What makes a TV show or film feminist? It’s a question that’s long been debated by audiences, entertainment critics, and industry creatives alike. Some believe a project has to, at the bare minimum, pass the Bechdel-Wallace test and feature two female characters together who talk about something besides men. Others have added to that qualification, pointing to Tumblr’s Mako Mori Test, Manohla Dargis’ DuVernay Test, and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test, among others. And still more say it depends on the cast and creators: is it truly a feminist project if the characters are all cis, white, and straight, or if the writers and directors are all men?
“No one agrees what a ‘feminist film’ looks like,” Tasha Robinson, Kaitlyn Tiffany, Adi Robertson, and Elizabeth Lopatto write for The Verge. “Cultural critics regularly use the term to mean everything from it ‘has a functional female character in it somewhere’ to it ‘remakes a male-centric story but adds women’ to it ‘revolves around women’s rights or equality as a fundamental theme.’”
As not everyone’s definition is the same, so too is there unlikely to be just one feminist series on Netflix that pleases everyone. Luckily, between the Netflix original content and its expanding catalogue of animation and foreign language shows, there's no shortage of stories featuring women to dive into. Whether you liking seeing women challenge the patriarchy, kick butt, or simply do whatever the hell they want, there’s sure to be something on this list that delivers the feminist storytelling you crave.
Pose is critically acclaimed for a reason. Set in 1980s New York City, the Emmy-nominated FX series follows Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), who decides to start the House of Evangelista and build her own LGBTQ+ community after being kicked out of her previous house for being HIV-positive. The series follows a number of trans and queer characters and celebrates the ballroom scene while exploring the rampant transphobia, sexism, and racism of the time.
2. Cable Girls
Netflix’s first Spanish language original, Cable Girls is a drama that follows a group of women who join the workforce as telephone operators. It takes place between 1928 and the beginning of Francisco Franco’s 40-year dictatorship in 1939, during which women’s rights and freedoms were repressed. Across the show’s five seasons, the women band together in the face of domestic violence, political corruption, and opposition to the women’s suffrage movement. There are also plenty of romances, and in 2018, the series won a GLAAD award for its portrayal of the love story between Carlota and Oscar (a trans man who embraces his identity in later seasons).
Not only does this ultra-popular period drama feature a diverse cast and stunning gowns and hairstyles, it tackles feminist themes. The Shondaland-produced series shows how differently society works for women who are lower income and don’t fit into typical beauty standards. While it’s faced criticism for a scene in which Daphne Bridgerton ignores sexual consent, Bridgerton Season 2 will follow a whole new female lead: Kate Sharma, played by Sex Education’s Simone Ashley.
4. Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung
Written by female screenwriter Kim Ho-soo, this Korean drama follows Hae-ryung and three other women as they become the first female court historians during the Joseon dynasty — a time when many women were illiterate and expected to be subservient to men. Hae-ryung confronts sexism at the palace while matching wits with Prince Yi Rim, a sweet young man who secretly moonlights as a romance novelist.
5. The Hockey Girls
Created by four film students from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, this 2019 Catalan-language series centers around a girls hockey team who bands together to stay afloat after their male coach leaves and the team’s owner threatens to shut them down. “We’re sick of having women’s sports relegated to the background!” the girls yell during a protest. “We only want to play!”
Netflix’s first series to be primarily in Yiddish, Unorthodox is inspired by Deborah Feldman's 2012 autobiography about running away from her strict Hasidic community to live a secular life in Berlin. Created by two women, the show movingly explores how constrained Esty feels by the expectation that she ignore her musical aspirations and dedicate her life to being a good wife and mother. It received eight Emmy nominations in 2020, with Maria Schrader winning for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series.
