Sisterhood Is More Prominent Than Ever In Today’s TV
Besides a driving female force at the heart of each narrative, what do shows like HBO’s Big Little Lies and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black have in common? They’re among a growing spate of post-network television series that employ a “rhetoric of sisterhood” to advance the idea of intersectional feminism and ally-ship, according to School of Professional Studies Professor Elizabeth Alsop.
Alsop’s new article, published in the journal Feminist Media Studies, investigates the contemporary spectrum of feminist television, analyzing how certain shows have drawn upon “sororal discourse.”
On either side of that spectrum sit Grey’s Anatomy, which rarely addresses “gender-based threats to women,” and The Handmaid’s Tale, which treats suffering as a spectacle. But Big Little Lies and Orange is the New Black, as well as Netflix’s GLOW, TBS’ Claws, AMC’s Dietland, and the Sundance Channel’s Top of the Lake, not only “deliberately showcase women’s suffering under patriarchy,” but “allow the women to triumph over it” as a result of “female solidarity.”
In fact, how these shows portray solidarity make each a compelling addition to the history of “recent small-screen evocations of sisterhood.” Compared to earlier friendship-centered shows, such as The Golden Girls and Sex and the City, the examples Alsop highlights regularly emphasize political narratives. “By contrast, this newer wave of sororal series is organized … on stories and situations in which women show up for each other regardless of whether they like each other, and often, despite the fact that they don’t,” Alsop writes.
That ally-ship typically arises through collectives formed around intersectional feminism, which each show depicts to varying degrees. Take Claws, for example. Set in a Florida beauty salon, its cast of characters feature the “maternal, African-American Desna; her white-trash best friend Jenn; red-headed con artist Polly; Hispanic lesbian bouncer, Quiet Ann; and the mixed-race millennial Virginia.” Given that array, the show has teasingly described itself as a “multi-ethnic Steel Magnolias.”
Although critics have disparaged that type of intersectionality — in which each character checks an ethnic or racial box — for feeling contrived or fantastical, Alsop argues it’s aspirational. “In the face of white heteropatriarchy … such differences are ancillary, readily subsumed by an intersectional feminist impulse,” she writes.
In promoting powerful female collectives, these shows also provide an important contrast to the “dysfunctional male-ness” around which prestige TV series like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and True Detective have operated. As Alsop explains, they offer “feel-good moments for female viewers whom ‘Quality TV’ has so regularly invited to feel bad.”