Is Netflix the Future of Feminist Entertainment?

woman and young girl in living room with flat screen television

JENJI KOHAN, creator of Weeds, will return to the home of Orange Is the New Black — also one of her projects — as the executive producer of the Netflix Original Series GLOW. The new comedy follows an unemployed actress who takes a job on a weekly wrestling show for her chance to be a star. GLOW is the promising newest addition in a long line of feminist content from Netflix.

That’s not to say the streaming service hasn’t had its flops. In 2015, it released The Ridiculous 6: a spoof from Adam Sandler that was riddled with production issues, including the quite newsworthy scene made by Native American actors who left the set over the film’s portrayal of indigenous peoples. Other Netflix Original Series, such as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Marco Polo, have incredibly problematic ways of dealing with race.

In a way, Netflix is an equal-opportunity platform provider, the Reddit of streaming services, where feminists and “it’s a joke” comedians alike can find a home for their programming. That’s the nature of capitalism, but a nuanced analysis of the television streaming market is a topic for another day.

I will say, however, that abandoning Netflix for its flaws would be a disservice to the fantastic, original, feminist content the streaming service has provided over the last several years. Here’s a look at three of its best original series.

Orange Is the New Black

Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, Kohan’s series about women in prison is arguably Netflix’s most famous. Renewed through Season 7 — which is projected to air in the summer of 2019 — Orange Is the New Black has been somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, on par with Game of Thrones or Making a Murderer. If you haven’t seen it, no one knows what you’re doing with your life.

Orange Is the New Black features one of the most diverse casts on television today. I’m not just talking about race, either, although the series does a fantastic job of representing women of different ethnicities. But it also showcases the diversity of women’s bodies, sexualities, and experiences. Groups of black and Hispanic women, though faceless at the start of Season 1, emerge as individuals with their own drives, flaws, and aspirations. There are no stereotypes here.

Although I have criticized the lack of sex workers on Orange Is the New Black, and continue to do so, that shouldn’t detract from its importance at a time when diversity is hard to come by.

Grace and Frankie

Since The Golden Girls went off the air in 1992, we’ve struggled to find a series that so perfectly explores the experiences — and sex lives — of women 50 and olderCougar Town came close. Grace and Frankie knocked it out of the park.

The series centers on a titular odd couple: the wives of law partners who leave the two women for each other. Stylish Grace and laid-back Frankie take up residence in a shared beach house, where they come to terms with their ex-husbands exiting the closet, and navigate the rebuilding of their social lives.

Grace and Frankie routinely showcases how its subjects’ lives are complicated by the intersection of age and gender. The series’ progressive portrayal of older women’s sexuality comes to a head in the Season 2 finale when — spoiler alert — the title characters announce their intention to manufacture a line of sexual health aids aimed at women their age: “We’re making things for people like us. Because we are sick and tired of being dismissed by people like you.”

Marvel’s Jessica Jones

A series about an abuse survivor who has PTSD and kicks loads of ass? Yes, please!

The eponymous heroine of Marvel’s Jessica Jones is about as messy as you can get. She uses people, has a drinking problem, might need anger management, doesn’t want help for her mental health issues — in short, she’s not exactly the superhero you want your daughter to idolize. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t the hero we all need.

Although Jessica Jones falls into the narrative pit that uses sexual assault to make women’s lives interesting, it flips the script by having the slimier details of Jessica’s past happen off-screen, before the series begins. Rather than being trotted out for shock value, much of the abuse she has suffered is left to viewers’ imaginations.

That’s not the end of the Marvel series’ flaws, but the way it presents Jessica’s story, with a focus on bringing invisible abuse into the light, is of utmost importance in a world where we still don’t believe rape victims.

Moreover, the tactics used by her nemesis Kilgrave and the public to discredit the female victims in Jessica Jones bring cyberbullying into the real world, prompting Arthur Chu to dub the series “our first identifiably post-Gamergate thriller,” complete with all the anxieties of a targeted woman living in a world of oblivious male dominance and privilege.