, they had women friends, they talked to each other about their lives and problems, and the women characters were independent (even if married), strong, and making their own ways in the world.
Sex and the City (1998-2004)
This landmark show was created by Darren Star, a veteran writer of Aaron Spelling’s nighttime soaps Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210. The series retains much of that Spelling heritage, but was something quite different. This series was revolutionary because it was centered almost exclusively on women characters -- specifically four women friends and their relationship and career ups and downs. But it was also revolutionary in that these women actually talked to each other. Not to men, but to each other! And about their own lives! Gasp! Yes, the show was a bit too glitzy and unrealistic and was mostly a fantasy about the fabulous lives, parties, and dating that these four women go through. But I watched a couple episodes recently, and, you know what? It’s lots of fun. Plus, the shoes…I mean, come on, even I can appreciate the shoes.
Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)
If you’re a mother or a daughter, and you have not watched this series… WHAT?! This absolutely magnificently clever show about a single mother (Lauren Graham) and her preternaturally verbal daughter (Alexis Bledel) belongs on your shelf. Permanently. I have always argued that the mother-daughter relationship is the most complicated ecosystem on the planet. As the father of six daughters, I can tell you that most days I was completely confused about what was going on between them and their mother. There would be arguments, then consoling each other, then more criticisms, and then crying. And the whole thing was a cipher to me. This is a brilliant series, remarkably clever in its dialogue and definitely worth rewatching seven or eight times. Created by my incredibly smart former “Roseanne” colleague, Amy Sherman-Palladino, this is a rental you really need to rewatch if you are a mother, a daughter…or the husband/father who always seems to have walked into the middle of either the next Civil War or a love fest of unprecedented proportions. In fact, the show’s enduring popularity prompted Netflix to order a follow up series called Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, which consisted of four 90-minute episodes that tracked Lorelai, Rory, and the rest of the crew in the years that followed the end of the series.
Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003)
Despite the fact that this show was created by a man (Kevin Williamson) and ostensibly had a male lead (James Van der Beek as Dawson Leery), this was a woman’s show. The cast included two brilliant actresses-- Katie Holmes and Michelle Williams-- and many of the story lines centered around their lives. The series was talky, introspective, and focused on relationships, hallmarks of television intended for a female audience. Centering on the lives of four teenagers living in a small town in Massachusetts, this coming-of-age tale was noted for the talking. The seemingly endless talking. About everything. While not as witty as Gilmore Girls, it more than made up for that in earnestness and melodrama. And it has held up pretty well too. Worth a rental.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2007-2011)
One of my favorite TV series of all time. This series is lively and fun and scary, and follows the adventures of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as she attends Sunnydale High, has boy problems, and battles vampires with her superpowers. Fun, fun, fun. Gellar is perfect as the sassy Buffy, who always seems to calmly deal with the forces of evil erupting around her in quiet, dull Sunnydale, CA. Created by Joss Whedon, and based on the somewhat campy horror film of the same name that he had written several years earlier (Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Movie (1992)), it’s spooky, amusing, and all about girl power. Just relax, enjoy yourself, and rewatch this series.
Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005)
Yes, I am recommending this series. Yes, I know it’s a goofy animated series about a bunch of girls who fight evil at the behest of the cowardly (male) mayor of their town. Yes, it’s a pretty stupid concept. That’s the idea. Seemingly meant for a pre-teen audience, I came into the living room once and my nearly-grown daughters were watching it and I made some wisenheimer Dad remark about why they were wasting their time watching this stupid show. “Because it’s funny, David,” one of them told me, with a snarl. (My kids all call me David). So I sat down and watched along. And you know what? It is funny. And smart. And well-written. And maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental all the time. The heroes are all girls, and they’re witty, fast, and get the job done. I’m a fan. Created by Courtney Kemp Agboh, who went on to create the series Power.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.