Different Forms of Feminism in English Language T.V. Series: Legacy and Resistance in Different Types of Methodology of Discourse Analysis of Female Identity
Over the past few decades we have seen a sharp rise in the number of central female characters in TV series, offering a wide palette of complex female identities, characters following very diverse narrative journeys. Whether we have in mind the genius and tortured nature of the heroine of Homeland (Showtime, 2011 - 2020) and Killing Eve (BBC One, 2018 -). Or the whole gallery of characters in Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013 - 2019) or the different seasons of This is England (Channel 4, 2006 – 2015),the importance of central female figures is well established and even conveyed and measured by monitoring centres of the audio-visual sector. And yet, can it be said that to put female characters on screen is enough to make a real contribution to feminism? The TV Studies critic, Amanda Lotz, appears to disagree with this argument. She denounces the disparity between academic feminist analyses and interpretations put forward by the media who tend to file the contents under ‘feminist’ and ‘non-feminist’ in a rather simplistic manner. Many series introduce us to characters of great intellectual ability, with political potential, psychic or supernatural gifts without questioning patriarchal stereotypes and thereby contributing to the oppression of feminine identity on-screen. On the other hand, there are those which show us oppressed female characters (June in The Handmaid’s Tale) or even anti-heroines opposed to the feminist movement (Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America, FX, 2020) in such a way as to denounce many sexist stereotypes.
A number of series can be directly linked in their narrative to western feminist movements via the evocation of certain themes, references or dialogues or by the very architecture of the narration or aesthetic structure creating an intertextual legacy. This is the case of the recent mini-series FX Mrs. America. Others never openly mention their affiliation to these movements, which are, incidentally, notoriously difficult to define given their complexity. Between the position of traditional media and social media, academic discourse and that of militant groups-those who defend and those who oppose the feminist cause- the notion of feminism is multifaceted. To define feminism, notably as seen in works of popular culture such as in TV series, becomes an almost impossible task given the heterogeneity of the representations. We can therefore wonder which analytical methods are the most appropriate to decrypt the way series deal with feminist discourse and think about which analytical tools can be used in order to understand to what extent these series give us or do not give us a form of subversion of certain stereotypes where gender representation is concerned.
The evolution over time of different feminist movements must also be taken into account when analysing the reach of feminism in these series. Of course, the struggles of women have changed. The demands of Emmeline Pankhurst or Gloria Steinem were not those of women born in the 1970’s and women of the #MeToo movement and the fourth wave are different again. Equally, within the different generations of feminism, the methods and theories can be seen as conflicting: differentialist feminists (Germaine Greer), activists, both men and women, of Black Feminism (Barbara Smith, Akasha Gloria Hull, bell hooks), and not forgetting liberal feminists and material feminists. How can the complexity of these different movements be taken into account when analysing TV series? Is it possible to define and to sort these TV shows according to one specific feminist movement? Do these series slot easily into one particular political discourse, thereby underlining the feminist reach without undermining the subversive dimension, both complex and emancipating when limiting them to one aspect? And, finally, can it not be said, at times, that the TV series themselves can influence movements, make a significant contribution to their evolution and complexity?
Many feminist theorists of the cinema such as Laura Mulvey, Teresa de Lauretis, Kaja Silverman, Mary-Ann Doane, or Linda Williams, amongst others, have already pinpointed analytical methods used in order to understand to what extent the screen became the reflection of the oppression of female identity. These studies have made it possible to shed light on the way that visual arts, e.g. the cinema, were both at the origin of visions of gender and also a mere reflexion of what existed. Can this approach be adapted to the study of TV series?
These different lines of enquiry are the perfect illustration of the problems encountered when using one unique approach to series that differ so in content and context. They beg the following question: Does a feminist praxis exist where TV series are concerned? Is there a divergence between the feminist interpretation of some series and the original aims of the creators and producers? Should a TV series focus on the specific nature of feminine characters when compared to their parallel male characters through aesthetic means in order to highlight their differences? Or should they, on the contrary seek to erase the differences according to a post-modern outlook? In the same way, can the medium of the TV series open up opportunities of intersectional perspectives linked to class (currents of marxist, socialist and materialist feminists), to race (black feminism, post-colonial feminism). And how can this be done while avoiding a return to an essentialist or communitarian approach?
Finally, it is also important to note that, over and above the issues of production and reception, a TV series remains a cultural product designed for a specific audience. The construction of a female target audience is particularly interesting since it has its roots in a specific strategy of the different networks. What is more, it seems to be of primary importance to question the commodification of feminist ideas and discourse at the heart of these series and the underlying financial aspect. The legacy of different feminist currents thereby runs side by side with the idea of resistance and makes it possible to show certain aspects of feminism on screen while obliterating others.
This study can encompass series from all English speaking media with no limit as to format or time period. Contributions can also deal with the following topics directly linked to the subject:
- The evolution of series reflecting that of feminist victories
- The link between feminism and series : activism and manipulation
- The different means of representing various feminine experiences
- Adapting feminist discourse for the screen: commercial policies and strategies for winning over audiences through the use of feminist ideas
- Discussion of feminist theses in TV series
- Feminist remakes of series (The Chilling adventures of Sabrina, Netflix, 2018-2020, Charmed, The CW, 2018-)
- Time and rhythm: feminism confronted to the seriality of the narration and characterisation
- Form and representation of female characters: what policies?
- Techniques used in series: different shots, editing, diegetic sound and space that fragment the sensory realm
- Gender identities and film genres.
- Viewer engagement, intermedial contents of feminist scope (blogs, fan fiction, forums)
- Reception and production contexts and their influence on female identities
The conference will take place on Friday October 21st on the Schuman campus, Aix en Provence, France. The final date for submitting contributions is Friday May 8th. All contributions, in English or French (300-350 words) should be sent to Laura Benoit (email@example.com), Sophie Chadelle (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Cristelle Maury (email@example.com).
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