Aggretsuko is an animated series that follows a cute Sanrio red panda who loves death metal, so you might be surprised to learn it’s about sexism in the workplace. Every day, Retsuko is expected to bring her boss tea — because it’s a “woman’s job” — and work overtime while her male colleagues party. In response, Retsuko rents out private karaoke rooms in the evenings and becomes Aggretsuko — a portmanteau for “Aggressive Retsuko” — to literally scream out her frustrations. She later brings in her female colleagues, and their adventures are set to continue in a fourth season.
8. Anne With An E
The world of Avonlea gets an update in this adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables. Sharper and more serious than the book, the Canadian show tackles a variety of issues each season, from psychological trauma to homophobia and racism. Anne Shirley is still as outspokenly feminist as ever, and the show adds in new characters like Cole, a classmate exploring his queer identity, and Bash, a Black farmer who becomes part of Gilbert’s family. While it was unfortunately canceled after Season 3 — leaving a major plotline hanging about an Indigenous family — it still stands as a refreshingly modern take on its source material.
9. Call The Midwife
Few shows discuss the intricacies of women's health issues, especially through the lens of poverty. Heidi Thomas’ BBC drama Call the Midwife is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a British nurse who worked alongside an Anglican community of nuns to aid low income people in the east end of London. It follows a group of 1950s nurses who assist patients with issues like teen pregnancy, abortion, birth control, and venereal diseases. It’s a wildly popular show: now in its tenth season, Call the Midwife has already been renewed through Season 13.
10. Self Made
Octavia Spencer shines in this true story about Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C.J. Walker, the woman who pioneered the modern hair care and cosmetics industry for Black women in the early 1900s. While the limited series does take several liberties with Walker’s story, it’s inspired by a biography written by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter. Ultimately, Self Made is about how Walker constantly pushed back against racism and sexism to establish her company, whose products you can still buy today.
11. The Queen’s Gambit
At its surface, The Queen’s Gambit is a riveting story about a chess prodigy. But at its heart, it’s about a young woman coming into her own, realizing her agency in a male-dominated sport, and even developing lasting friendships with the very guys she beats along the way. Hailed as Netflix’s most-viewed scripted show of 2020, the limited series won two Golden Globes.
12. Tuca & Bertie
Netflix canceled Lisa Hanawalt’s animated series Tuca & Bertie after just one season, but you can watch Season 2 on Cartoon Network. The show follows colorful bird friends Tuca and Bertie as they contend with a variety of issues facing young women today, from sexism in the workplace to sexual harassment.
13. Mr. Sunshine
Kim Eun-sook is a prolific South Korean screenwriter known for her work on popular dramas like Descendants of the Sun and Guardian: The Lonely and Great God. Her historical drama, Mr. Sunshine, takes place in the early 1900s, when Koreans were pushing back against both American and Japanese colonizing forces. It’s a bloody and heartbreaking male-dominated show, but it’s worth checking out for the leading woman character Go Ae-sin. Though told to just be “elegant and proper” and find a husband, she winds up becoming a skilled sniper and leading the Righteous Army.
14. Dear White People
An adaptation of Justin Simien’s movie of the same name, Dear White People explores what the Ivy League college experience is like for outspoken radio host Samantha White (Logan Browning) and several other Black students on a predominantly white campus. Set to release its fourth and final season in 2021, the show grapples with issues like colorism, misogynoir, and cultural appropriation. While Gillian White at The Atlantic writes that Dear White People’s “archetypes of Black students at prestigious, white institutions [are] limited and somewhat flawed,” the show’s varying storylines do illustrate the complexities of navigating a white, elite institution as a Black person.
Based on a heartbreaking true story, Unbelievable follows both Marie, a young woman who is ostracized after no one believes she was raped, and detectives Grace and Karen, who set out to find the man who hurt Marie. While the limited series’ exploration of trauma and police negligence can be upsetting, it’s satisfying to see the female detectives, played Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, finally bring the man to justice.
