Column: Female empowerment, what to watch on TV?


2020 seems to be the year in which female empowerment is put on the agenda and is here to stay. Suddenly news articles about the 100% female government of Finland appear. Infographics show that all countries with a female leader have better results in fighting Covid-19 than their male colleagues. So yes, women are gaining (significant) ground. Alas, that does not include our country. As TV is omnipresent in our society, does it play a role in this matter? Which impact does it have and which series or films have moved the feminist landscape?

When women and girls rise, their communities and their countries rise with them. – Michelle Obama

2019 was the first year in history in which we could see as many female leads on the big screen as male. And that is quite special to say the least. Let me explain why.

40% of the successful films of 2019 had a woman in the lead, according to the annual study by the University of San Diego. This study looks at the 100 films that perform best at the box office. In 43% of the films the lead role was given to a man. In the remaining 17% men and women were equally prominent. That 40% is the highest proportion of women that the study has ever measured. In 2002, the first year for which these figures were collected, only 16% female leads were counted. Furthermore, if the director or screenwriter is a woman, there are more female roles too. Given that there are more female directors and screenwriters now, than let’s say 10 years ago, this also partially explains the increase.

Clearly, over the years the gender landscape in the TV industry has shifted. Needless to say this is a big step towards gender equality.

According to child psychologist Karolien Raeymaekers, this has a positive effect on boys and girls during their childhood. They grow up with the idea that everyone, regardless of gender, can pursue their dreams and achieve great things. And, as a side effect, they are not by default put in gender stereotype roles.

There are a number of series and films that moved the feminist media landscape. Here you can find a limited overview:

1. Girlboss

This series is about the true story of real-life girlboss Sophia Amoruso who founded her own clothing empire Nasty Gal.  Besides a fashion empress, she became a best-selling author in 2015 as well. After her Nasty Gal label collapsed, Netflix blew new life into her story. In 2017 they launched the series “Girlboss”, named after her memoir. 

Since then Amoruso had put all her experience and knowledge into her new venture, also called Girlboss. It’s a multimedia company aimed at inspiring women to redefine success on their own terms. She hosts a podcast, holds conferences and creates online content. All with the hopes of inspiring women to take matters into their own hands. 

Of course, empresses face setbacks too, and Amoruso is no exception to that. In June she announced she is stepping down as CEO of Girlboss. She plans to prioritize “wellbeing over her ambition” and says she’s “inspired to give more than she receives”. But, surprisingly, she’s already launched “a little love letter/newsletter” that she hopes her followers will subscribe to. Empowerment obviously doesn’t stop when you reach your dream. It pushes you to reach even further and to start from scratch if need be.

2. Hidden figures

Hidden Figures is the story of three colored women who helped put mankind on the moon. The movie is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name. It’s about African American female mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race. The movie clearly depicts the daily struggle these women faced. They were frowned upon by their (male) colleagues. Why? Two reasons: they were female and black. The ultimate combination to be not taken seriously during that era. Black women with brains were as impossible as finding coconuts on the North Pole.

Unfortunately that was the common belief back then. However, despite the tight rope they had to walk on, these women did not give up. No matter your upbringing, your gender or the colour of your skin, do not give up on pursuing your dreams. This movie is a wonderful reminder of that.

3. Knock Down The House

Knock Down The House (Netflix, Knock Down The House, 2019) is a political documentary. It  follows four women, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela and Paula Jean Swearengin, as they campaign for the 2018 midterm elections. The main question of it is how to fight as a woman in a (political) world dominated by conservative men. 30-year-old Ocasio-Cortez managed to win the midterm elections, making her the youngest ever congress(wo)man.

The story of Ocasio-Cortez is astounding. She is the true embodiment of the American Dream. In 2018 she was still behind the bar in a taco place in New York. And she now has become the most influential Democrat in Washington. The number of her online supporters is enormous. To give you an idea: the Instagram counter has now reached more than five million followers. Under their watchful eye Ocasio-Cortez fights against big capital, global warming and social inequality. And though she might be young, she renders speeches as if she has been doing it for ages. It’s an understatement to say she is a fantastic speaker. Not only does she dare to openly hold others accountable, but also engages with her audience with an energetic and human flair.

Recently Ted Yoho, a republic congressman, called her a ‘fucking bitch’ on the stairs of the Capitol in Washington.  After the incident, Yoho addressed Congress in a speech which had to be an apology. In fact, it was the opposite: a move to lull his electorate. The speech about sexism that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave as a response immediately went viral. This woman could be what makes America Great Again.

4. Self Made

This year Netflix released a mini-series about the richest female self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker. (Netflix, Self Made, 2020) 

In the early 20th century, Walker managed to set up her own line for hair products. How futile that may seem now, it was actually not back then. It was a time when black people were struggling because of racism, discrimination, inequality and the aftermath of slavery. Her line quickly became popular among black women. It gave Walker a fortune that today would be worth about ten million euros. This impressive achievement made Madam C.J. Walker the first African-American millionaire and the richest female self-made millionaire in America. More than a hundred years after her death in 1919, the inspiring story of Madam C.J. Walker will finally receive the large-scale attention it deserves.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive and there are many more examples to be found. It is great to see that such a large industry does not turn a blind eye to this shift. Actual money is being spent on these inspiring stories, because they are worthy of being shared. Hopefully over time, we do not have to write articles about how impressive this is. Hopefully then we can write articles about how hallucinating it is that this hasn’t always been that obvious.Are there any gems on female empowerment you’d like to add to this list?

This article has been written by @The Female Shift

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