There are lots of shows lauded as feminist. “Girls” was viewed, and is still viewed by a determined sector of third wave feminists, as the pinnacle of young feminism despite the fact that Leah Dunham never really goes beyond body issues and shitty relationships. “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “30 Rock” are touted as feminist, mainly due to their focus on women as the main characters and their female creators, as is “The Mindy Project” – which by the way is one of my favorite shows and is freakin hilarious. “Orange is the New Black” has also received its fair amount of feminist recognition.
But all of these shows fall short of being truly feminist. None of them, despite being highly entertaining, actually break the surface of the structural oppression and violence interwoven into women’s daily lives. And perhaps that is the problem: all of these shows are highly entertaining, and I have watched (most of) these shows with the express purpose of being entertained. I should throw in “Broad City,” too – which includes a hilarious cameo by Janeane Garofalo as an official at a dog wedding in New York.
If you want a truly feminist show, a show that explores patriarchy at its core, you will not be entertained. You will instead be completely emotionally drained and overwhelmed, and “American Crime,” aired on ABC, is one of the most intensely emotional and overwhelming shows I have ever watched. And it is one of the best.
There are three seasons of “American Crime”, each focusing on a new plot line with new characters while featuring a core of the same actors. The first two seasons are of course excellent but aren’t explicitly focused on women’s issues – thus I wouldn’t necessarily categorize them as feminist. The third season, however, is unabashedly and unashamedly feminist.
I am only going to give an overview as I encourage people to watch “American Crime” (it is on Netflix) and I don’t want spoil the show. Season 3 is focused, at first, on migrant labor, highlighting this labor from the viewpoint of males. But that focus shifts as the plot thickens and the issue of the sexual abuse of migrant women emerges.
Then there is a completely separate plot about a teen prostitute – and in no way does this plot line glorify prostitution or portray it is as legitimate work. “American Crime” exposes prostitution for what it is – a sexually exploitative industry praying on lonely, vulnerable, and abused women and girls.
But “American Crime” doesn’t stop there. Enter Gabrielle, a Haitian nanny flown from Haiti to North Carolina to take care of a rich white woman’s child – a story which perfectly highlights the history of exploitation of women of color by white women, a topic which continues to be taboo in some circles of feminism. Recall the anger of white women when black women pointed out the lack of women of color in planning the women’s march, and how easily feminism can overlook the unique issues of women of color.
Regina King and Felicity Huffman’s characters are also used to highlight how patriarchy affects women at all levels of society. King is a single woman struggling to conceive, and Huffman is a rich white woman trying to leave a marriage in which she is a wealthy dependent. Although these women obviously don’t have it as bad as the migrants, prostitutes, and the nanny, “American Crime” still manages to elicit sympathy for these women, highlighting that education and money alone can’t alleviate the trappings of sexism.
“American Crime” wouldn’t be the powerful show it is without the incredible performances of its entire cast, particularly the depth that Regina King, Felicity Huffman, Ana Mulvoy-Ten and Mickaëlle X. Bizet bring to their characters. The overall quality of the acting, directing and writing of “American Crime” is incredible considering it is network television. Generally you see this quality and intensity of show on HBO – on par with The Wire, Deadwood, etc.
Unfortunately, the very intensity of the show is its downfall – the third season is its last season. I believe that people just couldn’t take it anymore – although the season does end on some happy notes, the overall bleakness of the third season was almost too intense even for me. Which makes the show all the more important and relevant – particularly for feminism.
“American Crime” somehow manages to tackle an entire semester’s worth of women’s studies curriculum in just eight episodes. And in only eight episodes, “American Crime” manages to be more authentically feminist than all the aforementioned shows combined. It is powerful, gut-wrenching, and a must-see for anyone interested in truly feminist social commentary.
Just be prepared for an emotional sucker punch.