Was TV in the 90's more feminist than it is today?

I was somehow raised in a golden-era of feminist television
Photo by Paul Townsend

I think I may have passed my formative years in an oddly-feminist alternate reality of television.

Despite my parents' best efforts, I watched a lot of TV growing up. Once we got old enough to stay at home supervision-free, I pretty much spent my summer days jamming out with my Geocities Titanic/Kate Winslet fan site, Kraft Dinner, and lots and lots of television.

This is going to be a bit of a time-meld, because picking apart the memories of which shows I watched at which ages is going to be way too hard, but here is what my smooshed-together memory of "TV for Young Andrea" looks like:

Talk shows! Maury Povich, Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake, Oprah, and the Rosie O'Donnell Show!

Reruns! Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Golden Girls, That Girl, and Designing Women!

New shows! Family Matters, Fresh Prince, Murphy Brown, Moesha, Sister Sister, X Files, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Breaker High, Blossom, Seinfeld, and ER!

Yes, this line up is almost entirely devoid of intersectionality. Yes, the talk shows were largely trash. Yes, the teen-geared shows were silly. Yes, there were still lots of problematic tropes of women as victims or emotional wrecks or desperate for male attention. And YES! Out of 21 shows, FOURTEEN are either named after women or have a female pronoun in the title. Several of the remaining shows have gender-balanced lead casts.

I grew up awash in stories about women of all ages working hard, living life, and having fun. I didn't have to try to look for them, they were just there! Everywhere! Want a show about old(ish) women living together and supporting each other? You got it! Want a show about women living on their own and working cool jobs? There's more than one! Want shows about teenage girls trying to figure out who they are? Here are several! Don't worry about it, they're just on TV with everything else as if they are perfectly normal things to watch and not special programming to make women happy.

How did this bizarre intersection of women come into my television? I somehow got caught in the crosshairs of older shows, played on constant loop on the "older classics" TV station, alongside new shows about women ranging from Murphy Brown to Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

It didn't occur to me to select for shows that featured cool women who were more than props. They were just the shows that were on TV. It seems like they were the ONLY shows that were on TV!

No wonder I grew up to be a feminist killjoy.

"Haven't you seen three vibrant, healthy, sexually-active women before?"


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