From Sheep To Shondaland: Reclaiming the F-Word on TV

by / 1 Comment / 161 View / April 25, 2015

On Atlantic City’s Boardwalk on September 7th, 1968, the world watched as the second wave of feminism thrust itself into the public consciousness at the annual Miss America Pageant. Women’s liberationists picketed the televised event, and protested the “county fair” marketplace that the Pageant represented, where women were “appraised and judged like animals.”  A sheep was crowned in satirical ceremony. No bras were burned; an analogy that a New York Post writer had drawn between the protest and Vietnam War draftees burning their draft cards led to the creation of the catchy, yet largely erroneous, phrase. Some protesters made their way into the pageant itself, and the cry of “Women’s Liberation!” was eternalized on film thereafter. Newspapers across the country blazed headlines about the eruption of the Women’s Lib movement, and for the first time in a while, instead of being mocked, the American women had found a voice in the media. The stultifying, agonizingly sexist “event” that is the annual Miss America Pageant, by mere token of being televised, became a highly publicized stage for raising awareness about a now-famous civil rights movement.

Think of the KTVA newscaster and Alaska Cannabis Club owner who quit her job on-air, or Taylor Swift slamming her critics for their double standards (“No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says it about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life and no one raises a red flag there”) or most fondly, your favorite ShondaLand character that subverts entertainment norms of a female lead. The television has become more than the Dahlian “ridiculous machine” that “rots the senses in the head and kills imagination dead.” It has become a medium for raising awareness about a civil rights movement – perhaps the first, most vital step for any activist campaign. When Olivia Pope casually owns her feminism on primetime TV, or when The Good Wife gives us another episode where “fully realized female characters clamber for control and identity in the dense, slippery politics of home and office,” as New York Times reviewer Jan Hoffman puts it, audiences are constantly and subtly reminded of the changing face of the working American woman. It is a consciousness raising that seems passive, but may hold a certain sway as a prerequisite to political activism holds more sway over instigating social change than other, more statistical signs of success. On the other hand, feminism seems to have gotten its provocative F-wordedness from its tenure on TV and social media outlets, an aspect of the movement that is proving hard to disavow.

Phyllis Schlafly, the author of the “Power of the Positive Woman” which was published in 1977, argues that the consciousness raising that the feminist movement was imbued in (or as she calls it, being “compulsively involved in the drive to make abortion and child-care centers for all women”) was a failure, and implies that in the future, such attempts at raising awareness will ever effect social change. To a certain extent, we must agree; it is not every citizen of New York who enters a subway station and attempts to deconstruct a lingerie ad on the wall. With the visual, audio and textual stereotypes of women still hitting us through the TV and through magazines, we do not all tend to put “feminist glasses” on to achieve a deep, critical understanding of something, as if it were a historical document. Rather, we are still limited by the halt in spreading awareness.

All of the statistics, the evidence of progress and the niche that feminists have now occupied in the American mindset would not have been recorded without this first, most vital step toward raising awareness. In promoting understanding and awareness of women’s goals, people today are finally realizing that change must come, in whatever shape or form, to the social standing of the American woman. Joss Whedon is famous for creating “strong female characters” (e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and at every press junket, the most common question he receives is: “Why do you write these strong female characters?” He responds by saying, “Because you’re still asking me that question.” He goes on to say: “Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.” Despite his questionably simplistic understanding of equality and the feminist movement, the important thing is, television has finally begun to accomplish what a movement set out to do all those decades ago: create the awareness, spread it and effect some change in society. One of Hollywood’s media giants has given evidence of this new consciousness; hopefully, a new perspective on women has taken root in society, perhaps due to that typically American and televisual medium.




Bailey, Beth. “Women at Work.” Major Problems in American History since 1945: Documents and Essays. By Robert Griffith and Paula Baker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Echols, Alice. “Women’s Liberation and Sixties Radicalism.” Major Problems in American History since 1945: Documents and Essays. By Robert Griffith and Paula Baker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Friedan, Betty. “Chapter 1: The Problem That Has No Name.” The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2013. N. pag. Print.

Kehr, Dave. “FILM REVIEW: For Movie and Its Marketing, A Marriage of Convenience.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2004. Web.

Links, Lauren. “The Feminist Movement: Feminine Mystique.” Lecture.

Lynch, Gayle. Black Woman’s Manifesto. New York: Third World, 1971. Print.

“The National Organization for Women’s 1966 Statement of Purpose.” The National Organization for Women’s 1966 Statement of Purpose. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.

Redstockings Manifesto. Gainesville, FL: Archives Distribution Project, 1970. Print.

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