A sci-fi show from The Matrix directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8 introduces the concept of “sensates”: eight strangers who are mentally and emotionally connected to one another. Though suddenly canceled after Season 2 — with the story finishing in a two-and-a-half-hour 2018 special after fan outcry — the series is still one of Netflix’s most innovative projects to date. It delves into questions of race, gender, polyamory, trans identity, and nationality all while delivering a really intriguing premise and kinetic action sequences.
17. Girls from Ipanema
This period drama is set in 1960s Brazil and follows Malu, who opens a bossa nova nightclub after her husband abandons her for his mistress. The show takes place before the Citizens Constitution of 1988, which declared that women were legally equal to men. As a result, Malu has to fight hard to become a businesswoman in her own right, as she can’t even get a liquor license or take out a bank loan on her own. The show also explores privilege and colorism by introducing the Afro-Brazilian Adela, who works alongside Malu to open the club.
Though sadly canceled after one season, this show from Misfits creator Howard Overman is a clever and feminist riff on the paranormal hunters genre. Overman got the idea for the series — which follows two friends who can see and defeat demons — after witnessing a woman being catcalled. It delves into issues of mental health, and unlike the monster-hunting female characters you see in movies, the woman at its center are young, awkward, and relatable.
19. Orange Is The New Black
As one of Netflix’s flagship shows, you’ve likely heard of Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is The New Black, a loose adaptation of Piper Kerman's memoir about her year-long incarceration. Running for seven seasons from 2013 to 2019, the series was lauded for featuring several romantic queer relationships and boosting trans actor Laverne Cox. Many critics of color noted that the series often veered into “trauma porn” with its Latina and Black characters, particularly in its mishandling of a beloved character’s death. But Orange Is The New Black does bring up important issues around women’s incarceration and mental health. And it’s worth watching for Cox and Uzo Aduba, the latter of whom won an Emmy for her role and went on to star in a number of other projects like Mrs. America and In Treatment.
20. The Letdown
In this honest yet humorous Australian dramedy, a new mom deals with the not-so-glamorous realities of motherhood. Created by Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell, who plays the lead character, The Letdown explores the physical and mental exhaustion of being a mom, and later, questions around abortion.
21. One Day At A Time
This sitcom about a Latinx family has had a bumpy ride: it was canceled by Netflix in 2019 before it was picked up, then canceled again, by Pop TV. Still, you’ll want to tune in for Justina Machado’s Penelope, a war veteran, and the adventures of her Cuban-American family. Across four seasons, the show explores motherhood, queer identity, and citizenship.
Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan tackles the '80s phenomenon of women's wrestling in GLOW. The story isn’t for everyone: Marc Maron’s Sam, who owns the wrestling league at the center of the series, is a cynical dirtbag, and the show opens with the main character having an affair with her best friend’s husband. But GLOW shines the most in Season 2, when it delves into how the women of color are unhappy with the racist characters they have to play — which are adapted from the real GLOW show — like Beirut the Mad Bomber and Welfare Queen.
23. Jane The Virgin
While Jane The Virgin star Gina Rodriguez has often found herself at the center of controversy, the rom-com series that catapulted her to stardom still stands as a sensitive exploration of young motherhood and intergenerational relationships between a family of Latina women. It’s based on a Venezuelan telenovela with a silly premise — a low income woman is accidentally artificially inseminated by a wealthy man — but broadens to explore topics of religion, abortion, immigration, and returning to school after motherhood.
24. Degrassi: Next Class
The latest generation of Degrassi students are more socially aware than any class that came before them — and their passionate worldviews help to reflect the issues facing teens today. Running from 2016 to 2019, this updated version of the long-running Canadian drama tackles everything from Islamophobia to what it means to be gender fluid.
25. Wyonna Earp
A descendant of Wyatt Earp, Wynonna is fiercely protective of her family and takes her world-saving duties seriously. Running for four seasons, the supernatural Western won over fans for the inclusion of numerous queer and female characters, some of whom are even pregnant when they’re fighting off demons.
Additonal reporting by Sabienna Bowman.
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