The 12 Most Feminist '90s Shows Prove The Past Was More Progressive Than You Remember
Way back when, there was a decade when women started rocking out en masse, when a teen battled vampires and when women in hip hop started getting more attention than their male counterparts (Missy, I'm looking at you). So, obviously, it's your go-to decade for those The Future is Female vibes. Reference the most feminist shows from the '90s, and you'll be surprised at how curiously modern so many shows were in terms of their gender politics.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this. We're still talking about two and a half decades ago, and the '90s — despite our preoccupation with it — wasn't perfect. And, again, the below isn't a definitive guide as to how to be a feminist, and I've tried to highlight the weaknesses of each show as well as their considerable strengths. But it's hard to imagine the shows that currently exist and that deal, in a nuanced way, with what it means to be a woman (Insecure, Transparent, Broad City) coming into being without the TV shows of the '90s doing some heavy lifting first.
So, if you haven't done a pop culture rewind, take a browse. You might end up finding a new favorite to marathon.
1. 'Sex and the City'
Sure, this show's feminism had profound flaws. The SATC model of empowerment is mostly about buying yourself a fabulous new pair of Manolos, and there's no way the show's feminism even tried to be intersectional (the less we talk about the episode where Samantha dates a black man and her behavior, the better). But it did something revolutionary. It discussed the limitations of searching for a fairytale ending, and it focused on a group of women who regularly enjoyed sex outside of relationships without shaming them.
2. 'Full House'
OK, so the show technically premiered in the '90s, but it ran through the '90s so I'm keeping it. Aunt Becky made it seem like it might be possible to have it all; she was a wife and mother, who always put her career first. When she got pregnant with twins, she forced her husband to wear a fake pregnancy belly so he could experience the stresses of pregnancy with her. Plus, D.J. and Kimmy's friendship was one of the show's main focus after Kimmy became an unexpected fan favorite.
3. 'Married... with Children'
Though it, like Full House, first premiered in the late '80s, Married... with Children still needs to be discussed. Despite the show's retro sounding name, its gender politics were intriguing — mainly thanks to the Bundys' neighbor, the inimitable Marcy D'Arcy. If Marcy D'Arcy was a real person, she'd definitely be retweeting those "male tears" memes on Twitter. She was a feminist who started her own group FANG (Feminists Against Neanderthal Guys), she made enough money to support her family, and she watched porn (though, admittedly, was so ashamed of this that she disguised herself while browsing the adult section of the video store).
4. 'The Powerpuff Girls'
They may have just been three tiny girls, but, without their smarts and strength, the city of Townsville would have been destroyed by villains and giant monsters long ago.
Whether you think of Miss Grotke's progressive takes on history, Vince deciding he didn't really care about the construct of gender and rocking some high heels because he felt like it, or TJ becoming an Ashley because "it's the 90s," this show had a more left-wing take on feminism and gender than you remembered.
6. 'Judge Judy'
OK, this one's a little controversial, since Judge Judy herself has publicly declared that she does not consider herself to be a feminist. But I beg to differ. The TV show focuses on a strong woman who gives zero f*cks, dispensing her own brand of unedited wisdom. She's immune to the idea that women should be more pleasant or diplomatic or sweeter than their male counterparts, and she's clearly never thought of her gender as being something that would get in the way of her professional ambition (which is why, arguably, she's still a feminist in action, if not in how she identifies).
She's more preoccupied with books than her appearance. Despite her cynicism, she tries to support the women around her, even those that lead wildly different lives to her — like her fashionista sister Quinn. And her friendship with Jane Lane is total #goals. Daria Morgendorffer, everybody.
8. 'My So-Called Life'
This show's feminism was light years ahead of its time — not just because of its focus on female friendship and healthy perspective on sexuality, but because mopey teen protagonist Angela Chase was forced to check her privilege on the regular. Her best friend Rayanne had substance abuse issues, while Rayanne's other best friend Rickie was physically and emotionally abused by his uncle and, as a queer Latinx boy, highlighted issues of prejudice that Angela would have never noticed without him being around.
9. 'The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air'
While Will's endless pick up lines might not make this an obvious source for feminist wisdom, Vivian Banks was a goddess who took no sh*t, while fashion-obsessed Hilary, despite being extremely different from her mother in most ways, boasted a similar strength and DGAF attitude.
10. 'The X-Files'
Scully was a woman working in a male-dominated field, who was so competent that she was recruited to the FBI while still in medical school. We got to see both the power of feminism (Scully's incredible smarts and professionalism) and what toxic aspects of the patriarchy it needs to tackle (Mulder's mansplaining, and the fact that he often makes decisions for her).
11. 'Clarissa Explains It All'
This was Nickelodeon's first female-led comedy, and it's hard not to love. Sure, Clarissa can veer into "Cool Girl" territory (her best friend's a guy, she owns a pet crocodile, she's so incredibly chill), but she's also independent, has her own style, is so competent at tech that she can design her own computer games, and, refreshingly for a TV show about a teenage girl, isn't obsessed with finding a boyfriend.
She set her own boundaries (like in that one episode with Usher where he suggests they "get to know each other" in a quieter spot at the party), spoke up for other women, and she earned her own money. Remember when her dad bought her a Saturn, and she wasn't into it, so she worked hard to buy a car that was more her style?
Feminism isn't a contemporary invention — and these shows prove it. The '90s might feel like a long time ago, but so much of its television pre-empted what we'd come to see in our era in terms of females (and males) sticking up for women's rights, setting boundaries, and supporting each other and a more fluid idea of gender.